World / February 26, 2024

Israel’s Far Right Finally Gets the War It Has Always Wanted

Billed as a response to the October 7 Hamas attack, the conflict in Gaza has increasingly become a war to eliminate all Palestinians—a longtime goal of Israel’s homegrown fascists.

James Bamford
Meir Kahane (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (right) edited side by side.
Rabbi Meir Kahane (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right). (Bettmann / Getty Images)

“The next [bullet] will be direct to your belly,” shouted the settler guard in both English and Hebrew. He had just fired a burst from an Uzi submachine gun not far above our heads. It was 1990, and we were in Kiryat Arba, an illegal settlement in Israel’s occupied territory. We were attempting to film the home of Robert Manning, an American citizen wanted for a brutal bombing murder in the United States and a suspect in a number of other bombings targeting Arab Americans.

At the time, I was the Washington investigative producer for ABC News, and with me was my Israeli crew: a videographer and a sound technician. For years, Manning had been hiding out and evading arrest by the US with the active help of the Israeli government, who even put him in the IDF, its army. A few hours earlier, after discovering his location, we had secretly filmed him getting into his car wearing his uniform and carrying what appeared to be another Uzi, and then followed him to a military base.

That incident more than three decades ago has great relevance today. In addition to being a reservist in the IDF, Manning was also a key soldier in Kach—a violent, racist terrorist organization founded by an American Orthodox rabbi, Meir Kahane. Although Kahane himself was assassinated in 1990, and Kach was banned by Israel’s government in 1994, over the years the rabbi’s dedicated followers, known as Kahanists, have grown tremendously in power and strength, to the point where they now play a major role in the Israeli government, including key decisions involving the ongoing war with Hamas. Kahane’s ultimate solution, after all, was the use of force to totally eliminate Palestinians from both Israel and the occupied territories—exactly what the world is witnessing today in Gaza.

“The Kahanist vision,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted, “is one that sees violence and revenge as Jewish religious imperatives, and Israel as not being worthy of existing unless it expunges the non-Jews from its midst.” It added, “With his zero-sum approach to Israel’s ethnic identity, and open call for the state to expel its Arab citizens as well as the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories, Kahane not only earned a reputation for saying what others only dared think, but also for his willingness to act preemptively against Arabs.”

Founded in Brooklyn in 1968, Kahane’s Jewish Defense League brandished flags depicting a clenched fist against a Jewish Star of David. Three years later, Kahane was convicted in New York for conspiracy to manufacture explosives and received a suspended sentence of five years. That same year, after moving to Israel, he cofounded Kach as a political party that advocated the forced removal of the entire Palestinian population, whom Kahane referred to as “dogs,” from both Israel and the occupied territories. Kach was also imported into the United States, but was banned in 1994 as a foreign terrorist organization. By 1984, Kahane’s calls for the violent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians had received enough popular support to win him and his Kach party a seat in Israel’s Knesset.

At the same time in the US, Kahane’s JDL continued to grow and quickly transformed into a sort of Jewish version of the Ku Klux Klan, attacking and bombing Arab Americans around the country rather than Blacks. Between 1980 and 1985 alone, the FBI documented 17 bombings by the JDL in the US. Among the key targets was Alex Odeh, a Palestinian born in what is now Israel’s occupied West Bank. At the time, he served as the Southern California regional director at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a US group advocating for Palestinian rights.

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In October 1985, a bomb was planted at the entrance to the ADC’s headquarters for Southern California, killing Odeh as he opened the door. Hours later, Irv Rubin, the JDL’s national chairman, offered his views. “I have no tears for Mr. Odeh,” he said. “He got exactly what he deserved.” Eventually, the FBI’s suspicions centered on three top JDL members and Kahane associates with long criminal records: Robert Manning, Andy Green, and Keith Fuchs. “The major question is whether Kahane was behind the bombings,” a former FBI agent told me. All the suspects eventually fled to Israel and, despite their violent criminal histories, were immediately granted citizenship under that country’s Law of Return. They then took up residence in settlements located in the occupied territories.

Despite an extensive investigation by determined FBI agents, years went by with no arrests or extraditions—even though Manning and his wife were also key suspects in another brutal murder: the mail-bomb killing of Patricia Wilkerson, a secretary in a small Los Angeles computer company. Manning had been hired by a fellow JDL member to murder Wilkerson’s boss over a financial dispute, but by accident Wilkerson was instead killed by the powerful explosion.

