This kind of range comes naturally to Magid, whose own life journey has included many twists and turns. At 20, he left behind his secular Jewish upbringing in New York to enter the Orthodox and then ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi Judaism) worlds of Brooklyn and Jerusalem, where he spent years studying sacred texts and living a strictly observant life. This passage was a countercultural move in more ways than one. Not only did Magid exit the staid world of assimilated American Jews, but he also encountered, in the Orthodox precincts of Brooklyn (with more than a few forays back to Greenwich Village), like-minded adventurers who were on a similar path of self-discovery at whose crossroads stood mind-bending Hasidic rabbis and the grand rebbe of psychedelic Torah, Jerry Garcia. From this distinctive cultural universe, Magid emigrated to Israel, where he lived in the heart of Haredi Jerusalem and received rabbinical ordination before exchanging his Haredi black hat for the knitted kippah of the religious Zionists, who were newly emboldened by the conquest of territory in 1967 and mesmerized by the prospect of “reclaiming” the ancestral homeland. In this phase of his life, Magid donned the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), where he experienced firsthand the intoxicants of military power and messianic nationalism. Disenchanted with both, he took leave of Israel to return to the US, where he embarked on a long path toward a doctorate in Jewish thought at Brandeis. Since then, he has built a reputation as an extremely productive scholar, an inventive reader of classical and modern Hebrew texts, and a reliably progressive-left critic and observer.
This brief profile helps us understand the challenge and opportunity of his newest book, Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical. At one level, who better than Shaul Magid to take on this subject? In the course of his youthful peripateticism, Magid surely encountered followers and admirers of Kahane, the rabble-rousing New York–born rabbi who first came to public attention as the founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Using a mix of street smarts, clownishness, appeals to Jewish pride, and unvarnished race-baiting, Kahane gained notoriety for his provocative behavior, which first appeared in the tensions that arose between Blacks and Jews over the fate of a public school in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1968. From this early point, Kahane presented himself as a defender not only of Jewish honor but of Jewish physical well-being. This meant recruiting toughs who, at Kahane’s behest, sought to overturn the image of passive Diaspora Jewish cowards, most often through threatening and attention-grabbing antics.
In the next phase of his career as Jewish “defender,” Kahane appeared on a wider stage as a provocateur intent on shaming the Soviet Union into allowing its Jewish citizens to practice their Judaism openly and even to leave Russia to do so. The repertoire of JDL actions included demonstrating in front of the Soviet mission in New York, vandalizing the Soviet press office, and even placing a bomb at the Soviet cultural office in Washington in 1971. In that same year, Kahane commenced the third act of his public life when he moved to Israel. There, he founded a political party, Kach (Thus), whose program rested on the premise of Jewish racial supremacy and included Nuremberg-like tenets, such as the formal proscription of sexual relations between Jews and Arabs. So appealing were his ideas in Israel that he was elected to the Knesset in 1984. And so extreme were these ideas that, in 1986, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting “racist parties and candidates” from running in elections, ending Kahane’s parliamentary career (though, alas, the law has not been applied to a number of his ideological heirs who sit in the Knesset today). Four years later, in 1990, while in New York giving a speech, Kahane was shot dead by an Egyptian Muslim later convicted of involvement in the first World Trade Center bombings of 1993. To witness Kahane speak, which I did on two occasions, was to encounter a man who radiated hate: he both reveled in hateful tactics and propagated hate as an ontological principle that undergirded all of his agitation.
As a young man, Shaul Magid rubbed shoulders with those close to Kahane before taking flight from that world — and becoming one of the most forthright critics of Jewish supremacy today. One would certainly expect a critical account of Kahane in his book, and Magid doesn’t fail to deliver on that score. But what one might not expect from the book is what we actually get: a careful and serious analysis of Kahane’s thought. In this regard, Meir Kahane is not a standard biography that recreates the multiple contexts through which its subject moved and establishes precise benchmarks to measure their impact. In fact, the book rests on a seeming methodological conundrum. Why set out to examine the thought of a man who was a first-rate agitator but a third-rate thinker? Would it be worthwhile to pursue, for example, the thought of Donald Trump? Or what of a figure of far greater historical impact and infamy, Adolf Hitler?
