THE assassination of Meir Kahane brings on mixed emotions for most Americans familiar with his career. First of all, many acknowledge the tragedy of taking any human life, particularly for political purposes; it is yet another unfortunate manifestation of the easy availability of handguns; and it is another depressing reminder of the increasing violence in the clash between Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. On the other hand, such an end was almost inevitable. As with the assassination of American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell over 20 years ago, there is a sense that leaders of violent hate groups will die violently themselves.
Kahane's strident racism and advocacy of violence against Arabs has been widely denounced in both the US and Israel. Mainstream Jewish organizations, both here and abroad, have observed how Kahane's politics and tactics contradicted the most basic ethical tenets of Judaism. They have watched in horror as his following has grown dramatically among young Israelis, threatening what remains of Israel's dedication to democratic principles.
However, the smug self-righteousness by which the Israeli government and many Jewish groups have condemned Kahane ignores the roots of his influence. For more than 23 years, Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza, with over a million and a half Palestinians denied the most basic political rights. The initial strategic rationale is wearing thin, as growing numbers of Israelis find the occupation itself more of a security threat than Palestinian independence, particularly since an agreement would presumably provide for a demilitarized Palestinian state. The renunciation of terrorism by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and their recognition of Israel encouraged moderate Israelis to seek a negotiated settlement despite opposition from Shamir's government.
Unfortunately, the failure of the US and Israel to respond favorably to Palestinian peace overtures has led to increasing violence and a Palestinian embrace of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. However, as Israeli peace activists have observed, engaging in questionable tactics and alliances does not negate a people's right to self-determination. If this were the case, Israel would not exist either.
For a generation of Israelis who have grown up as occupiers of another nation, Kahane and other leaders have crystallized new justifications for the continued repression. Racism is an easy means to explain why one people could deny another people's political rights.
Many Israelis ask whether they can be both an enlightened polity and an occupying power. Israel must either grant the Palestinians their political rights and eventually lose the state's Jewish identity to an emerging Arab majority, or maintain the country's Jewish identity and forget any pretense of democracy. Kahane chose the latter, advocating forced population transfers, expelling the Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.
Such an answer may be in contravention of international law and fundamentally immoral, but it is logically consistent - far more consistent than those who simultaneously profess faith in democracy while maintaining an increasingly repressive military occupation. Indeed, Kahane liked to observe that Israel was at its greatest under kings David and Solomon - hardly enlightened democrats. Democracy, according to Kahane, was some crazy Western ideal picked up in the diaspora that must be discarded now that Jews have returned to their Levantine roots.
In effect, Kahane was a natural outgrowth of Israeli government policy - bankrolled by successive US administrations and supported by most Zionist organizations - of denying the Palestinians national self-determination.
At the same time, it is incorrect to allege, as have many Palestinians, that such racism inevitably grows out of Zionism. As with any national liberation struggle, Zionism has both its progressive and reactionary currents. While the latter trend has certainly dominated the policies of recent Israeli governments - and Kahane was the most extreme of the right-wing - this certainly does not mean that Israel or Zionism, per se, is racist. Criticism of Israeli policies and support for Palestinian national rights should in no way imply any questioning of Israel's right to exist.
Unfortunately, there are those who still single out Israel for blame and attack, and it was this extreme anti-Zionism which helped build the paranoic fanaticism of Kahane and his followers.
Kahane's assassination should instead be a time of reflection for all concerned with peace and justice in the Middle East. Had the national rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs been fully recognized, Kahane would never have become such a powerful figure. Until that time when the conditions breeding extremists change and Israel is neither isolated in the world community nor playing the role of an oppressive occupying power, there will likely be new Kahanes to take the late rabbi's place.