TWENTY YEARS ago, virtually no politician of any significance in Israel or America talked about the plight of Soviet Jews -- that is, until Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League (JDL) commenced a violent, headline-grabbing, anti-Soviet campaign in the early 1970s to protest the Soviet's ban on Jewish emigration. By 1970, the JDL's bombing and shooting attacks against Soviet facilities in the United States and Europe were so numerous that the U.S. government was compelled to make the free immigration of Soviet Jews a top priority. It was Kahane's crowning achievement. He gained the support of prominent U.S. labor leaders, politicians and Jewish philanthropists.

Little did they know that the JDL's guerrilla war against the Soviet Union was orchestrated by right-wing Mossad officers led by a future Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. In addition, the group's other key member was Geula Cohen, according to Cohenhead of the ultra-nationalist Tehiya Party. Despite Shamir and Cohen's vehement denunciations of Kahane in recent years, the two helped make the militant rabbi an international figure and a force to be reckoned with in Israel, where he is on trial for sedition for a speech he made in Jerusalem last year that allegedly provoked pogrom-like attacks on Arabs.

The secret relationship between Cohen, Shamir and Kahane was forged one blustery cold morning in December 1969. Cohen, who had just been elected to the Knesset as a member of Menachem Begin's Herut Party, visited Kahane in his cramped JDL office on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Kahane had co-founded the JDL the previous year, ostensibly to defend Jews from antisemitism. In reality, the JDL emerged out of racial tensions generated by the 1968 New York City teachers' strike, which pitted the predominantly Jewish teachers' union against militant blacks seeking greater control of neighborhood schools.

Kahane, then an editor of the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press, filled the weekly tabloid with lurid stories of antisemitic violence by blacks and Puerto Ricans against Jews too old and too poor to leave America's decaying inner cities. The stories further exacerbated racial tensions, while creating a pretext for Kahane to dispatch squads of armed vigilantes to "patrol" mixed Jewish-black neighborhoods.

Geula Cohen, however, thought that Kahane was frittering away his talents. "Why are you wasting time fighting the {blacks}," asked Cohen, who in the 1940s had dropped out of Menachem Begin's Irgun underground to fight with the more extreme Stern Gang because she found Begin "too mild." "The vital issue for Jews is the plight of Soviet Jewry," Cohen said she told Kahane, "The Russians are planning to liquidate our people." She complained that the Golda Meir government favored using back-channel diplomacy, exactly the kind of passive policy that, in her view, had led to the Holocaust. "I really influenced him," Cohen told me. "He changed his program overnight."

During the next few months, Cohen helped lay the groundwork for a guerrilla war against the Soviet Union that would be waged by the JDL -- and orchestrated by Shamir, the morose former Stern Gang commander who had been Mossad's chief of operations until 1965 but maintained close ties to the agency. Besides Shamir and Cohen, the group included Bernard Deutsch, a wealthy stockbroker and the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League's powerful Brooklyn chapter, and three top Mossad officers. "The JDL's decisions weren't made by Meir," says Deutsch. "If I were to tell you that Shamir was the head of our group and planned our activities, he would absolutely deny it. But I sat on his bed in his bedroom, which is where we had many of our meetings. I'm not looking to hurt Shamir, but that's a fact." Shamir's spokesman in Jerusalem said that the prime minister would not confirm or deny allegations about his involvement with the JDL. He did say, however, that Shamir was very sympathetic to the JDL's early work on behalf of Soviet Jews. Although the exact workings of the operation are still partly shrouded in mystery, many of Deutsch's and Cohen's statements have been independently confirmed by sources in the United States and Israel, as well as by personal letters that I obtained. "Our group planned how to fight the Soviet Union," says Cohen. "We wanted to pressure the Russian Embassy in the U.S., to warn them, to frighten them." She adds that they did not intend to use lethal violence.

Nevertheless, Kahane's handlers calculated that the selective use of violence against Soviet targets in the United States and Europe would inevitably strain U.S.-Soviet relations, according to former JDL officials. They predicted that rather than risk detente, the Soviet Union would be forced to alleviate the crisis by freeing hundreds of thousands of Jews who would then be herded to the Jewish state. An influx of Soviet Jews could help redress the demographic imbalance caused when Israel swallowed the occupied territories and their large Arab population.

It is not surprising that Shamir turned to Kahane, given his penchant for working on secret U.S. government projects, as well as his Orthodox Jewish, right-wing Zionist upbringing. Kahane's father was a respected Orthodox rabbi in the Flatbush section of New York, where he was a leader of the American branch of the right-wing Zionist Revisionist Movement. Like many Jewish boys who grew up in New York during World War II, young Kahane was obsessed with the Holocaust. Marcia Greenwald, who sat behind him for three years at Flatbush Yeshiva Elementary School, remembers that he invented a comic strip called "The Adventures of Bagelman," which was about a bagel in a Superman cape who saved Jews from Nazi Germany. "Look, up in the sky, it's a matzoh, it's a roll -- no, it's Bagelman," he wrote, parodying the famous introduction to Superman. Later, as a teenager in Betar, the youth-wing of the Revisionist movement, Meir crated weapons at the Hoboken docks in New Jersey that were smuggled to the Irgun.

