By Joshua Hammer
Updated July 30, 1984 12:00 PM

The station wagon snaked carefully through the crowded streets of Jerusalem at dusk, its cream-colored body plastered with huge campaign posters of a bearded and stern-faced man. When the car stopped near the city’s center, the man himself, Rabbi Meir Kahane, emerged from behind the wheel. Accompanied by a towering bodyguard, the 51-year-old Brooklyn-born rabbi made his way to a shopping mall where he was to deliver another of the menacing speeches that have made him the most electrifying candidate in Israel’s July 23 election, as well as the most passionately revered and despised. “One day after I get elected to the Knesset [the Israeli parliament],” he thundered, “I will go to the Arab village of Um-el-Fakhm with a sheet of paper and pen in my hand. I will say to the Arabs, ‘Whoever signs his name on this paper that he is ready to leave Israel voluntarily will be given financial compensation. Those who do not sign will be forced to leave anyway, but will not be given a thing!’ ”

For those who believe Israel’s security can only be assured at some expense to civil liberties, tough talk like this is a tonic. Kahane’s harangue was punctuated by shouts and applause from a dozen followers wearing yellow T-shirts adorned with a fist on a black Star of David. When the rabbi concluded, about 100 supporters lifted him high and carried him jubilantly through the streets. “Ka-ha-ne,” they chanted, punching their fists into the air. “Kahane to the Knesset! Out with the Arabs!”

In an already crucial election year, the radical Kahane has been stirring emotions all over Israel with his inflammatory campaign for one of the 120 Knesset seats. Success would greatly enlarge his power base—and win him the immunity from Israeli laws that Knesset membership brings with it. An American who emigrated to Israel 12 years ago, Kahane is best-known in the U.S. as the founder in 1968 of the Jewish Defense League, a private army of youths he called “Jewish Panthers.” Adopting the slogan “Never again” as a reminder of the Holocaust, the JDL made headlines by marching with baseball bats through black neighborhoods of New York City where attacks on Jews had occurred and by planting bombs in Soviet offices to protest treatment of Russian Jews. In Israel, Kahane has become equally infamous as the twice-imprisoned leader of Kach (Hebrew for “Thus”), a militant Zionist organization that applauded the terrorist bombings which maimed two West Bank Arab mayors in 1980. Behind Kahane’s zealotry is his conviction that Israel as an exclusively Jewish state is justified by the Old Testament. “I’m trying to explain to the people of Israel that if we don’t want Jewish blood to flow, we must throw the Arabs out,” he says. “I am not ashamed of it. It was written in the Talmud: ‘If one comes to slay you, slay him first.’ ”

Kahane is viewed with dismay by mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. and discredited by the government of Israel and the state’s leaders. “He’s an outcast,” says Jerusalem’s mayor, Teddy Kolleck. “It’s a disgrace the man dares call himself a rabbi.” Though Kahane is not aligned with the ruling Likud Party, it was the opposition Labor Party that sought this month to have his name struck from the ballot because of his “undemocratic and racist platform.” But the Israeli Supreme Court ruling was favorable to Kahane, and after two unsuccessful campaigns in 1977 and 1981, he is expected to gain the 21,000 or so votes he needs for a victory. A drift to the right among Israeli youth and increasing support for permanent settlement of the West Bank have broadened Kahane’s ballot-box appeal. “This time it’s different,” he says. “The people of Israel see where the wind is blowing. They will vote for me.”

The extremist rabbi is backed by a tiny staff of volunteers—Soviet emigrés, American expatriates and Israeli soldiers. Their idol claims to have been arrested on a variety of charges “more than 130 times.” In New York in 1971 he was sentenced to five years probation for conspiracy to manufacture explosives, and he has served a total of 13 months in Israeli prisons for inciting violence on the West Bank. Last March four of his Kach youths—all U.S. citizens—were arrested for machine-gunning a bus on the West Bank, wounding six Arabs. Of the car bombing that gravely wounded the two West Bank mayors, Kahane says with a grin, “I was in prison when I heard. I blessed God and thanked Him. I was delighted when it happened. But do you think I would tell you if I had anything to do with it?” He professed astonishment when the Israeli government arrested 25 citizens last spring for terrorist acts against Arabs. “Those arrested—the Jewish underground—are wonderful boys,” he says. “They fulfilled a holy task.”

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Kahane was only 15 when militant Zionism first led him into trouble with the law. New York police held him six hours for hurling tomatoes at the British ambassador during a 1947 demonstration at the U.N. Kahane lives today in a Jerusalem apartment with his wife, Libby, a librarian at Hebrew University, and one of their four children. He returns to the U.S. regularly on fund-raising expeditions (he maintains offices in Baltimore, Washington, L.A. and the Bronx) and claims he is generously supported by wealthy American Jews whom he declines to name. Yet those who admire him are far outnumbered by those who deplore his activities. “He represents the most vengeful, extreme and confrontational views,” says Warren Eisenberg, director of B’nai Brith’s International Council. “We reject his kind of approach.”

Aware of the repugnance with which he is viewed by many Jews and non-Jews alike, Kahane relishes the coming test as a means of gaining the legitimacy that has so long eluded him. “Even if one is called a fascist and a terrorist,” he says, “when he arrives at the Knesset, he turns from that moment into a fascist and a terrorist with status.”