Among the many literatures that were recommended to me this summer while conducting field research in Israel was this book: They Must Go by Rabbi Meir Kahane. I do not feel that it is necessary to provide a lengthily back story as to why I would choose to engage with such a controversial work. For that, please feel free to peruse one of my earlier posts. Just as I have not hesitated to read and critically evaluate work by left-leaning authors such as Tom Segev and Gershom Gorenberg to better understand these perspectives, there is no reason why I should hesitate to do the same with those by right-wing nationalist authors.
If one truly wishes to understand the political and social perspectives of those who claim to be informed by Kahanist thought, one must go to the source. To judge the content and legitimacy of Kahanism on the basis of widely disseminated generalizations and dominant political critiques is not only lazy but intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately, Kahane’s political works are too often rejected a priori from this basis without the critics ever having actually seriously engaged with them. This is something I hope to rectify here. This is not to say that reading this book has made me a Kahanist; far from it. Rather, it has forced me to engage with ideas which are extremely uncomfortable coming from a western liberal background and to think more critically about the prospects of sustainable peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The premise of the book is this: the Arab population in Israel is growing faster than the Jewish population. Given the democratic character of the state and the widespread rejection of the specifically Jewish character of the state by the former population, it is highly likely that a Jewish democratic state with an Arab majority must either cease to be Jewish or cease to be democratic. This is the language of the “demographic threat” which dominates contemporary mainstream Israeli political discourse. Where R’Meir Kahane’s thoughts deviate from the mainstream, however, is in his rejection of policy which would move Israel to become either a binational state, the controversial solution proposed by the far left, or strategically disengage from areas with large Arab populations, namely the disputed territories of Gaza (Ghazza/’Azzah) and the West Bank (Yehuda and Shomron). Starting from the perspective that Israel has a legitimate national claim to all territories captured in 1967, his solution is to encourage mass Arab emigration.
Given how seemingly unfathomable this course of action is particularly to a western audience, reading this piece will necessarily be accompanied by several particular biases and expectations. The scope of this review and my own knowledge does not allow me to speak with clear authority on Kahanist thought as a whole nor the particular actions of those who identify with Kach, Kahane Chai, or any other offshoot of Kahanism. As such, my comments and critiques are limited to this book only. In this respect, this review as an analysis of Kahanist thought is a work in progress at best. With this limited scope in mind, let me dispel a few expectations.
First, despite the inflammatory nature of the book’s title in full: They Must Go (How Long Can Israel Survive its Malignant and Growing Arab Population?), this is not a racist work. Nowhere does Kahane claim that Arab Israelis (or Palestinians in general) have less physical or mental capabilities than Jewish Israelis nor does he argue that their worth as individual human beings is any less than that of any other individual. Perhaps most importantly, nowhere does he claim that the Arabs living in Israel do not have their own claims to the territory nor does he expect them to respect, acknowledge, or concede to being in a position of an oppressed national minority. If anything, Kahane’s strongest criticisms in this regard are directed against Zionist pioneers and Israeli government officials who, he insists, did and still do not respect the intellect and ambitions of the Arab population believing that they could and still can be “educated and fed” into acquiescing to Israeli rule.
Second, although the very premise of this book is that a growing Arab population will threaten Israel’s character as a Jewish state, it is not anti-democratic. He does not challenge the notion that citizens of a democratic state should be accorded equal rights and equal protections and he accepts that Arabs living in Israel are both entitled to representation and the vote even if this is, for him, the source of the problem. He does argue that Israel must decide between having an “Jewish state” and a “Western, liberal, equal one” but it would be shortsighted to see this proposed contrast between Zionism and “open democracy” in terms of a rejection of democratic principles. Indeed, the very fact that Kahane is concerned with a “demographic threat” at all shows that he does value the democratic process in at least some way, at least more so than his critics would lead one to believe. Kahane does not reject the legitimacy of democracy; rather he asserts that a democratic process cannot be sustained when a large portion of a state’s population rejects the very legitimacy of the state. The problem of a Jewish state, he argues is that “it says nothing emotionally, spiritually, nationally, or culturally to the non-Jewish Arabs” (138). This intrinsic lack of connection coupled with a stubborn alternative and equally restrictive vision of national identity means that coexistence in a liberal model is utterly impossible. The question for Kahane is this, “Is the Jew prepared to sacrifice his only state on the altar of the democracy that Arabs will use to destroy Israel” (265)? Therefore he sees stark choices: either Arabs must emigrate to ensure the survival of the state’s Jewish identity or the state must be willing to commit national suicide.
