The Role of ‘Americanism’ in the Israeli Far-Right

The following is an excerpt from “Israel: Democracy, Race, Ethnicity, and More” 
(Fragments #2).

by Professor Shaul Magid

The relationship between Israel and the United States has a complex history. On the one hand, Zionists such as Chaim Weitzman realized early on that the United States was potentially Israel’s biggest ally. He cajoled a skeptical David Ben Gurion to go with him to Manhattan in May 1942 to convince American Zionists to join their statist project. But efforts to secure American support existed in tension with the “negation of the Diaspora,” the ideological epicenter of Zionism which had led many Zionists to criticize Jews who remained in the United States. Adherents of this view claimed that American tolerance for religious minorities would result in mass assimilation and the disappearance of the American Jew. This was Ben Gurion’s view, as he made clear in a lecture he gave in New York in 1971, two years before his death. Moreover, many Zionists, left and right, criticized American materialism, opulence, and shallowness. In right-wing circles, America was sometimes referred to as “Am-reka” (an empty people).

There is some irony in the fact that many right-wing religious Zionists in Israel hold such negative views of the United States. In fact, some of the reactionary radicalism that has embedded itself in these Israeli communities is imported from America. While by no means the only source of inspiration for the contemporary Israeli religious right, the United States has produced and helped incubate many of its heroes. Below I explore some of these influences and also contextualize them within the larger sphere of influence that has produced the present-day radical right in Israel.

Meir Kahane, whose ideology continues to inspire much of Israel’s present right-wing reality, is the first to come to mind. His worldview was born from the far-left radicalism of the culture and race wars of the 1960s, which was then refracted through the reactionary politics of certain strains of Modern Orthodoxy in the aftermath of the Holocaust. For example, Kahane was very taken with, and influenced by, the Black Panthers (even as he loathed them) and other minority nationalist movements such as the Hispanic Young Lords and even the Mafia leader Joseph Columbo’s Italian-American Civil Rights League. He even titled a chapter in his 1975 book “The Story of the Jewish Defense League,” “Jewish Panthers.” As Shlomo Russ argued in 1981, “Kahane used the tactics of the left for the purposes of the right,” and leftist radical Abbie Hoffman once said of Kahane, “I like his tactics but not his goals.”¹

It is worth noting that Kahane’s right-wing radicalism was not particularly embedded in religion in any conventional way. Kahane may have been an Orthodox Jew, many of the young Jewish Defense League (JDL) members may have been nominally Orthodox, and his base of support may have been Orthodox synagogues, but some of the founders and financial backers of the JDL — for example JDL spokesperson Bertram Zweibon — were not. And if one reads Kahane’s breakout book “Never Again!” (1971), they will not find a book based on Judaism per se but on ethnic pride and militant social activism. The justification for Kahane’s early militarism was not Judaism but a rather flattened articulation of the biblical mandate of Jewish ownership of the land. Kahane was more Joshua the conqueror than Rabbi Akiva the martyr. As he articulated at length in his book “Listen World/Listen Jew” (1978), martyrdom was an exilic posture to be rejected.

Besides Kahane, Baruch Goldstein, who considered himself a follower of Kahane and murdered nearly 30 Muslim worshippers in Hebron on Purim in 1994, was an American, as is the radical rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh. Born in 1944 in St. Louis and raised in Cleveland, Ginsburgh briefly attended Jerusalem’s Rechavia Gymnasium before returning to the U.S., where he studied at Yeshiva University and then became a Chabad Chasid. Ginsburgh developed a kabbalistic far-right militant ideology drawing from the Chasidic tradition that has influenced many young militant Zionists. One example is his 2002 book “Rectifying the State of Israel: A Political Platform based on Kabbalah.” Baruch Marzel, the former spokesperson for Kach (Kahane’s political party) who still lives and works in Hebron, was one of Kahane’s most devoted followers. He was born in Boston and moved as an infant with his Modern Orthodox American parents to Israel. It is also worth noting the American members of the Jewish Underground, considered a terrorist group by Israel, such as Yoel Lerner (1941-2014), who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in apartheid South Africa before moving to Israel in 1960.²

Another largely unknown figure, but a cult hero among older settlers, is Eddy Dribben, an American Korean War vet from a cattle ranch in Wyoming who moved to Israel in the late 1960s and became an early settler in the 1970s.³ Living out beyond established settlements, Dribben was often seen riding around on horseback wearing a cowboy hat. Known as “the Hebron Cowboy,” Dribben was venerated by many young settlers and stories about his antics still circulate among some settlers to this day.