In the spring of 1965, Kahane set up the July Fourth Movement with his childhood friend Joseph Churba, who went on to become a Middle East specialist for Air Force intelligence, a foreign affairs adviser to Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign and a senior policy adviser to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

According to Kahane, the group created cells on several U.S. college campuses to support the Vietnam War and to block the spread of the radical student left. They received seed money and support from certain groups within the labor movement, including the AFL-CIO's legendary cold warriors, Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown, whose son Robert, became one of the group's student directors. Robert Brown says he only knew Kahane by the pseudonym he used then, Michael King, and had no idea that Kahane was an Orthodox rabbi with a wife and two children in Queens. As Michael King, Kahane had infiltrated the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society for the FBI in order to expose the source of their funding. In 1968 Churba and Kahane co-authored a pro-Vietnam polemic called "The Jewish Stake in Vietnam," which Kahane claimed was published by the CIA.

By the time Kahane met Geula Cohen he was already a maestro of deception and media manipulation. Soon after Kahane agreed to work with Cohen and Shamir, the JDL launched bombing and shooting attacks against Soviet targets, creating deep tensions between the Soviet Union and America. The attacks increased after the KGB arrested scores of Jewish activists across the Soviet Union in June 1970. Among them were nine Jews charged with plotting to hijack a Soviet airliner at Leningrad. U.S. Jewish leaders accused the KGB of a frame-up. But according to Deutsch and other sources directly involved in the operation, the hijack was planned by Kahane's control group in Israel, which had been secretly in contact with the plotters.

When a Soviet court sentenced two Jewish hijackers to death, the JDL stepped up its attacks, including the Jan. 8, 1971 bombing of the Soviet cultural building on 18th Street in Washington, and the April 22, 1971 bombing of Amtorg, the Soviet trade center in Manhattan. In public, no one complained more bitterly about the JDL's violent activities than the Jewish establishment, which accused Kahane of fostering antisemitism. The State Department promoted this feeling. According to a January 1971 confidential State Department memo, Richard T. Davies, a deputy assistant secretary, told Jewish leaders that the JDL was causing Soviet leaders to harden their political attitudes and gave them "an excuse to unleash and exploit the antisemitic attitudes {in the U.S.S.R.} which were already in existence."

But for some American Jewish officials, Kahane commanded respect, even secret admiration -- prompting them to consider whether quiet lobbying for Soviet Jews was antiquated and ineffectual. Indeed the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) -- an umbrella agency acting on behalf of Soviet Jews -- was created by mainstream Jewry in part to take the issue away from the JDL, according to one of the NCSJ's former directors.

At the same time, there is no question that some establishment Jewish leaders exploited the JDL's militancy. Dov Hikind, an ex-JDL official and now a New York State assemblyman, remembers two prominent American Jewish leaders urged him to stage a violent demonstration to protest a U.N. speech by the mayor of Moscow "They were nice respectable guys in suits and ties,"says Hikind. "They didn't have the guts to do what they were telling me to do."

In 1969, the year Kahane began his Soviet Jewish campaign, fewer than 3,000 Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Between 1972 and 1973, more than 66,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate. The Soviets certainly did not let their Jews go in order to accommodate Kahane, but to promote detente, which was jeopardized by mainstream U.S. Jewish groups and their congressional allies.

Perhaps the most telling example of Kahane's impact -- and legacy -- occurred in 1972 when presidential aspirant Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D.-Wash.), against the wishes of his advisers, asked Kahane to join him on a New York City stage. Jackson later co-sponsored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which witheld "most favored nation" status from socialist countries that restricted Jewish emigration. Many Jewish leaders privately say that the JDL was the real impetus behind the bill.

Today, nearly two decades after the JDL began its crusade to free them, Soviet Jews are beginning to arrive in Israel in unprecedented numbers. Shamir's remarks to a Likud party audience last January that a "big Israel " was needed to settle as many as 750,000 Soviet Jews who are expected to arrive in the next few years created a torrent of anger in the Arab world. Palestinians understandably fear that Soviet Jews ultimately will displace them from their homes, as a prelude to a 1940s-style mass expulsion. It is a notion that Kahane and a growing number of more mainstream Israels advocate with increasing urgency.

This article is adapted from Robert Friedman's book, "The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane -- From FBI Informant to Knesset Member," published this month by Lawrence Hill Books.