A decade later, however, there was still no action, and it was clear that Israel was deliberately protecting the violent Kahanists. “We consider their response very disingenuous,” a former senior Justice Department source told me at the time, asking that I not use his name. “We say, ‘Excuse me, you have an international obligation. You are in violation of an international agreement by not doing this thing when we ask you.’… They’ve had years to use legal mechanisms in Israel to arrest this guy [Robert Manning] and they have not. So as near as we can tell, they have absolutely no interest in helping us.”

In April 1990, I flew to Israel to try to find Manning and seek an interview. Eventually, our story provoked a strong reaction across the country and apparently motivated the Justice Department to put increased pressure on Israel, which finally extradited Manning. In 1994, he was found guilty at a trial in Los Angeles for the brutal bombing murder of Wilkerson and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

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This October, despite strong protests by both Odeh and Wilkerson family members, Manning was granted parole after three decades behind bars. He is scheduled to be released from federal prison in the summer of 2024. But unlike Manning, the two other key American suspects in the Odeh bombing murder have never been arrested or even questioned and remain free. Among them is Andy Green.

Green had long been one of Kahane’s closest associates, eventually becoming his chief aide, and in 1980 the two conspired to blow up the Dome of the Rock, potentially killing hundreds of Arabs and Palestinians. A golden shrine venerated by Muslims around the world as the oldest surviving work of Islamic architecture, it sits adjacent to the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-most-sacred shrine in Islam. According to Muslim beliefs, the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the mosque. To Jews, however, the same small patch of ground on which the two shrines sit is known as the “Temple Mount” and revered as the location where Jews believe the first and second ancient Jewish temples once stood. Once the Al-Aqsa mosque compound is finally destroyed, Kahanists argue, the Jews will then be able to build their third temple atop the rubble.

Kahane and Green were caught before they could carry out their deadly plot and ended up spending just six months in jail as a result. But the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, and the building of the third temple in its place, would long be an obsession of Green and his fellow Kahanists.

Eventually, Green changed his name to Baruch Ben-Yosef, became chairman of the far-right Movement for the Establishment of the Temple, and joined up with another Jewish supremist obsessed with the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque: Itamar Ben-Gvir. Although convicted in 2007 for inciting hatred and supporting a terrorist organization, and labeled by Haaretz “the ideological successor of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane,” in 2022 Ben-Gvir was named by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the powerful post of minister for national security. He is also one of the key officials whose words were cited by South Africa at the International Court of Justice as proof of its charges of genocide against Israel.

“He represents what we must reluctantly call ‘Jewish fascism,’” Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote in Le Monde. “As a lawyer, he defended Jewish terrorists and applauded terrorist operations committed by Jews, including Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians during their prayers at the Ibrahim Mosque. He identifies so much with Jewish terrorism that he has even proposed abolishing the concept.” Yaakov Katz, the editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post, called Ben-Gvir “the modern Israeli version of an American white supremacist and a European fascist.”

Ben-Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), is “seen as the ideological successor of the racist Kach party and its founder Rabbi Meir Kahane,” noted The Times of Israel. And in the last election, it merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s Jewish Home-National Union Party to form what Israel’s Ynetnews called “a dynasty of racism and provocation.” Soon after, Smotrich was named to the powerful post of minister of finance. At the same time, Kahane’s grandson, Meir Ettinger, has become a leader of the Hilltop Youth, a group who live in illegal outposts in the West Bank and regularly inflict brutal attacks on innocent Palestinians. He has recently called for secret cells to be activated, saying, “As an alternative to the army, it is possible to activate armed military cells for settlers to carry out massacres of the Palestinians in order to stop their attacks.”

The spread of racism and Jewish supremacy throughout Israeli society has paved the way for the return of Kahanism. “Anyone can see that we are in the process of becoming a sinister, Kahanist, racist, religious, radical state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” warned Matan Vilnai, the former IDF deputy chief of staff, last August. Just last week, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered his own stark warning in Haaretz: “This gang of pogromists,” as he calls the Kahanists, “have taken control of the government of Israel and have made the man who heads it into their servant.” He added, “Things are so dire that there is no way to avoid saying them loud and clear: Netanyahu, this will end in a lot more blood. Take heed—you have been warned.”