It turns out that there is quite important work that analyzes the ideas that animated Hitler. Rather than regard him merely as a base opportunist, for example, historian Eberhard Jäckel argued in Hitler’s Weltanschauung: A Blueprint for Power (1969) that the Nazi leader was driven by a pair of guiding ideas: the racial superiority of Aryans over Jews and the need for the Aryan master race to secure a capacious enough Lebensraum (or “living space”) in order to achieve world domination. Jäckel’s work takes Hitler’s texts such as Mein Kampf (1925) not as assemblies of random and disjointed thoughts, but instead as clear indicators of the central principles underlying his worldview.
In a similar vein, Magid takes seriously Meir Kahane’s radical ideas as articulated in a line of books — Never Again!: A Program for Survival (1971), Time to Go Home (1972), The Story of the Jewish Defense League (1975), Why Be Jewish?: Intermarriage, Assimilation, and Alienation (1977), and Listen World, Listen Jew (1978), among others — that most commentators have dismissed as incoherent or rambling. Magid places one core tenet of Kahane’s thought at the heart of each chapter; taken as a whole, these tenets not only guided Kahane’s activism during his life but, Magid argues, were absorbed by mainstream Jewish thinking in both the United States and Israel. Magid’s method throughout is associative and iterative, as he moves back and forth between Kahane’s ideas and those of thinkers who may have been direct sources of inspiration — or, alternatively, who make interesting phenomenological comparisons. The result is less a contextually bound intellectual history than a suggestive history of ideas intended to highlight key points and to identify tensions and contradictions in Kahane’s thinking.
The opening two chapters center the import of two competing ideas, liberalism and radicalism, in Kahane’s formative American phases. Kahane was a product of his time, “quintessentially American,” according to Magid, but fiercely critical of the liberal assimilationist sensibilities of American Jews of the 1950s and ’60s. In taking aim at a stereotypically subservient American Jewish type, “Uncle Irving,” Kahane summoned up the legacy of ancient Jewish rebels against Hellenistic cultural conformists, such as Shimon bar Giora and Bar Kochba, as well as of the 20th-century Revisionist Zionists whose focus on Jewish pride, militarism, and territorial maximalism he sought to emulate. The disparaging “Uncle Irving” image recalls another contemporaneous stereotype — the weak-kneed, assimilationist “Uncle Tom” mocked by Black Nationalism in the 1960s. Kahane appreciated radical Black activists for their bold rhetoric and deeds. It is no surprise, Magid points out, that the JDL and the Black Panthers shared the clenched fist as their symbol. Like Black activists, Kahane understood that the battle against the establishment must be waged in the street, and not in the more familiar confines of the shul or synagogue.
Notwithstanding their shared repertoire of words and violent acts, Kahane regarded African American radicals — and African Americans in general — with trepidation, contempt, and worse, seeing them as “Black Nazis” and purveyors of a relentless antisemitism. In speaking of Blacks — or, for that matter, Arabs — Kahane used what Magid calls, in the third chapter, a “grammar of racism.” Magid borrows this term from UC Irvine scholar Frank Wilderson to make the point that he is “less concerned here that Kahane was a racist than about how he used race to promote his ideas.” Clearly, Magid wants us to pay careful attention to Kahane’s ideas, but he also wants us to avoid excessive judgmentalism in discussing those thinkers with whom we disagree profoundly. At a certain point, however, one must tie Kahane’s words to his actions and draw an unavoidable historical conclusion: not only that there was a grammar of racism in his thought and writings, but that, during his time both in the United States and in Israel, he was a hate-filled racist through and through.
There are other moments in the book when Magid’s ideas-driven approach pays major dividends. One of the most illuminating parts of the third chapter, and in fact the book as a whole, is Magid’s intriguing juxtaposition of the idea of “Afro-pessimism” with an analogous concept in Kahane’s thought. Afro-pessimism, as the aforementioned Frank Wilderson observed in his book of that title, is a philosophical current arguing that racism — and, indeed, white civilization itself — rests on an unbridgeable divide between Black people and everyone else. The two domains are, Wilderson argues, “noncommunicable,” never allowing for rapprochement or reconciliation. Magid quite cleverly reads Kahane as advancing a form of “Judeo-pessimism,” premised on an unbridgeable ontological divide between antisemite and Jew. From this perspective, Kahane’s view of the persistence and centrality of antisemitism in the world resembled the way in which Afro-pessimists have understood the deep structure of anti-Black racism. For him, antisemitism was an “ontological hatred of the Jews that outweighs other forms of racism.”
