Judge to Be Asked to Apologize for Asking Court Spectator to Remove His Yarmulka or Leave Courtroom
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Judge to Be Asked to Apologize for Asking Court Spectator to Remove His Yarmulka or Leave Courtroom

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A spokesman for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) said today COLPA will request a formal apology from a Manhattan federal judge if an investigation confirms a Jewish Defense League charge that the Judge ordered a JDL spectator at an arraignment hearing to remove his yarmulka or leave the courtroom.

The JDL charged “overt anti-Semitism” against Judge Henry Werker, Southern District federal court, on the basis of the incident which the JDL said occurred last Friday at the arraignment of Russel Kelner, 35, former JDL operations officer, on an 11-count federal indictment.

Kelner and three other JDL members were charged on Aug. 19 with participating in a conspiracy which allegedly included shooting into the Soviet Mission to the United Nations and into the Soviet residential complex in the Bronx, as well as with an alleged pipe-bombing attempt at the Iraqi Mission to the UN and an alleged pipe-bombing of a Gulf Oil service station.

The charges were contained in a federal indictment handed up in Manhattan shortly after Jeffrey Weingarten, 21, of Brooklyn, and Kelner, also of Brooklyn, were arrested. The two other JDL defendants, Thomas MacIntosh, 36, of Wood-bury, N.J. and Steven Ehrlich, 21, of San Francisco, were arrested last June 8, on Staten Island, en route from New Jersey. MacIntosh has been described by the JDL as a convert.

Kelner received a one-year suspended sentence last year for making a televised threat to assassinate Yasir Arafat in 1974 when the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization visited New York for an unprecedented address to the UN General Assembly.


Bonnie Pechter, JDL coordinator, said that cash bail of $25,000 each was posted for Kelner and for Weingarten. She said that as she was about to testify on the bail, Judge Werker demanded that a male spectator remove his hat. Miss Pechter identified the yarmulke wearer as Sheldon Fine, a JDL member, who had come to observe the proceedings. Judge Werker said his court was not a temple and ordered Fine to remove his “hat.”

Ralph Naden, the attorney for Kelner, objected declaring the “hat” was a religious article worn by observant Jews. Miss Pechter said that Judge Werker replied he did not care what the head covering was, that “no one wears a hat in my courtroom,” and that Fine must remove it or leave. Fine left.

Miss Pechter said Kelner wore a yarmulke Thursday and that Judge Werker did not object. She said Kelner had mislaid his yarmulke and was not wearing it during his appearance Friday when bail was set. She said the fact that the press was present on Thursday but not on Friday might have some bearing on Judge Werker’s reactions on the head-covering matter.

She told the JTA she had discussed the matter with an attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union who told her there was no legal warrant for Judge Werker’s reported order to Fine.


The JDL demanded, in a news statement, that Judge Werker be removed immediately, and that until he is, he be barred from sitting on any cases involving Jews, “inasmuch as he is definitely prejudiced regarding Jewish matters.”

A legal source consulted by the JTA said that it was virtually certain that Judge Werker would not be removed or suspended for the purported order against Fine but that he was subject to reprimand. The JTA was told that Orthodox Jewish attorneys and Orthodox defendants do not remove their skullcaps during appearances in all types of courts and that such challenges as that of Judge Werker never occur.

The 11-count indictment charged that the defendants violated federal laws involving conspiracy, transportation of weapons and the protection of foreign officials in the United States. Conviction could mean prison sentences of up to ten years on each count.

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