Meir Kahane was disparaged in death almost as much as he was in life. But if the latter-day treatment of Malcolm X -- another slain militant nationalist -- is any measure, history could eventually come to regard Kahane quite differently. Certainly that's how it turned out with Malcolm, who was scorned by many in the white and black communities even to the day he was shot down in 1965 in New York City.

Nowadays, great homage is paid to his life in black communities all over the country. An opera about Malcolm X has been composed and performed by the New York City Opera. A movie is in the works. Annually in the District, African Americans turn out by the thousands sporting buttons and T-shirts commemorating him on a day specially designated in his honor. A major park in the District now bears his name. But Malcolm X, like Meir Kahane, wasn't always held in such reverence.

In UPI's report on his shooting, Malcolm X was put down as a "bearded Negro advocate of violence against the whites." Carl T. Rowan, then director of the U.S. Information Agency, complained to a meeting of the Foreign Service Association about Malcolm's sympathetic treatment in the African press, calling him "an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler, who became a racial fanatic." Nation of Islam leader Eliajh Muhammad -- with whom Malcolm broke in 1964 -- castigated Malcolm X in death as an enemy who "got what he preached."

And he wasn't criticized by just a few black notables. Lou Harris produced results of a special Harris Survey completed shortly before the murder showing that by more than 10-to-1 margin, a cross-section of blacks "felt that Malcolm X and his chief rival, Elijah Muhammad, had been negative forces in the battle for equal rights." The poll also showed that only 4 percent of the black community rated Malcolm positively. And the effort to steer clear of him didn't disappear with his funeral. Four years after his death, the D.C. Board of Education voted against having a formal Malcolm X commemoration within the schools because he was a black "separatist."

But times change and so do peoples' druthers. The same school board that gave him the cold shoulder in 1969 voted four years later -- with a slightly different membership -- to approve an official commemoration of Malcolm X's birthday. By then, in 1972, he was being widely acclaimed in the black community -- especially among activists and the urban poor, but also by politicians -- as an apostle of black pride, a restorer of black manhood and a martyred knight of black self-determination.

True, Malcolm X had converted from his separatist views following his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. But the growth in Malcolm X devotees had less to do with his embrace of orthodox Islamic teachings and his disavowal of racism -- which came late in his life -- and more to do with his preaching of black consciousness, self-defense and community empowerment -- themes that were always present in his life as a Muslim and that survived his death. The Malcolm revered today is the same Malcolm X who stunned a grieving nation when he described President Kennedy's violent death as a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." That is now forgotten or forgiven or simply ignored.

The same fate may await Meir Kahane. While a different man from Malcolm X by cause, beliefs and methods, Kahane still was a militant nationalist who, through words and deeds, persistently crossed the line of sanctioned conduct.

In life Kahane never relented; he wrecked and ruined everywhere. His malicious hate campaign against Arabs in Israel earned him the censure of the authorities there and shamed others here who had earlier supported him when he formed the Jewish Defense League in New York in 1968. His belligerence was especially harsh toward anyone he suspected of harboring ill will against Jews, and he voiced suspicions that blacks, in particular, held a hatred against Jews. While Kahane's avowed targets were the enemies of Judaism, at times his confrontational tactics almost seemed designed to antagonize and embarrass Jews, especially those who enjoyed higher status or were more entrenched in the mainstream. On them, he trained some of his heaviest artillery: "To turn the other cheek is not a Jewish concept. Do not listen to the soothing anesthesia of the establishment. They walk in the paths of those whose timidity helped to bury our brothers and sisters less than 30 years ago." Kahane in battle took no prisoners.

But along the way Meir Kahane helped force a neglectful nation and world to attend to the plight of Soviet Jews. And through his hair-trigger combativeness, he sought to disabuse antisemites of their false notion that Jews are pushovers. It could be that his slogan, "Never again!" may have created a higher degree of cultural consciousness and identity among a substantial number of other Jews. Whether Kahane has left a record to be pilloried and quietly consigned to the dump heap of history remains to be seen. As farfetched as it may seem today, some thought Malcolm X faced a similar fate at the time of his assassination. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.