Finally, this work is not primarily of a religious fundamentalist nature. Nowhere in this book does Kahane demean the value or spiritual worth of other religions including Islam nor does he advocate violence in the name of religion (or otherwise). Certainly his political philosophy of Terror neged Terror (Terrorism for Terrorism) belies the latter point, but again, it does not appear here. Neither does he seem to consistently adhere to a millenarian philosophy of an end of days, world domination, or redemption through conquest, violence, or mass forced conversion. True, he grounds the legitimacy of the project of a Jewish state in the land of Israel in religious historical terms and is not embarrassed to claim a divine right to Jewish control of the state. Neither is he timid in citing biblical passages justifying the removal of hostile peoples from the land or in claiming that there is a halakhic (religious-legal) obligation to do so. Yet it would seem that this argument is based not so much in the concern for Divine redemption, although this is his final religious appeal, but for the physical survival of both the State of Israel and its Jewish population in the Middle East. While it can be argued this final emphasis is demonstrative of Kahane’s ultimate goals, it is also notable that absent the final chapter in which he concentrates these claims, his political arguments appear almost entirely secular and even somewhat academic in tone.
If one accepts my contention that They Must Go should not be labeled an outright racist, anti-democratic, or religious fundamentalist work, there is an academic space in which this work can be honestly engaged rather than rejected a priori as the rantings of a madman. Admittedly this is a rather difficult task for the western liberal who ideally believes in the possibility of cosmopolitan coexistence and social egalitarianism. Kahane’s call for the emigration of Israel’s Arab population goes directly against this liberal impulse. Indeed, the act of uprooting an entire group of people from the land on which they live and moved elsewhere goes by a very intentionally pejorative name in today’s political vocabulary, that is ethnic cleansing. To understand his apparently rather extreme argument while accepting my earlier claims about the work, one must engage with three claims: 1) the ethnohistorical right of the Jewish people to live in the land of Israel, 2) the irreconcilability of Arab national aspirations with that claim, and 3) the impossibility of resolving this tension through territorial retrenchment by the Israeli state.
The source of Kahane’s first argument is obvious enough. Much of the territory that currently constitutes the State of Israel was the ancient homeland of the Jewish people recounted not only in the Jewish bible, religious texts, and popular histories but in the substantial archaeological which, in many cases, correspond to these texts. Moreover, many parts of Israel have had a mostly uninterrupted Jewish presence for over three thousand years notably including the cities of ‘Azza (Gaza), Hevron (Hebron), Shekhem (Nablus), Tzfat (Safed), Yaffo (Jaffa), and Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). For him, most of this goes without saying. The idea of Israel as a Jewish state is deemed a necessity in terms of Jewish physical survival, a right bestowed upon a people by divine decree and solidified by history, and a religious prerogative to preserve. The development of a state which is completely secular, multicultural, and cosmopolitan in which all peoples regardless of national identity enjoy equal rights is without reason or purpose to Kahane. He thus argues that Israel has no moral right to a state in the land which is not explicitly Jewish in character.
More pressing than the question of equal rights is that of equal duties or obligations to the state. It is here where he argues an existential problem is posed by Israel’s Arab population. He argues that although Israel is egalitarian in legal form, the very notion that Arabs themselves would feel they have an equal stake in a state which is explicitly identified as fulfilling the national aspirations of a rival group is absurd at best. In Israel of the 1970s he argues there is the widespread belief that a “well-fed Arab is a quiet and happy Arab” who would willingly acquiesce to Israeli rule (81). Quite to the contrary, he insists that Arabs cannot be bought into dismissing their own national aspirations acknowledging that they will not long tolerate their position as a national minority in a democratic system which promises social equality. Rather they will use the system to their advantage demanding exemptions from national responsibilities while seeking to become the controlling majority. Herein lies the problem of democracy in an ethnic state: the same governing instruments which allow for the maintenance of a particular national identity are the very same which can be used to dismantle them. Given that Arabs would have no interest in preserving Israel’s Jewish character once having become the majority, the very identity and role of Israel as the sole national home and refuge of the Jewish people would be erased. It is in many respects this fear which guides contemporary efforts by the Israeli government to resolve the “demographic problem” through withdrawal from the disputed territories of Gaza (completed in 2005) and Yehuda and Shomron (the West Bank).
