Historically grounded anti-racists can interpret the lineage of Kahanism in various ways. Meir Kahane, after whom Kahanism is named, was an anti-Black, white-backlash activist in the United States before he moved to organizing Israeli hate squads to attack Palestinians. Word for word, his program replicates Puritan doctrines of anti-Indigenous hate. In Israel, however, memories of Nazism overshadow other anti-Black and anti-Indigenous histories, so Israelis more often compare Kahanism with Nazi antisemitism. Whatever parallel one chooses, Kahanist racism is second to none.
In 2019, then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought Kahanism into Israel’s governing mainstream. Old comparisons with the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany immediately spread among hardline supporters of Israel.15Kahanist politics were compared with Ku Klux Klan politics as early as 1969 by at least one US Jewish communal leader, due to the anti-Black activity of Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (JDL); the comparison was made by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. See “Defense League Scored by Rabbi: He Likens Group to Whites in ‘Robes and Hoods,’” New York Times (May 18, 1969). In the United States, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of the Forward, warned that “Israel’s equivalent of the KKK” had entered government.16Batya Ungar-Sargon, “Netanyahu Just Invited Israel’s Equivalent of the KKK to Join the Government,” The Forward (February 20, 2019). In Israel, Rabbi Benny Lau – “a pillar of religious Zionism,” as the New York Times stressed – repeated the old comparison of Kahanist with Nazi politics. Rabbi Lau reminded Israelis that even Likud under Shamir made this comparison, and he urged that “the public review the comparison MK Michael Eitan made in the 1980s between the Nuremberg Laws and those Kahane sought to enact.”17The first quote is from David M. Halbfinger, “Israel’s Leader Stakes his Fate on Racist Party,” New York Times (February 25, 2019); the direct quotes from Rabbi Lau are from TOI Staff, “Prominent Rabbi Likens Vote for Otzma Yehudit to Backing Nuremberg Laws,” The Times of Israel (February 23, 2019).
Eitan, a Likud MK under Shamir, had simply detailed the similarity between the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws and the Kahanist program. To get a feel for this parallel, one can track Kahane’s rhetoric. In 1985, Kahane delivered the following speech in Haifa. First, he attacked Palestinian citizens of Israel as “roaches,” sanctifying genocidal violence: “We shall either cut their throats or throw them out.” Then he decreed that he would massacre Palestinians as soon as he had control of the Israeli army: “they will come to me, bow to me, lick my feet, and I will be merciful and will allow them to leave. Whoever does not leave will be slaughtered.”18Kahane’s speech was reported at the time by No’omi Cohen in a local newspaper, Kolbo Haifa. This and other passages from it are reproduced in Robert I. Friedman, “The Sayings of Rabbi Kahane,” New York Review (February 13, 1986), <https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1986/02/13/the-sayings-of-rabbi-kahane/>. Time and again, Kahane signed his name to words like these. In books that Kahanist hate networks still proudly distribute, Kahane urged genocide, or in his words, “total extermination.”19Meir Kahane, “The Special Halachic Status of the Palestinians,” in Beyond Words: Selected Writings, 1960–1990, Vol. 7 (Jerusalem: Institute for the Publication of the Writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, 2010), 104.
These politics have swept into the Israeli mainstream. In April 2021, MK Itamar Ben-Gvir took the occasion of his first speech to the Knesset to praise Kahane by name.20Jacob Magid, “Far-Right MK: Meir Kahane Suffered ‘Character Assassination’ by the Media,” Times of Israel (April 26, 2021). Ben-Gvir was elected by Israeli voters who knew that he attended a wedding where “dancing participants stabbed a picture of Ali Dawabshe[h], a Palestinian toddler who had been killed in a settler firebombing attack.”21Tal Schneider, “Anyone but Ben Gvir: One Man’s Mission to Keep a Kahanist out of the Knesset,” Times of Israel (March 17, 2021). What followed, like a train that is never late, was a move from rhetoric to action. Ben-Gvir’s Klanist squads punctuated his speech with firebombing attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem. “We’re burning Arabs today,” read one Israeli headline, reporting the April 2021 work of Ben-Gvir’s pogromchiks.22Nir Hasson, “‘We’re Burning Arabs Today’: Jewish Supremacists Gear up for Jerusalem March,” Haaretz (April 22, 2021). In their turn, Israeli state forces raided al-Aqsa Mosque and bombarded the Gaza Strip. Ben-Gvir has established himself as a central figure in Israeli media coverage and debates.
Most strikingly, where Ayelet Shaked and Tucker Carlson have played around with identifying with fascism, Kahanists have played around with identifying with Nazism. Jewish Israeli writers have long documented the identification of a settler fringe with Nazi politics.23After the distinguished Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz made this comparison from an anti-racist perspective, the well-known journalist Amos Oz interviewed a far-right settler who embraced the Nazi label. He said: “That’s right: Judeo-Nazis. Leibowitz was right. And why not? Why the hell not? . . . Fact: Himmler and Heydrich and Eichmann’s grandchildren live well.” This quote is from Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel, translated by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 94. In 2018, Israel’s leading daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported the scene when the grandfather of Ali Dawabsheh, the Palestinian toddler murdered by Ben-Gvir’s constituents, attended a court date for one of the smiling suspects: “‘Where is Ali? Burned! No more Ali! Dead, burned! On the grill, on fire!’ were the jubilant jeers that welcomed Hussein Dawabsheh this week as he was heading into the Lod District Court.” Startled, Yedioth argued that “‘Ali is burned, on the grill’ is a sort of Jewish reclaiming of the furnace.”24Yehuda Nuriel, “The monsters in our midst,” Yedioth Ahronoth (June 22, 2018). Then came the Kahanist lynchings of spring 2021. “We are no longer Jews today,” wrote one Israeli Telegram user: “Today we are Nazis.”25Ali Abunimah and Tamara Nassar, “‘Today we are Nazis,” says Member of Israeli Jewish Extremist Group,” Electronic Intifada (May 19, 2021), <https://electronicintifada.net/content/today-we-are-nazis-says-member-israeli-jewish-extremist-group/33081>. Ben-Gvir resists the Nazi label, but it seems that not all of his constituents do.26For Ben-Gvir’s opposition to being called a Nazi, see Gil Hoffman, “Religious Leader Rabbi Lau: A Vote for Bayit Yehudi is a Vote for Nazism,” Jerusalem Post (February 23, 2019); and Rogel Alpher, “Judeo-Nazis in Prime Time,” Haaretz (April 18, 2021).
