When Meir Kahane, an extremist rabbi who advocated for Jewish supremacy through the use of violence, ran in Israel’s 1988 elections, the state’s Central Elections Committee barred his party, claiming it incited racism and threatened the democratic nature of the state. Similar to the fascist movements of 1930s Europe, Kahane envisioned a Jewish society that is ethnically and religiously “pure.”
Decades later, Kahanism is still viewed as radical in Israeli society. Otzma Yehudit, the political party formed by Kahane’s disciples, remains outside the halls of power — even with support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But according to +972 Magazine editor Natasha Roth-Rowland, who is a doctoral student researching the Jewish far right in Israel and the United States, Kahanism doesn’t even need a party for its extremist ideology to permeate Israeli society. “Since Kahane exploded onto the Israeli political scene, the entire spectrum of political discourse and political action has shifted vastly to the right in Israel society,” she says on The +972 Podcast.
Kahane managed to mainstream ideas that were previously outside the bounds of Israeli discourse, Roth-Rowland explains, like the mass expulsion of Palestinians and preventing marriages between Jews and non-Jews — particularly between Jewish women and Palestinian men. In February 1994, one of Kahane’s followers, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
“When you have a country that is founded through mass expulsion, through privileging of one ethnic group over another, and where those things lead to repeated wars and repeated violence and repeated dehumanization of the other, you have a fertile seedbed for the kinds of ideas that Kahane expressed to take root,” says Roth-Rowland.
“If you look at something like the Jewish Nation-State Law, that is absolutely informed by an idea of supremacism,” she continues. “Kahane could have written that law himself. But it wasn’t put forward by Kahanist parties, it was put forward by parties that, yes, are on the right, but we consider absolutely part of the Israeli mainstream and not at all extremist.”
In fact, Kahanism has become a tool for Israeli politicians and journalists, explains Roth-Rowland, by serving as a far right icon they can point to “when they’re trying to deny just how right wing the standard political culture here is.”