Before 9/11: Al-Qaeda’s First Terror Attack in the US was the Assassination of This Controversial Israeli Rabbi

September 11, 2023

6 min read

As America commemorates the 22nd anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, most people don’t realize that Al-Qaeda’s history of terrorism on US soil dates back to 1990. That was the year that Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d was shot dead in New York City by El Sayyid Nosair, an Al-Qaeda operative from Egypt.

Who was Kahane?

When most people think of rabbis, they often think of a spiritual leader who interprets Torah principles from a pulpit inside their synagogue. But Kahane was a different kind of rabbi. He was the type of Rabbi who would lead his disciples head-on into a confrontation with gangs of violent neo-Nazis in Skokie, IL. But that was just one of many instances of the Rabbi’s fearless approach to fighting for Jewish causes. And it was all to preserve the reputation of the God of Israel, or as we say in Hebrew: shem shamayim (Name of the Lord).

His first arrest

The first time Rabbi Kahane was arrested was in 1947, when he was 15-years old. Inspired by Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, Kahane welcomed British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin into America by throwing eggs and tomatoes at him as he disembarked on a New York pier. Bevin was responsible for restricting immigration for Jews into Mandated Palestine, including Holocaust survivors seeking refuge in the Promised Land.

Early Activism

Something else many people don’t realize is that the minority who suffered the most during America’s Cold War with Russia was undoubtedly the Russian Jews. And just as Moses couldn’t stand idly by when he saw an Egyptian beating his fellow Jew, neither could Kahane.

 He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exodus 2:12)

Being in the US, the best Kahane could do for Soviet Jews was to do what other more passive American Jewish groups and their leaders failed to accomplish – use whatever means necessary to prevent the warming of relations between Russia and America until every Jew in the USSR was free from persecution.


That’s one of the main reasons why he started the Jewish Defense League (JDL). The JDL was an organization of Jews who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty in order to bring awareness to Jewish suffering worldwide – be it discrimination against Jewish school teachers in New York City or Jews arrested in the Soviet Union for observing the commandment of Brit Milah (circumcision).

And when his son Yitzchak was eight days old, Avraham circumcised him, as Hashem had commanded him. (Genesis 21:4)

So while the ADL was utilizing their well-funded PR experts to release statements to the press that readers would gloss over, Rabbi Kahane and his followers in the JDL made headlines worldwide after barricading themselves on a balcony facing the Soviet mission in New York while shouting through bullhorns at the Soviet diplomats. The JDL then announced that they would remain there until the end of a Russian show trial against innocent Jews.

“A Rabbi that would make the Biblical commandment not to stand idly by their brother’s blood into action and not just lip service. He put his money where his mouth was and risked getting arrested to save a fellow Jew” explains long-time JDL and Kahane activist and founder of the Israeli Dog Unit Yekutiel Guzofsky.

Guzofsky notes that the JDL’s slogan of ‘Never Again’ was inspired by the deafening silence and inaction of US Jews during the Holocaust. “That’s what ‘Never Again’ means”. He warned that ‘Never Again can happen again” Guzofsky added.

Jews vs Nazis

One of the most iconic images of JDL activism was in 1977. That’s when the JDL’s engaged in a violent confrontation in Skokie with a large gang of Neo-Nazis. One activist recalls approaching the National Socialist Party of America founder Frank Collin. Upon revealing to Collin that he was from the JDL, the activist then grabbed Colin and his associate “by the throat and knocked them both down” saying that it was a “hell of a fight, we licked the street up with them.”

Turning to Israel

At a certain point in his career, Rabbi Kahane focused his activism primarily towards Israel. In 1971, Rabbi Kahane made Aliyah and moved to the Holy Land. There, he sought to help Arabs looking to leave Israel with financial and logistical support in accordance with the commandment to drive the inhabitants out of the Land:

Speak to B’nei Yisrael and say to them: When you cross the Yarden into the land of Canaan  you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land (Numbers 33:51)

For Kahane, that commandment was as relevant today as it was when God commanded it. He saw the Arabs living in Israel as the inhabitants. Therefore, they had to leave – by hook or by crook. Kahane also seemed to be one of the only rabbis of his time who understood that there would be a price to pay for allowing hostile inhabitants to stay inside of Israel. As the Bible clearly states – that they would be thorns in Israel’s side:

But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow remaining shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live (Numbers 33:55)

“That’s what the rabbi stood for in a nutshell” Guzofsky stated. “He was not just a wise man, he knew how to apply it. If you truly love Jews enough, you will want to do whatever is necessary to save Jewish lives – whether it be from Stalin, Hitler or any situation including the Arab/Israeli conflict. If you are a Jew who loves Jews to an extreme, you will do whatever is necessary to save them and neutralize the threat. If you understand that, you can understand the Kahane policy on any issue. His will to transfer Arabs didn’t come from a place of hating Arabs but from loving Jews” he added.