According to Israeli scholar Idan Yaron, who spent many years studying Kahane, the current political leadership in Israel has no tolerance for anyone who is not Jewish: “Everyone who does not follow a national-religious approach. Everyone who is not a ‘real Jew,’ as Rabbi Kahane defined it, must be annihilated—and not metaphorically.” It is, he says, “a direct product of the legitimization of the Kahanist movement and its leaders by a prime minister of Israel.” Along with a “leadership group which is committed absolutely to the rabbi and his path [and] has done everything to perpetuate his doctrine.”

Netanyahu has long harbored views similar to Kahane. In November 1989, while serving as deputy foreign minister, he gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University. In it, according to The Jerusalem Post, he complained “that the government had failed to exploit politically favourable situations in order to carry out ‘large-scale’ expulsions at times when ‘the [political] damage would have been relatively small.… I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people.” And even some of Netanyahu’s closest advisers have accused him of being a Kahane clone, including fellow war cabinet member Benny Gantz, the former minister of defense. In 2019, he said that “Kahane would be proud of Netanyahu.”

The dangerous revival of Kahanism in Israel is underwritten by billions of dollars from American taxpayers thanks to politicians on Capitol Hill and in the White House hoping to curry favor with wealthy Jewish and pro-Israel donors and lobbies. In March of 2022, during a visit to Israel, former vice president and 2024 presidential candidate Mike Pence had a friendly meeting in occupied Hebron with both Kahane disciple Ben-Gvir, and Jewish Power party founder Baruch Marzel. An orthodox Jew born in Boston, Marzel served as Kahane’s “right-hand man” and his spokesperson for a decade. Pence told Ben-Gvir it was a “great honor” to meet him, adding, “Stay strong. We’ll stand with you.”

And two months later, President Joe Biden authorized the removal of Kahane’s Kach offshoot, Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), from the list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” “Kach and Kahane Chai splintered into various groups and political parties that continue to espouse, inspire and carry out acts of violence against Palestinian civilians,” warned William Lafi Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University. “Rather than removing the designation, the State Department should have updated and expanded it.”

In May, the violent threats to expel the Palestinians from Israel’s occupied territories and destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque reached a peak during Israel’s Jerusalem Day, a holiday marking Israel’s conquest of the city in 1967. As the crowds marched through Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, they loudly chanted racist slogans, among them “Kahane was right” and “Death to the Arabs.” Joining in was Kahane follower Ben-Givr, becoming the first cabinet minister ever to take part in the march. Kahane-supporting Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also appeared.

Five months later, early on the morning of October 7, the military wing of Hamas attacked, killing 1,200 Israelis—most of them women, children, and the elderly. “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood has been launched,” announced Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas Political Bureau.

The war the Kahanists have long dreamed of, to expel or eradicate the Palestinians, take over their lands, and destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque, has begun. “Think about what we face when we boot those Arabs off the Temple Mount. We face a jihad with the entire Muslim world,” said a hopeful Andy Green/Ben-Yosef in 1993. “I’m willing to go for it, because I know that that’s what God wants.” And leading Kahane’s Jewish jihad is Green/Ben-Yosef’s friend and colleague, Minister of National Security Ben-Gvir. Replying to a critical article in Haaretz, Ben-Gvir wrote to the editors in 2022: “You’ve made it clear that I am on the right path and that Rabbi Kahane, may his blood be avenged, is smiling down on me.” Shaul Magid, a distinguished fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and author of a recent book on Kahane, offered a warning: “Ben-Gvir [is] far more dangerous to Israeli society than Kahane ever was.”

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert clearly agrees. As he noted in Haaretz:

The ultimate aim of this gang [the Kahanists] is “purging” the West Bank of its Palestinian inhabitants, cleansing the Temple Mount of its Muslim worshippers and annexing the territories to the state of Israel. The way to achieve this goal is blood-soaked. Israeli blood, in the state and in the territories it has been controlling for 57 years now, as well as Jewish blood in places elsewhere in the world. As well as a lot of Palestinian blood, of course, in the territories, in Jerusalem and if there is no alternative—also among Arab citizens of Israel.… This aim will not be achieved without extensive violent conflict. Armageddon.

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James Bamford

James Bamford is a best-selling author, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and winner of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. His most recent book is Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America's Counterintelligence, published by Twelve Books.

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