“You are my hero,” said Baruch Marzel, the militant leader of the Jewish National Front, as he embraced me at a banquet in 2006. Just 13 years old, I was being congratulated by the most notorious activist on the Israeli far-right—a man who once called for the assassination of a prominent Israeli peace activist, declared holy war on gays for organizing a Pride parade in Jerusalem and warned Bar Refaeli, an Israeli supermodel, against marrying the non-Jewish actor Leonardo DiCaprio. And I could not have been prouder.
I was not talking to just any Jewish nationalist. Marzel was a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and one of the most vocal proponents of his philosophy, which advocated for the expulsion of Arabs, the annexation of Greater Israel and the imposition of a Jewish theocracy therein. But a 1985 amendment to Israel’s Basic Law banned its political wing, Kach, from running in Israeli elections on the grounds of racism. Both the U.S. and E.U. followed suit, designating Kach a terrorist organization. They had good reason: the list of Kahanist-inspired attacks on Arabs is very long, and the Kahanist record of incitement and attempted violence is even longer. I mention all this because I used to be a Kahanist.
My relationship with Kahanism began in 2004, at the age of 10, when I moved to Israel to live with my father and stepmother. My stepmother knew Rabbi Kahane through her political activism in the 80's and remained close with some of his confidantes. Her library was stacked with Kahane’s polemical treatises: They Must Go (he meant the Arabs), The Jewish Idea, Listen World, Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews, Forty Years, Our Challenge: The Chosen Land, and more. I read them all.
Kahane was a talented writer and charismatic speaker; that’s why he built up such a devoted following. But what drew me to Rabbi Kahane was his impassioned certitude in the belief that his religiopolitical teachings were the only correct form of Judaism—that all other strands were, at best, misguided and, at worst, heresies. His unwavering confidence in the symmetry between his advocacy and God’s will was reassuring. As a Kahanist, I believed that the biblical land of Israel in its entirety belonged to the Jews, and only the Jews, because God said so.
I was a Kahanist because I was convinced of Rabbi Kahane’s political theology. Kahane believed that religious and political convictions were one and the same: militant nationalism informed his reading of scripture, and religion guided and justified his politics.
But I was also a Kahanist because it was easy. The appeal of Kahanism, like all kinds of racism and fascism, lies in its simplicity and categorical consistency. I could not temper the visceral emotion and outrage that Kahane’s one-sided narrative evoked, which leaves no room for empathy. It is easy to stereotype Arabs as the enemy when you don’t know any.
As a Kahanist, I knew that internal belief was worthless unless coupled with action and outward displays of faith. My backpack was adorned with a hagiographic keychain of Baruch Goldstein, the American-Israeli doctor who murdered 29 Palestinians worshipping at the Cave of the Patriarchs. I spat on an Arab boy in Hebron while a teenage Israeli soldier watched and did nothing. I canvassed Jerusalem in the 2006 elections for the far right. I attempted to enter Gaza to protest the implementation of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. I told Israeli police officers that they were pigs for expelling Jewish settlers. I joined impromptu demonstrations at my school, at which we would shout chants of "death to Arabs" and "Kahane was right." These are the reasons why Marzel tapped me on the shoulder at a Kahanist banquet—I was a Kahanist posterboy.
But in 2007, I unintentionally left all this behind. I decided to return to the U.S. because I sensed there were better educational opportunities there, not because of ideological or theological disagreements with Kahanism. Enrolled in public school, I was exposed to different viewpoints and even met a few Muslims. I was shocked to learn that they were human, too. Explaining Kahanism to a friend in the U.S., I was asked why it was different than European fascism or the KKK. I couldn’t give him an answer. That was the moment I knew I was a racist.
Recognizing the ethical problems inherent in Kahanism, I slowly transitioned toward liberalism. But my views on Israel lagged behind. I deflected criticisms of Israeli government policy as fabrications or downplayed them as insignificant in comparison to the actions of Arab countries. I was not a Kahanist anymore, but I believed Israel’s government was incapable of wrongdoing.
In the winter of 2011, I returned to Israel to work for Yisrael Beiteinu—a member of Israel’s governing coalition—as an assistant to MK Anastassia Michaeli, who achieved notoriety for physically blocking Arab MK Haneen Zoabi from taking the Knesset podium, and with absurdly stupid homophobic comments. I was assigned to research Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposed legislation to ban Mosque loudspeakers, which are used for the Muslim call to prayer. The bill did not pass, but I felt deeply uncomfortable helping Yisrael Beiteinu—in even the smallest of ways—attempt to violate a minority’s right to religious freedom.
On my last day, I witnessed Michaeli pour water on Raleb Majadele, an Arab MK, at the climax of a heated argument. And I did nothing. I tried to assuage my guilt by telling myself that there was nothing I could have done—which is probably true—but I could not save my idealistic notion of an Israel that could do no wrong.
Returning to the U.S., I was mired in ideological turbulence. I could no longer assert that Israeli democracy was perfect. I had seen its flaws with my own eyes. But I did not reject Zionism because that would mirror the logic of Kahanism: Kahanism reacts to the tension between liberalism and Zionism by abandoning liberalism completely—and that’s the easy way out. Reading Peter Beinart’s Crisis of Zionism restored my confidence in the compatibility of Zionism and liberalism, even though it also taught me that it would entail difficult work.
This ideological evolution eventually led me to J Street U, the student-organizing arm of J Street. J Street is the antithesis of Kahanism. Instead of running away from the asymmetries between Zionism and liberalism, J Street aims to recalibrate them. Instead of treating the Israeli and Palestinian narratives as mutually exclusive, J Street recognizes their interdependence.
As a former Kahanist, I know that combating Kahanism is of importance to Jews everywhere, because when Kahanists commit acts of political and rhetorical violence, they do so in the name of all Jews. Kahanism’s claim to represent authentic Judaism and Zionism only fuels anti-Semitism and damages Israel’s moral standing, but, more perniciously, it violates everything Judaism has ever held dear.
My experience in Israel taught me that Kahanism is not a fringe movement to be underestimated. Its ideology permeates even the governing coalition of Israel and poses a serious threat to Israel’s future. Defeating Kahanism requires liberal reclamation of Judaism and Zionism, through groups like J Street, to demonstrate that one can be pro-Israel, liberal and very much Jewish. I know now that it will not be easy, but if my story proves anything, it’s that Kahanism can be beaten.