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The Renaissance of Kahanism in Israel

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After the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990, Kahanism experienced a significant downfall in Israel. From being synonymous with terrorism to infighting between the groups, it seemed like Kahanism would not see the light of day again. However, the success of the Otzma Yehudit Party in the 2022 legislative elections and Ben Gvir’s appointment as the minister of national affairs proved to be a turning point for the ideology. This marked the Israeli government’s shift toward the far-right as part of a strategy to establish more control in Palestine. This analysis piece aims to explain Kahanism, explore why Kahanist groups and parties failed to gain popularity in the 90s and early 2000s, and how Kahanism eventually managed to make its way to the Israeli government’s legislative and executive branches.

Understanding Kahanism as an ideology requires knowing the man behind the ideology, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Meir Kahane was an American-Israeli Rabbi who led the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in the United States and founded the Kach party in Israel. Both the JDL and Kach party were rooted in Kahane’s far-right Zionists views. As a leader, Meir Kahane was very charismatic and well-versed in public speaking. As will be explored, some claimed that Kahane’s leadership skills and sheer presence were the glue that held the JDL and Kach Party together.


Meir Kahane always had a vision of reshaping the Jewish image, from “weak and vulnerable” to a “mighty fighter that, who strikes back fiercely against tyrants”. Kahane began his endeavors when he founded the JDL. The group was greatly concerned with antisemitism in the United States, communist countries, and the Middle East during the 60s to early 90s. They vowed to combat antisemitism by any means necessary, showing no tolerance for any threats that target Jews and the Jewish tradition. To counter antisemitism, the JDL implemented tactics that range from protests to armed assaults and bombings. Thus, the FBI has categorized the JDL as a far-right terrorist group.


Kach was established by Meir Kahane in 1971 after his immigration to Israel. During Kahane’s time as the leader of Kach, Kahane focused on the expulsion of all Arabs from the Israeli land and establishing a Jewish theocratic state. Kahane and the Kach Party fundamentally believed that Arabs are the enemies of Jews, and thus cannot coexist with one another. They also hold the sentiment that non-Jews deserved no voting rights (1). These collections of Jewish ultra-nationalist dogma would later be known as Kahanism. He shifted his focus to Israeli Arabs and Palestinian affairs after the Six-Day War in 1967 because Kahane believed that Israel’s victory was the start of the messianic era (2).

The JDL and Kach Party’s demise was marked by Meir Kahane's assassination in 1990, whilst giving a speech to orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. El Sayyid Nosair was the culprit behind the shooting, an Egyptian American that had hated Kahane and the JDL due to their racist views and violent methods.

The Theological Foundations of Kahanism

Though Kahane was always seen in a political light, his set of ideas was always rooted in theology. Kahane always considered his theological book 'Or HaRaayon=The Jewish Idea' to be his most important work. Meir Kahane’s theological thinking is one that is rooted in revenge and would later strongly influence his political ideology. Thus, he always considered himself a Rabbi first rather than a political leader.


Theologically, Kahane can be categorized as a Jew that subscribes to the Haredi and Gush Emunim school of thought (3). Kahane believed that Israel was specifically created by God as revenge on the “Gentiles” who have historically ill-treated or even persecuted Jews, especially those who were responsible for the Holocaust. According to his theology, the people of Israel are rooted in divinity and together with God are facing a mythical enemy from the past called Amalek (4). The Amalek is the manifestation of all the enemies that have caused Jewish suffering.


Through the establishment of Israel, its people should perform acts of vengeance to initiate the process of redemption so God can regain his might and return to his true nature as the “godhead” in the Kabballah (5). Whilst God is in a “shattered” state, it is the responsibility of the Israeli people to act on his behalf in the interest of revenge (6). They may do so by acting violently towards the people who have wronged the Jewish people be it in the past or the present.


What Kahane’s theory is implicating is that God and Israel are connected, and that the suffering of Israel’s people is a reflection of God's suffering. This belief implies that after the Holocaust, God was left in a vulnerable state and the only way God could have returned to his original state is through his empowering through revenge.


According to this ideology, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 should only serve one purpose: to be used as an instrument to fulfil redemptive revenge against Gentiles. These beliefs lie in a perception that Gentiles have historically persecuted Jews and that they are also inferior as people and embody demonic powers that justify violence (7).

