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3 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

AMERICANS HAVE AN UNFORTUNATE TENDENCY TO Think “ISLAMIC” or “Arab” when they hear the word terrorist. In Israel people know better: violent, hate-filled Jewish groups have been part of the political landscape there since Israel seized the Sinai, West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War in 1967. They have insisted that these lands must be retained as part of Israel’s biblical birthright–by violence if necessary. And they consider any Jew who opposes them a traitor to the race.

If anyone deserves the dubious title of spiritual leader of the Jewish extremists, it is the late Meir Kahane, the American-born founder of the militant, occasionally violent Jewish Defense League. Kahane moved his operations to Israel in the 1970s, where he began a political movement called Kach (Thus). It wasn’t long before Kahane’s toxic rhetoric fomented murder. In 1983, during a rally held by the Peace Now leftist group, a lone right-winger–not much different from Rabin’s alleged assassin, Yigal Amir–threw a grenade into the crowd, killing one Israeli man. It was the first time since the nation was founded that Jews had used violence against fellow Jews for political reasons.

Throughout the 1980s, Kahane and Kach continually stirred up trouble, and Kahane’s election to the Knesset halfway through the decade lent an air of legitimacy to his confrontational, violent tactics. After he had served one term, though, Israel passed legislation outlawing Kach in particular and making it extremely difficult for hate groups to sit in parliament.

While Kahane was alive, Kach was the natural home for Jewish extremists. But after his 1990 assassination in New York City, the group splintered badly. Kahane’s son Benyamin formed an offshoot, Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), and took many of the original Kach activists with him to settlements in the West Bank, where he preaches–less charismatically–the same message his father did. While the group frequently harasses Palestinians and is suspected of having murdered several, its core activity is inciting Israeli Jews, touching off noisy demonstrations that often make the TV news.

Meanwhile, the much diminished Kach creates its own brand of trouble: it calls in telephone threats against journalists and politicians, often under the names of imaginary organizations, and takes responsibility, legitimately or not, for any violent act against Arabs. After Kahane disciple Baruch Goldstein sprayed a Hebron mosque with automatic-rifle fire in 1994, killing 29 worshippers and wounding 125, authorities began routinely putting Kach leaders under house arrest.

Eyal, another Kach offshoot, to which Amir has been linked, is a tiny organization based at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University. Its activities tend toward threats and harassment rather than outright violence. But its members, like most of the 15,000 or so extremists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, tend to believe that any act, including murder, is justified if it thwarts the peace process. Says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, an expert on Jewish fundamentalism: “It’s the equivalent of the right-wing milieu that led to the Oklahoma City bombing.” That event shook Americans out of the complacent notion that it couldn’t happen here; now Israelis too have an even deeper understanding of their vulnerability.

–By Michael D. Lemonick

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