Yet the real horror this spring was how the firebombs of Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit were followed by the artillery shells of the Israel Defense [sic] Forces (IDF). At the level of language, this can be tracked with Kahanism into Israel’s mainstream. How, Kahane once asked, could he be faulted for saying that “the Arabs in our midst are a spreading cancer”? Kahane wrote that it was enough to “quote Binyamin Netanyahu, who warned the Galilee Arabs of the danger of their becoming part of the ‘cancer of the intifada.’”27Meir Kahane, “The State of Israel vs. Meir Kahane,” in Beyond Words, Vol. 7, 47 & 51. These hateful tropes now align with the politics of the IDF command. The “centrist” Moshe Ya’alon announced as much in 2002 during his tenure as IDF chief of staff. He told the press that Kahane and Netanyahu had been right about Palestinian politics: “I maintain it is a cancer,” he said. He then summarized the IDF command’s disagreement with Kahanism: “Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment, I am applying chemotherapy.”28 “Israeli Army Chief Says Applying ‘Chemotherapy’ to Palestinian ‘Cancer,’” Agence France Press (August 30, 2002).
Once again, the trope of “self-defense” is limitless in application. We can read it in the original US attack on “merciless Indian savages.”29US Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 <https://archive.org/details/DecOfIndy>. We can read it in the original fascist attack on democracy as “a war of the hand against the brain.”30Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 175, <https://archive.org/details/revoltagainstciv00stod>. This was the book that introduced the concept of “Under Man,” or Untermensch, into the fascist lexicon. More recently, we read it from the killer behind the white nationalist massacre of 2019 in El Paso, Texas, who “maintained that his attack was a preemptive action against Hispanic invaders and that ‘they are the instigators, not me.’”31Federico Finchelstein, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 3.
How is anti-Palestinian racism any different? Israel’s current “defense” minister, Benny Gantz, oversaw the killing of 2,251 Palestinians in Gaza in 2014. He has advertised his killings as a point of pride.32For casualty figures, see United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Key Figures on the 2014 Hostilities,” OCHA (June 23, 2015), <https://www.ochaopt.org/content/key-figures-2014-hostilities>. For Gantz’s boasts, see Yoav Galai, “Israel: How Benny Gantz’s Campaign Has Turned State Violence and Dead Palestinians into Political Capital,” The Conversation (March 27, 2019), <https://theconversation.com/israel-how-benny-gantzs-campaign-has-turned-state-violence-and-dead-palestinians-into-political-capital-113145>. On May 11, 2021, Gantz even sent a video message to Palestinians in Gaza, boasting about “the last time that we met on Eid al-Fitr” and threatening: “Gaza will burn.”33See Tamara Nassar, “Israel Vows That ‘Gaza Will Burn,’” Electronic Intifada (May 13, 2021), <https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/tamara-nassar/israel-vows-gaza-will-burn>.These are the actions and words of a state that stands exposed before the eyes of the world as a surrogate of US power.
Once upon a time, US diplomats could celebrate Israel’s false victimhood. In 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan took the occasion of the bicentennial of US independence to praise Israel as the loveliest symbol of Western power on earth. “In its mortal peril,” Moynihan said, Israel “has become a metaphor for the condition of democracy in the world today.”34Quoted in Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow Over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 54. Now as then, Israel does embody the false moralism of its most powerful sponsors. But as the hatreds of Ben-Gvir and Gantz are exposed for the world to see, what was once a point of imperial strength has increasingly become a liability.
The “new antisemitism” as reverse-racism misdirection
The actual history of antisemitism is also a history of racism.
Classical antisemitism presumed an anti-Black and imperial worldview. For the proto-Nazi antisemite Houston Stewart Chamberlain, “the Jew” was “a cross between negro and white man,” a “Semite” who emerged “from the deserts of Arabia” to infiltrate Western civilization.35Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1, translated by John Lees (London: John Lane, 1910), 368. The whole point was to attack European Jews as racial fifth columnists. Spinning off of the standard attack on Jews as “Asiatic,” France’s Louis-Ferdinand Céline urged white supremacist attacks on European Jews precisely because they were “Negroid Jews.”36For Céline’s prattle about the racial war of “Juifs négroïdes contre Blancs,” see Hanebrink, Specter Haunting Europe, 109. In Germany, meanwhile, the Journal of Racial and Social Biology focused on anti-Black racism for decades before adding anti-Jewish racism to its pages in 1935.37See George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 82–83. In other words, actual antisemitism is multi-issue hatred, targeting Jews as allies of the imagined barbarians at the gates of Western civilization. It is to this heritage that the enemy Sieg Heiled in Charlottesville with chants of, “Jews will not replace us.”38See Glen Ford, “American Exceptionalism = Mass Murder,” Black Agenda Report (August 8, 2019), <https://www.blackagendareport.com/american-exceptionalism-mass-murder>.