Meir Kahane never claimed that his theological ideas were his own. In Kahane’s mind, he was simply expressing the Halakha (Jewish Law) and the voice of God. His passion for seeking revenge against Gentiles can be perfectly summarized by a paragraph from his short essay titled “Hillul Hashem” (The Desecration of the Name of God) (8):


“Do you want to know Do you want to know how the Name of God is desecrated in the eyes of the mocking and sneering nations? It is when the Jew, His people, His chosen, is desecrated! When the Jew is beaten, God is profaned! When the Jew is humiliated God is shamed! When the Jew is attacked it is an assault upon the Name of God! . . . Every pogrom is a desecration of the Name. Every Auschwitz and expulsion and murder and rape of a Jew is the humiliation of God. Every time a Jew is beaten by a Gentile because he is a Jew, this is the essence of hillul hashem! . . . An end to Exile - that is Kidush Hashem (the sanctification of the name of God). An end to the shame and beatings and the monuments to our murdered and our martyrized. An end to Kaddish and prayers for the dead .. . An end to the Gentile fist upon a Jewish face. . . . A Jewish fist in the face of an astonished Gentile world that had not seen it for two millennia, this is Kidush Hashem. Jewish dominion over the Christian holy places while the Church that sucked our blood vomits its rage and frustration. This is Kidush Hashem.”

The Early Failures of Kahanism in Israel

Kach was one of the most right-wing and anti-Arab parties in Israel throughout the 70s and 90s. The party put its efforts into penetrating Israel’s mainstream politics to influence legislation. These legislations that Kach pushed advocated for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, a revolution of the Country’s educational system that would emphasize religious values. Kach also advocated for Jewish sovereignty in all Israeli land that includes the Jordan Valley, Wadi al-Araba, the Amman Irbid area, a piece of the Sinai Peninsula, south Lebanon, and the Syrian Desert from Damascus to the edges of Baghdad (9).


The ultra-nationalist sentiment and ideology of Kach gained the party notoriety with Israeli citizens. Kach’s street hooliganism, protest, and conflicts also didn’t help their cause in reaching the hearts and minds of Israelis.


Kach started running for elections in 1973, 1977, and 1981 Knesset. To the party’s disappointment, Kach did not pass the electoral threshold (10). In 1988, Kach finally managed to be elected to a single seat in Knesset. But Kach’s success in Congress wouldn’t last long because as of 1988, the party was banned from participating in elections due to the revised Knesset Election Law that prohibits parties that incite racism (11).

Not long after Meir Kahane’s assassination in 1990, his son Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane established a splinter group called Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives). Despite Kahane’s son becoming his successor, Kach, and Kahane Chai’s trajectory would continue downhill. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a supporter of Kach, staged a terrorist attack on the al-Haram ul-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron which killed 29 Palestinian Muslims (12). The attack would lead to both Kach and Kahane Chai would be outlawed under the 1948 anti-terrorism laws and labeled as terrorist organizations.


In the aftermath, Kach and Kahane Chai would officially disband. In 2000, Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane would suffer the same fate as his father, as he and his wife were killed in an ambush constructed by Palestinians (13).

Ben Gvir & Otzma Yehudit Rising to the Occasion

After the disbandment of Kach, what was left of Kahanism became an advocacy group called the Kahane movement which only focused on running the website, with sprinkles of JDL activity during the early 2000s.


It seemed like Kahanism was slowly starting to ebb away from Israeli politics, but the establishment of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) in 2012 would mark the beginning of the ideology’s renaissance. The party was started by Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben-Ari, two former Kach members and faithful students of Meir Kahane.


Being a direct descendant of Kach, Otzma Yehudit still continues Kahane’s ultra-nationalist rhetoric. Otzma Yehudit is focused on the occupation of the entire West Bank, rejecting any mention of the two-state solution, and advocating for aggressive methods in regard to security issues. Just like the party’s Kahanist predecessors, they do not compromise with Arabs and Palestinians. They also will not hesitate to deport anyone who they view as “enemies of Israel.”


Otzma Yehudit’s first political campaign was during the 2013 election but failed to pass the minimum threshold to win seats in Knesset. In the 2015 elections, Otzma Yehudit decided to form a joint ticket with the HaAm Itanu Party and still failed to win any seats in Knesset (14). After the defeat, the party would focus on starting a media company and was unsure if they were going to participate in future elections.