All postulated rights of the Jewish people to the “entire” land of Israel aside, Kahane maintains that this solution would accomplish nothing more than the speedier destruction of the Jewish state. In his own words: “Giving up the liberated lands will do nothing but gain Israel a relatively brief span of time before the same demon shows up again, while giving up precious territory that brings the enemy within a few miles of Israel’s heartland. With or without the territories, Israel faces the reality of Arab population explosion and it refuses to face that fact” (102). Whatever qualms one may have with regard to Kahane’s proposed solution, the now-popular argument that further “disengagement” is necessary to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the state seems a transitory fix in Kahane’s perspective. If he is correct to argue that the Arab population that hold Israeli citizenship are no less hostile to the state and its concomitant national identity in its current form than those which live inside the disputed territories, disengagement absent substantial mutual population transfer is doomed to eventual failure. His obvious concern is that abandoning now contentious territory will leave behind a state which is no less significantly confronted with a rejectionist national minority.
Yet clearly his concerns lie not merely with the nominal or spiritual identity of the state but with the physical survival of its people. Indeed, while Kahane argues that a national minority should expect to be oppressed or is likely to perceive oppression simply by virtue of being in the minority, enduring this oppression can be tolerable unless it is accompanied by the threat of violence (120). A similar view is reflected in Rogers Brubaker’s work, Nationalism Reframed, in which he argues that the impetus for political mobilization by national minorities is often sustained only insofar as the state in question can be portrayed internationally as politically oppressive (Brubaker 1996, 64). Although the idea of Jews becoming the minority in Israel is certainly repugnant to him, it would not be the first time in history that this has occurred. The greater fear is that the Jewish population would be subject to widespread and indiscriminate violence when reduced to minority status. Citing as examples a long and bloody list of public massacres committed by Arabs against the Jewish population prior to both the founding of the state and the occupation following the 1967 war particularly including the slaughter of the Jewish community of Hevron without provocation in 1929, he argues the violence directed against the Jewish state has not been instigated by the occupation or the political expression of Zionism but by the very existence of Israel as a non-Arab state. While he has certainly overstated his case in rejecting any political or reciprocal grounds for terrorism and violence directed against the state it is not without reason that he writes, “Time runs out, and we had best, quickly, listen to the Arab voices and believe what they have planned for us” (193).
For Kahane, coexistence is impossible not only because Arabs can never be expected to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state but because the irreconcilability and dogged determination of Arab and Jewish nationalisms ensure a constant threat of intercommunal violence. Nor does he see this problem as unique to the Israeli case. Presenting a view which is not uncommon in the contemporary academic literature on ethnic warfare (see Chaim Kaufmann (1996) among others), he suggests that the most sustainable solutions to ethnic conflict are those in which the populations of the warring sides are geographically unmixed and physically separated. Citing as prime examples the post-WWII transfer of ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, the “compulsory population exchange” between Greece and Turkey completed following soon after WWI, and the 1947 acceptance of Hindu and Muslim refugees by India and Pakistan respectively, he argues that these cases of ethnic unmixing were not only crucial to the survival of those people involved in the population movement, but central to the consolidation of these respective states. The argument is thus made, somewhat uncritically, that conflict arising from the clash of politically divided identity communities can only be averted or quashed through population separation. While hostility remains, he insists, “Today there is hate, and that is sad. But there is no bloodshed” (237).