But the American influence on Israeli radicalism is not limited to the religious sector. Ben Zion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin Netanyahu, moved his family to New York in 1940 to serve as the American secretary for Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement. He was considered part of the more radical fringe of Revisionism in the U.S.⁴ The Netanyahu family spent subsequent years in Philadelphia, Ithaca, and Denver. Benjamin graduated high school in Pennsylvania before returning to Israel for army duty, after which he pursued graduate study at MIT in Cambridge. He returned to Israel only after his brother Yonatan was killed in the Entebbe rescue in June 1976. Netanyahu was close to Republican circles and became conversant in neoconservative politics during his years in the U.S. Many of these political positions, especially in regard to free-market capitalism, globalization, and the erosion of Israel’s social safety net, have been implemented during his premiership. He absorbed his right-wing Revisionist ideology from his father.

Right-wing radicalism in Israel is certainly not all American. The Revisionist right in the Mandate period was influenced by European fascism in Italy (Jabotinsky) and Poland (Begin et al.).⁵ The “blood and soil” Revisionist Zionism of the far right in the pre-state period, mostly supported by secular Jews, remains operational in certain segments of today’s Likud and other right-wing parties. But America did play a significant role in the construction of Israel’s right-wing radicalism, especially in its present religious iteration.

How much is the current radical right in Israel still influenced by this American background? On the one hand, and as Kathleen Belew argues in her 2019 book “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” the rise of a religious right in America that incorporated racist politics and calls for “white nationalism” also provided reflexive support for right-wing politics in Israel. The American movement arose in part due to the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, as a backlash against the anti-war American left.⁶ Kahane was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War. In 1967, he published “The Jewish Stake in Vietnam,” written with his friend Joseph Churba.⁷ Kahane supported the war for essentially two reasons. First, he was a virulent anti-communist who adopted the Cold War domino theory espoused by President Eisenhower; second, he believed that if the U.S. lost the war, the Jews would be blamed, which would result in a spike in antisemitism (he was wrong on both counts).

In this sense, the rise of right-wing political radicalism in evangelical circles in America dovetails and even intersects with the rise of right-wing political radicalism in Israel. Yet on the other hand, the radical right in Israel today exhibits a kind of nativism, claims of indigeneity, and autochthony — especially among the Hilltop Youth and their sympathizers — that was not part of American reactionary imports. There is a home-grown militant Israeliness flourishing in the settlements that espouses a land-based neo-biblicism that owes more to romantic nationalism and Zionist mysticism than to American political trends or ideology.

• • •

The radical right in Israel today, even in its religious form, differs from Kahane’s mostly tactical approach. Kahane’s militarism wasn’t the product of any romantic messianic vision. Rather, he prized conquest and power as the appropriate method of exercising the Jews’ right to inhabit the land and dominate its non-Jewish inhabitants. Today, we are witnessing a complex amalgam of Kahanist ideology and tactics with the romantic mystical worldview of Rav Kook and his son Zvi Yehuda, refracted through militarism that is reminiscent of the Stern Gang, albeit now functioning as part of the majority (the Stern Gang was active pre-state as a minority terrorist group against the majority Arabs and British hegemony). Additionally, the pre-state Jewish militarism of Brit Ha-Biryonim, the Irgun, and Lehi were mostly secular, even avidly so, as were most of Jabotinsky’s followers. The radical right today is mostly religious, albeit in a neo-biblical rather than a normative way. Many of the Hilltop Youth do not view most of the settler rabbis as their authority.

Interestingly, Kahane had little to say about Rav Kook and, as far as we know, he only met Zvi Yehuda once — when Kahane visited his son, who was studying in the Mercaz Ha-Rav yeshiva that Zvi Yehuda led, probably soon after his immigration to Israel in 1971. As mentioned above, Kahane’s militant politics were not based on the mystical messianism of Kookean thinking, nor on the primal autochthony and indigeneity claims of radical settlers today. And yet, viewing this home-grown Israeli addition through the lens of what we can call tribal Kookeanism, the radical right still to some degree mirrors the American reactionary radicalism we saw in Charlottesville and on January 6 in its racism, in its promotion of ethnonationalism, in its embrace of violence, and in its anti-establishment reaction against the government. It is certainly the case that the reactionary turn in politics is not limited to the U.S, and Israel, with similar trends apparent in Hungary, Italy, Poland, India, and Turkey, among other countries. Thus, even while we cannot locate an origin point for such a global shift, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel — both in terms of political and cultural inf luence and shared populations (U.S. immigrants to Israel and Israeli emigration to America) — stands out for its reciprocity.