In January 2019, Otzma Yehudit looked to form an alliance with either the Tkuma Party or Jewish Home Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even brokered to make Otzma Yehudit run a joint ticket with either of the two parties (15). In the end, negotiations with the Tkuma Party failed so Otzma Yehudit ended up partnering with the Jewish Home Party for the April 2019 election. The two candidates that represented Otzma Yehudit were Ben-Ari, a notorious provocateur, and Ben-Gvir, who is a lawyer who is a former Kach activist and a lawyer who in the past represented Jewish terror suspects. In the end, Ben-Ari would be disqualified from the elections, and Ben-Gvir would fail to win the seat. That very same year, Ben-Gvir would also become the new leader of Otzma Yehudit.


After consecutive losses in the Knesset elections, it seemed that Otzma Yehudit would suffer the same fate as Kach, despite having a deal brokered by the Prime Minister himself. Nevertheless, before the 2022 election, the tables would turn as Benjamin Netanyahu would again broker a deal for Otzma Yehudit, this time to run together with the Religious Zionism Party (formerly Tkuma) (16). This alliance would prove crucial for Netanyahu’s votes to become Prime Minister again. Ben Gvir stepped up to the plate as the second joint alongside Smotrich. Before the election, Ben-Gvir gave a speech at a Kahane memorial event. He praised Meir Kahane’s love for Israel but insists that he doesn’t necessarily share his views with the Rabbi. Gvir said, “It is no secret that today I am not Rabbi Kahane and I do not support the deportation of all Arabs, and I will not enact laws for separate beaches,” and got booed for it (17). The booing reflected the overwhelming sentiment among the crowd at the memorial. It also indicated that, even though Ben-Gvir looked up to Kahane, he didn’t want to publicly associate himself with a leader that is classified a terrorist.

Otzma Yehudit won 11% of the votes with 14 seats, signifying that Otzma Yehudit would be the third-largest party in the 25th Knesset. It also rang the alarm bells of Israelis and many of the international community. Otzma Yehudit’s popularity was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the young men of Israel resonate with Ben-Gvir’s anti-establishment attitude (18). Many of the West Bank residents also felt that the government hadn’t done enough to deal with the rising crime rate in the area, which pushed them to vote for Gvir (19). Ben-Gvir was also one of the few politicians who campaigned against the recently torched Jewish Farms, which gained voters from farmers in the south and north of Israel (20).


Gvir would go on to meet with President Isaac Herzog after the election. In their conversation, President Herzog mentioned Gvir and Otzma Yehudit’s sentiments towards Arabs and Muslims. To which Gvir replied “I’m not a racist, you know that perfectly well. I love my people and want things to be good for Arabs in Umm el-Fahm and Nazareth and to have order. When there’s no order there, we don’t have order either. I don’t make generalizations about all Arabs.” (21)

Unlike Meir Kahane, Ben-Gvir presented his rhetoric in a more “palatable” way for the Israeli people. He once corrected one of his supporters who chanted “Death to Arabs” and told him to replace it with ‘Death to terrorists” instead (22). This is one of the significant differences in why Ben-Gvir managed to infiltrate mainstream politics and Kahane did not.


In 2022 Benjamin Netanyahu would get caught up in a corruption trial. The case against Netanyahu would turn away any support from the centrist and left-leaning parties (23). Without their support, Netanyahu had to look for support from the right-wing nationalists and religious parties, which were more interested in their fear of a center-left government rather than Netanyahu’s trials. After seeing Otzma Yehudit’s success in Knesset, Netanyahu chose Ben-Gvir to rally the right-wing bloc and eventually become his kingmaker (24). Netanyahu would later appoint Ben-Gvir as the minister of national security. As soon as Ben-Gvir took office, he immediately became the center of attention.


Most recently on the 27th of July, Ben Gvir went to visit Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif, which stirred controversy among the media and Israel’s neighboring countries. These holy sites are under the authority of Jordan and Palestine. Henceforth, this visit was condemned due to the fact that the Jordanian government and Palestinian authorities felt the visit was to impose changes to the historical and legal status of Temple Mount sites as part of a “Judaizing Jerusalem” effort. Ben-Gvir responded with “this place, this is the most important place for the people of Israel where we have to go back and show our governability.” (25)

One of Ben-Gvir’s biggest projects is forming a national guard. This plan was triggered by the attack that killed three Israelis in May 2022 (26). A national guard would give Ben-Gvir the authority to persecute anyone that expresses opinions that oppose the ultra-nationalist Zionist narrative.


Ben Gvir also praised West Bank settlers who allegedly killed a 19-year-old Palestinian as a hero. The murder happened in Burqa village when Israeli settlers started assaulting residents and burned two vehicles (27). The Palestinian residents fought back by throwing stones, but the Israeli settlers responded with gunshots. Ben-Gvir commented on the incident by saying, “A Jew who defends himself and others from murder by Palestinians is not a murder suspect, but a hero who will get full backing from me.” (28).