Setting sights on the Knesset

Although Kahane had some impressive accomplishments as an activist, he seemed to realize that a more effective way to bring about change in Israel was through the government. So to utilize Israel’s parliament as a means to further his cause of transferring Israel’s Arab population elsewhere, he ran for Knesset (Israel’s parliament). The name of his party was Kach (Thus).

In 1980, Kahane was arrested for the 62nd time since his emigration. He was imprisoned for six months after a detention order that was based on allegations of him planning armed attacks against Arabs in response to the killings of Israelis. Kahane served his time in Ramla, where he wrote the book They Must Go. That book laid out his plan to rid Israel of its hostile Arab population without even firing a single shot.

And so, after two failed election campaigns, in 1984 Kahane’s Kach party garnered 25,907 votes, enough to give the party one seat in the Knesset, which was occupied by Kahane himself. In an unprecedented move, Kahane refused to take the standard oath of office and insisted on adding a Biblical verse from Joshua to indicate that national laws were to be overruled by the Torah if they conflict.

We will obey you just as we obeyed Moshe; let but Hashem your God be with you as He was with Moshe! Any man who flouts your commands and does not obey every order you give him shall be put to death. Only be strong and resolute!” (Joshua 1:17-18)

Kahane often mocked other Knesset members calling them “Hellenists, a reference to Jews who assimilated into Greek culture after Judea’s occupation by Alexander the Great. But outside the Knesset, Kahane’s popularity seemed to be going from strength-to-strength.

Inside his head

Explaining the rabbi’s train of thought Guzofsky surmised that Kahane always made the following calculation: “Was it good for Israel or bad for Isreal, good for Jews or bad for Jews?” The activist added that “His main motivation was stopping the bloodshed of Jews.”

This was highlighted by the fact that polls showed his party enjoying anywhere from 4-12 seats in the 1988 Knesset. He enjoyed widespread popularity among Israel’s working-class Sephardic Jews who fled to the Holy Land from Arab countries that persecuted them “They learned about Arabs from living under their rule, not from Hebrew University” Kahane famously said of his dark-skinned supporters.

Hitting a brick wall

But despite his growing popularity and increasing poll numbers, Kahane was banned from running in the Knesset. That’s because the Knesset passed an amendment to the Basic Law of Israel, which prohibited “racist” candidates from running. Kahane eventually appealed the ban to the Israeli Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the committee, disqualifying Kach from running in Israel’s 1988  elections. Kahane was, therefore, the first candidate in Israel to be barred from election on the grounds of ‘racism’. Even Kahane’s dovish rival Alan Dershowitz called the move undemocratic.

A life cut short

Banning Kahane from running in the Knesset didn’t seem to slow him down. Kahane continued to write books and speak to Jews in Israel and worldwide. His main message to Jews in the diaspora was to come home to Israel. While giving a lecture on that precise topic in New York in 1990, he was assassinated by El Sayyid Nosair, an Al-Qaeda operative from Egypt. And despite eyewitnesses identifying the suspect in his trial, somehow the jury found Nosair ‘not guilty’.

His Legacy lives on

The Kach movement, which evolved into the Kahane Chai (Kahane lives) movement continued on in his path (as did the JDL).  Kahane Chai was by and large taken over by his son, Benyamin Kahane hy”d until he was also killed in a terrorist attack in 2000.

And although Kahane discouraged his followers from breaking the law, the most popular phrase spray-painted throughout Israel is Kahane Tzadak (Kahane was right). And despite the fact that there is no more Kach party, his disciples have formed a new party called Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) who is expected to pass the threshold in Israel’s upcoming elections on Tuesday. Like Kahane, they call for ridding the Land of its inhabitants. They are also the only party in the current elections calling for building the Third Temple.

Reflecting on the situation in Israel, Guzofsky adds: “As things get worse and as Rabbi Kahane’s predictions come true, now it’s a no-brainer to realize that giving away land is blowing up in our face. You don’t have to be a Kahanist to realize that Kahane was right.”

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