Yet despite such reciprocity, there are fundamental differences between American-born Kahanism and the present far-right religious radicalism in Israel. Kahane was a revolutionary. He wanted to overthrow the government and replace it with a new regime. He spoke of West Bank settlers seceding from Israel and establishing a Kingdom of Judea, replicating, at least structurally, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have heard settlers in the West Bank refer to Israel proper as “Medinat Tel Aviv (the state of Tel Aviv).” When thinking about Kahane, figures such as Fred Hampton (leader of the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers who was assassinated by the FBI) and Malcolm X come to mind more than many far-right politicians in Israel. Even people such as Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, inf luential Israeli Parliamentarians who may seek to achieve goals similar to Kahane’s, are committed to working within the state system, at least at this point. The difference between Kahane as a revolutionary and Ben Gvir as an institutionalist is worth noting.

Today, far-right religious radicalism in Israel can be divided into at least three factions, all of which differ somewhat from Kahane’s vision yet remain connected to it.

The first is institutional, represented by Ben Gvir, Smotrich, Yariv Levin, and other Parliamentarians who are engaged in governmental change from within the system. So far, they have been moderately successful. They are extremists but also integrationists; they prefer to transform Israeli society from within rather than overthrow it, as we can see with their judicial reforms. This is why people like the unrepentant Kahanist Baruch Marzel claim Ben Gvir is not a real Kahanist. From a revolution versus transformation perspective, Marzel is right

The second faction constitutes insurgents, represented by the Hilltop Youth and their aff iliates, who are essentially anarchists. By that I mean that they are not advocates of the state, nor do they view the state as having authority over them. As one Hilltop Youth told me in 2010 (referencing the Gaza evacuation in 2005, which some in this group describe as a “Nakba”), “I don’t support the state. The state abandoned us” Yet they are living in a fantasy of indigeneity that is tacitly supported by the government, and not just the current one. For the most part they inhabit a kind of no-man’s-land deep in Judea and mostly Samaria, and they often terrorize the Palestinian population, sometimes under the cover of IDF protection. The pogrom in Hawara in June 2023 was just one of many such terrorist actions. But these Hilltop Youth (many of whom are now middle aged) are not political enough to be Kahanists; they don’t have a vision, even a theo-political one, for the state. Their religiosity is more diffuse, more neo-biblical than normative rabbinic, and they maintain a complex relationship with mainstream rabbis from the settlements. There are people such as Rabbis Dov Lior and Yitzchak Ginsburgh (who lives in Kfar Chabad) whom they admire and largely follow. But it is not clear to me that they view themselves within a normative framework of rabbinic authority. They largely live, to borrow a biblical phrase, “outside the camp.”

There is, however, an interesting development among these Hilltop Youth. Since the November 2022 elections, this group has now found some political traction through the present government, especially Ben Gvir and Smotrich. Given the government’s political agenda of annexation and maximizing Jewish presence in the West Bank, these outliers, or outlaws, are now becoming signif icant political players. These wayward radicalized youth — whose ideology combines the militancy of secular Revisionists from the Mandate period with Kahane’s American militarism, a kind of neo-biblical tribalism, and claims of indigeneity that have been adopted from the Palestinians — are now pawns for governmental policy. Again, the pogrom in Hawara is one example. These youths were able to rampage through Hawara for hours before the IDF stepped in, and few were imprisoned for their actions. None, to my knowledge, were convicted and now sit in prison. Hawara was not unique; ongoing acts of settler violence and ethnic cleansing, with few consequences for perpetrators, are reshaping the demography of the West Bank as we speak.⁸ Smotrich has even tacitly defended them. More recently, Ben Gvir’s comment that he and his family have more of a right to walk in Judea and Samaria than any Palestinian is what these youths have been enacting for decades, often under the protection of the IDF. Far from being a fringe opinion, Ben Gvir’s sentiment is arguably shared by a broader segment of Israeli society than those who identify as part of the radical right.

The third segment of the contemporary radical right are young Haredim and Neo-Haredim, as seen in the rising numbers of nationalist Haredim youth who no longer vote exclusively for Haredi parties, but have rather moved toward Ben Gvir and Smotrich. This transition is in some way natural; many of these Haredi youth are second and even third generation Israelis. They may replicate Eastern European Jews in dress and practices, but their real connection to the “old country” is less direct than their parents’ generation. They increasingly have more to say to other native-born Israelis than their aging grandparents. Here it is worth pointing out a crucial miscalculation on the part of Israel’s f irst Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion agreed to what became known as the “status quo” agreement, granting the rabbinate certain judicial power, on the assumption that either (1) many of the country’s Haredim would eventually leave; or (2) the next generations of Haredim would secularize. That is, if they stayed, they would eventually conform to the society in which they lived. He was wrong on both counts. Haredim did not leave, and they did not secularize, but they are slowly becoming nationalists and, in some cases, radicalized.