Magid’s analysis of Judeo-pessimism — like Wilderson’s notion of Afro-pessimism — yields not just a grammar but, more compellingly, an ontology of hate. Magid shows that this ontology was an operating system in Kahane’s life and thought, even as he inverted that system in various ways. Thus, Kahane frequently talked about the antisemite’s unrelenting hatred of the Jew but at every turn also reversed the vector to generate his own searing hatred toward his enemies (read: Blacks and Arabs). Then, in an act that Magid describes as “flipping the race card,” Kahane rebranded his enemies ipso facto as antisemites.
This act of “flipping” or upending was classic Kahane; he did it not only with racism but also with liberalism, democracy, and even Zionism, projecting the worst attributes of his own stance onto others. He often ascribed to these perspectives a single unifying quality: an almost superhuman power to hate or denigrate Jews. His overarching vision, as befits a reactionary conservative of Kahane’s ilk, was darkly pessimistic. The world, because of its hatred of Jews, was abnormal; the liberal (or Zionist) Jew cravenly sought a semblance of normalcy, refusing to recognize the ubiquity of this hate. Kahane, born a Jew in the Diaspora, embraced the abnormality of this exilic condition of eternal hate, demanding that Jews resist the impulse of Zionists to normalize the Jewish condition through a return to the ancestral homeland.
Kahane attempted his own return by emigrating to Israel, but he never surrendered his resistance to normalization. This points to one of Magid’s key conclusions: Kahane was a man rife with contradiction. He was a quintessential American who fiercely criticized America, a racist who accused his liberal and radical opponents of racism, a radical who excoriated other radicals, and an admirer of Revisionist Zionist militarism who surrendered faith in Zionism and the state of Israel. These contradictions, while initially lending Kahane an alluring unpredictability that attracted wayward followers, ultimately left him a lonely voice in the ideological wilderness.
And yet, Magid argues in one of the key through-lines of the book, Kahane’s afterlife has been exceptionally robust. His decidedly illiberal and racist ideas, far from disappearing, have seeped into mainstream Jewish thinking. According to Magid, Kahanism has been “far more successful in America than we imagine.” On the face of it, this strikes one as odd. After all, American Jews remain, with the exception of a small but growing Orthodox minority, overwhelmingly liberal and capital-D Democratic in orientation. Magid insists, though, that Kahane passed on to American Jews three key bequests: a healthy dose of Jewish pride, a neoconservative mistrust of liberalism, and “a belief in the omnipresence of anti-Semitism.” These points echo the important findings of historian Marc Dollinger in his 2018 book, Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s, which traces a broader shift in American Jewish cultural and political attitudes during the decade, away from the liberal assimilatory pole toward a more self-assertive, particularist mode. This trend tracked — and, indeed, was causally related to — the shift in the African American community from an integrationist civil rights paradigm (in which liberal Jews were amply represented) to a separatist Black Power stance. In this sense, Kahane was a product of his time, a bellwether of wide-ranging changes in the cultural DNA of the American Jewish community that have not yet assumed fully visible, public form.
The legacy of Kahane is more evidently alive in Israel. His racist rhetoric of the 1980s, when he brashly declared on the campaign trail that “I say what you think,” shattered taboos in Israeli political discourse even as he was being evicted from the system. The post-Kahane Israeli world has featured, among other traces, a former long-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who regularly engaged in anti-Arab race-baiting to gain electoral advantage; a current member of the Knesset, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is a proud heir of Kahane’s Kach party; and high rates of racist sentiment among Israeli youth. This calls to mind the main point of Shaul Magid’s important and insightful new book: one ignores Meir Kahane’s ideas only at great peril. Far more than we care to think, his legacy is with us in Israel, in the American Jewish community, and in a post–January 6 world of armed, violent, and racist disrupters.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA, where he directs the Luskin Center for History and Policy. He is the author, with Nomi Stolzenberg, of American Shtetl, The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York.