In light of these outcomes, Kahane is clearly frustrated this largely did not occur in the wake of the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War writing, “History will never forgive Israel its failure of nerve and fear of world opinion” (245). If the problem of intercommunal conflict was challenging then, it is only more acute today, yet he argues we need not foreclose the option of population transfer merely because the “ideal” historical moment has passed. He insists, “There is nothing unjust in removing those who would rob you of your own land before they can accomplish their desire. The question is not how can we remove the Arabs, but rather how can we not” (245)? While it is certainly dubious to claim, as he does, that the idea of transfer is actually more respectful to Israel’s Arab population than to insist they remain and demonstrate loyalty to the Jewish state, it is not difficult to understand, in light of his three basic claims about the character of the Israeli-Arab conflict, why Kahane came to the conclusions he did. If significant segments of the Arab population reject the legitimacy of the state, politically demand and formally organize to advance the erasure of the Jewish character of the state, and pose persistent security threats to the state some form of action is undoubtedly needed.
At present, two options enjoy some legitimacy in mainstream Israeli politics: a two-state solution in which Israel would withdraw from some large portion of the territories captured in 1967 and removes the Jewish populations which have resettled there since its capture and the much less popular bi-national solution in which Israel would embrace a consociationalist form of government in which Arabs and Israelis would ideally share control over the whole of the state. Kahane’s solution of population transfer is notably absent from this debate. Indeed, Israel’s self-conscious adherence to an international liberal human rights regime coupled with international endorsement of Palestinian national self-determination make such an approach not only impractical but unthinkable in the current normative environment.
Ironically such normative constraints exercise very little power in the Palestinian national movement. Here political doctrine demanding the removal of the Jews from the state is alive and well not only in the Hamas movement but in the incrementalist policies of its “moderate” rival Fatah. One does not need to be a Kahanist to recognize that the flourishing of this perspective in Palestinian civil society and political discourse does not bode well for an Israeli approach which is clearly, if conflictingly, restrained from reciprocating. In negotiations between the two parties, Kahane observes, “One, the Arab voice, is shrill, loud, brazen, confident. The other, the Jewish voice, is defensive, apologetic, guilt-ridden. Between two such adversaries there is no contest” (206).
Without a doubt, Kahane’s tone is both abrasive and disturbing for those who still believe a peaceful solution to the conflict is possible. I therefore cite this passage not necessarily as a call to fight fire with fire, but as a cautionary note that the limitations, drawbacks, and pitfalls which Kahane observed with respect to Israel’s mainstream solutions are real and should not be ignored. As Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza demonstrated quite clearly in 2005, the removal of Jewish communities and Israeli military control from areas demanded by the Arab population for an independent state cannot be expected a priori to increase Israel’s security or improve its international reputational standing. If the course of Israel’s political future is to be laced with further uncoordinated and unreciprocated territorial withdrawals, population retrenchments, and other concessions to Palestinian national demands, one must stop to critically consider the outcomes and consequences.
Whatever one may think of Kahane’s own program, he does valuably critique these tried and failed conventional approaches from a path where others fear to tread. He is certainly correct that a nation-state embarrassed by the nature of its own claims to territory cannot expect others to respect that claim. Faced with opponents who, often violently, reject the Jewish character and fundamental political existence of Israel from within and without, moves which leave the state more vulnerable to these opponents only hasten the day when the state may be forced to reevaluate its foreclosure of illiberal policy options such as those encouraged by Kahane. Territorial and demographic retrenchments are only valuable if the state gets something in return. While the idea of population transfer remains largely outside the mainstream, assuming Israelis continue to value the Jewish national character of their state, this approach will likely only grow to be seen as more expedient as current policies continue to fail. Today’s delicate political balancing act is clearly insufficient to forestall this development.
Rather Israel must be prepared to stake an assertive claim as to its identity and national boundaries and demand true reciprocity from its Arab counterparts. Indeed, if the crux of the transfer argument is the rejection of the Jewish state by its Arab population, absent emigration that same population must be encouraged to demonstrate loyalty to the state. While Kahane’s essentialist characterization of national identity allows for very little in the way of communal identity development, in truth identities, particularly collective ones, are never static. How such dramatic change can be achieved without sacrificing Israel’s Jewish character is a challenge for sure, but a necessary one to overcome if both liberal norms and national identity are to survive in Israel.