• • •

Moving back to the question of Kahane and the role of the U.S. in Israel’s far-right radicalism today, the unfolding story has various moving parts. Kahane brought American political radicalism to Israel in a right-wing form. And Netanyahu brought American neoconservatism to Israel, combining hawkish support for American imperial power with free-market capitalism, the erosion of Israel’s socialist safety net, and multinational globalization. In this reading, Kahane and Netanyahu represent two parts of the Americanization of Israeli political and economic culture.

This culture, however, also includes elements that are not American. The rise of tribalism, claims of indigeneity, and the argument that the Jews are decolonizers and not colonizers are really adopted from the Palestinians themselves. The colonizers have adopted the claims of the colonized.⁹ In the case of some Israeli settlers, or colonizers, we see that they have adopted the colonized (Palestinian) narrative in support of their colonial enterprise. They claim that they, and not the Palestinians, are the true indigenous population and that they are not colonizing the land but, in fact, decolonizing it from the Arab conquests in the sixth century. The legitimacy of these claims is not at issue here. I simply mention them to note aspects of the radical right’s narrative that are not American imports.

Haredi society is experiencing a real shift as the third generation reaches adulthood. To Ben Gurion’s chagrin, the Haredim will become more Israeli but remain Haredi. The phenomenon of religious Zionist Haredim, or Hardal (haredi dati leumi), is one manifestation of this transition, but not the only one. To a large degree, newly politicized Haredim will join the Israeli right, as that perspective more closely coheres with their own view of the world.

The radical right in Israel may hate the United States of America, but they have replicated it in various ways and successfully transferred some of its values culturally and politically. The religious, political, and cultural shifts and overlap would be fascinating to explore more deeply, if they weren’t so tragic.

• • •

In some ways, the Hamas massacre on October 7, 2023, changed everything. And in some ways, it may change nothing. The horrific mass murder of innocent Israelis, and the deep humiliation felt by Israel as a foreign terrorist group breached its borders with the IDF not there to protect its citizens, cut a deep wound in Israel’s sense of itself and belief in its security. Israel’s response was swift and devastating. Whether it will succeed to eradicate Hamas remains to be seen. For our purposes, the focus on Gaza has enabled some radical settlers to move quickly to engage in ethnic cleansing and, in some cases, kill West Bank Palestinians, and the government has thus far done little to stop it. As of this writing no one knows how, or if, this tragedy will change the trajectory of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. While one can hope that it will, at this moment the reality does not look promising.

¹ Shlomo Russ, “Zionist Hooligans: The Jewish Defense League,” PhD City University of New York, 1981.

² Data suggest that about 15% of the population of Jews in the West Bank are immigrants from America, which Sarah Hirschorn in her book City on a Hilltop, argues is disproportionate to other groups. Of course, not all of these immigrants are radical — most are not — but it does speak to the overall influence of American values in the West Bank. See Hirschhorn, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); and Judah Ari Gross, “In 2021, American immigrants again moved to settlements far more than other arrivals,” in Times of Israel, August 13, 2022 at

³ On Dribben, see Eddie Dribben—“The Cowboy of Hebron: A Tribute | the Jewish Community of Hebron”, His was one of the first weddings at Kibbutz Sde Boker, officiated by a rabbi and David and Paula Ben Gurion.

⁴ See Eran Kaplan, The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and its Ideological Legacy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005); and Rafael Medof, Mili-tant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement, 1926-1948 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002)

⁵ Explored in detail by David Heller in his book Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism (2017)

⁶ See, for example, David Mislin, “How Vietnam War Protests Accelerated the Rise of the Christian Right,” in The Smithsonian Magazine, May 3, 2018. Karen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

⁷ Meir Kahane (Michael King) and Joseph Churba, The Jewish Stake in Vietnam (New York: Crossroads, 1967).

⁸ Oren Zvi, “‘It’s like 1948’: Israel cleanses vast West Bank region of nearly all Palestinians.” +972 Magazine, Aug. 31, 2023. Available at: See also, Jeremy Sharon,

⁹ Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

SHAUL MAGID is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Senior Fellow at the Center for World Religions at Harvard, Kogod Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and in 2023-2024 the Visiting Professor of Modern Judaism at Harvard University. His latest books are “Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical” (Princeton, 2021) and “The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance” (Ayin, 2023). He is presently working on a book on the political theology of R. Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar.