THE FIRST step in sorting out the death of Meir Kahane, the American-born Israeli politician who was gunned down in New York Monday night, is easy. He was assassinated on American soil. This is shocking and terrible. The suspect arrested in the case, an Egyptian-born American maintenance worker, and anyone else who might have had a part in the crime should be brought to justice. That much is clear.

It is also clear that his life, like his death, was marked by violence. Rabbi Kahane came to public notice in New York in the 1960s when he founded the Jewish Defense League, a group which was ostensibly organized to protect elderly Jews against street muggings but which became an instrument of vigilantism directed against blacks and, for their symbolic connection to the persecution of Soviet Jews, Soviet diplomats. Emigrating to Israel, the rabbi started up an Israeli political party (Kach) devoted to expelling all Arabs from the West Bank and from Israel proper, and served a term in parliament.

Rabbi Kahane was a practiced, media-wise demagogue who, playing on his listeners' darkest fears, claimed he spoke not simply the public thoughts of his few acknowledged followers but the unuttered private thoughts of a much broader constituency among American Jews as well as in Israel. But in the United States his extremism of method and word kept him isolated at the far fringe. In Israeli politics, he won election only once in three tries and then was drummed out of the political arena; at his death he faced a sedition trial for his overt anti-Arab racism. There is a hard right in Israel, but it does not go about boasting the open contempt of the line -- the line of civility and the rule of law -- that Meir Kahane deliberately crossed.

Yesterday two Palestinians in the already enflamed West Bank were found dead in circumstances hinting at revenge for Rabbi Kahane's death. Any such development would be a further tragedy. Meir Kahane took a concern for Jewish victims of hate and twisted it into a rationale for hating Arabs. His legacy has no proper place anywhere.