In Meir Kahane (Princeton Univ., Oct.), Magid analyzes the legacy of the founder of the Jewish Defense League.
What’s the premise of your book?
Even though Kahane is not seen as being part of American Judaism’s historical trajectory, he occupies a certain slice of the collective unconscious of American Jewry. The premise of my book is that you have to make a distinction between Kahane’s worldview and Kahane’s tactics. His tactics were very much a product of his time—he comes into the public scene in the late 1960s, when militancy and radicalism are what was going on, with the Weathermen and the Black Panthers, for example. The idea of Jewish violence or Jewish vigilantes really made American Jews very nervous, when they were still trying to get their foothold into society, in terms of integration and rising into the middle and upper-middle classes.
What parts of Kahane’s worldview merit discussion today, putting aside his racism and support of violence?
He was one of the first Jews on the right who was willing to openly say that Israel can either be a Jewish country or a democratic one—that it can’t be both. Jews on the left had been saying that for decades, but not Jews on the right. Now you have a significant numbers of Jews on the right accepting that choice, and concluding that it has to be a Jewish country, rather than a democracy. He also criticized liberalism in the 1960s when the American Jewish establishment was totally committed to it. Kahane believed that you couldn’t defend liberalism and fight intermarriage at the same time. If you’re going to buy into the American liberal project, then Jews are going to marry non-Jews, because why shouldn’t they? He also was one of the few at the time arguing that the anti-Semitism on the left is more dangerous than the anti-Semitism on the right, which stemmed from his belief that anti-Semitism from the left was motivated by political ideology, as well as being racially motivated. So, I think that his worldview has really sunk deep roots into the American Jewish consciousness in ways that we don’t normally think about.
How prominent was Kahane compared with mainstream American Jewish leaders of his era?
He was the only rabbi I know of that had a feature interview in Playboy. He was featured in an article in the Sunday New York Times, and in an article in Esquire, where he was called “Super-Jew.” Kahane was probably quoted more in the New York Times between 1968 and 1974 than any other rabbinic figure.