The Future of Kahanism

The rise of Kahanism in Israel’s modern politics was relatively unprecedented. It took a lot of setbacks, deals, controversies, and a charismatic leader to take the ideology to get to where it is today. Kahanism’s triumph can be described as a case of an insurgent ideology influencing government policies and political events.


When it comes to Kahanism’s future, it seems that it will depend on how much longer Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit stay in the Israeli government. Generally, the Israeli population has already protested against them and one additional controversy could mean that Otzma Yehudit could be banned, or even be labeled as terrorists, similarly to what has happened with Kach. On the other hand, there is also a possibility where Otzma Yehudit, or Ben Gvir, obtain more power in the future. It's also entirely possible that another Kahanist group would appear and continue Kahane’s legacy.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

  1. “Meir Kahane | Israeli Political Extremist and Rabbi.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

  2. Magid, Shaul. “Anti-Semitism as Colonialism.” Journal of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1, no. 2, 2015, p. 202, Accessed 7 Mar. 2019.

  3. Leidheiser-Stoddard, Jonathan. RELIGIOUS LAND IDEOLOGIES and VIOLENCE: GUSH EMUNIM and HAMAS. 2009.

  4. Goldman, Samuel. “The Apocalyptic Visions of Jacob Taubes and Meir Kahane.” Mosaic Magazine, 5 July 2022,

  5. Sprinzak, Ehud. “Violence and Catastrophe in the Theology of Rabbi Meir Kahane: The Ideologization of Mimetic Desire.” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 1991, pp. 48–70,

  6. Ibid

  7. AFTERMAN, ADAM, and GEDALLAH AFTERMAN. “Meir Kahane and Contemporary Jewish Theology of Revenge.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 98, no. 2, 2015, p. 192,

  8. Sprinzak, Ehud. “Violence and Catastrophe in the Theology of Rabbi Meir Kahane: The Ideologization of Mimetic Desire.” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 1991, pp. 48–70,

  9. “Kach.” The Israel Democracy Institute, 2019,

  10. “Kach Political Party.”,

  11. Sprinzak, Ehud. “Kach and Meir Kahane: The Emergence of Jewish Quasi‐Fascism I: Origins and Development.” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 19, no. 3, July 1985, pp. 15–21,

  12. “Kach.” The Israel Democracy Institute, 2019,

  13. “Binyamin Kahane.” The Guardian, 9 Jan. 2001,

  14. “Otzma Yehudit Party.”,

  15. Oster, Marcy. “Why Netanyahu Brokered a Deal with Kahane’s Political Heirs, and Why It Matters.”, 21 Feb. 2019,

  16. Atalayar. “What Is Religious Zionism?: Netanyahu’s Key to Regaining Power in Israel.” Atalayar, 10 Nov. 2022, Accessed 19 Aug. 2023.

  17. Reich, Eleanor. “Israel’s Far-Right Kingmaker Joins Memorial for Racist Rabbi.” AP News, 10 Nov. 2022,

  18. Robbins, Claire Porter. “How Israeli Youth Helped Usher in the Farthest Right-Wing Government Ever.” Vox, 23 Feb. 2023,

  19. Eglash, Ruth. “Who Are the Israelis Voting for Itamar Ben-Gvir?” Jewish Insider, 24 Oct. 2022,

  20. Nast, Condé. “Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s Minister of Chaos.” The New Yorker, 20 Feb. 2023,

  21. “Otzma Yehudit Party.”,

  22. Staff, ToI. “Ben Gvir Sues Ya’alon for Claiming He Supports Chants of “Death to Arabs.””, 28 May 2023,

  23. “Itamar Ben-Gvir | Biography, Israel, Knesset, & Controversy | Britannica.”, 27 July 2023,

  24. Ibid

  25. Khadder, Mick Krever,Kareem. “Divisive Israeli Minister Visits Key Jerusalem Holy Site, Drawing Condemnation.” CNN, 27 July 2023,

  26. Imbert, Louis. “In Israel, Ben Gvir Is Building His National Guard by Hand.” Le, 1 Apr. 2023,

  27. ““Heroes”: Ben Gvir Defends Settlers Suspected of Killing Palestinian.” Middle East Eye, 6 Aug. 2023, Accessed 19 Aug. 2023.

  28. Ibid

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