Before Israel’s victory in 1967’s Six-Day War, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein said, “Jews walked around like ‘Question Marks.’ After, they walked around like ‘Exclamation Marks.’”
Confidence was surging. In New York, grassroots operations, such as Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) and the Jewish Defense League (JDL) dared to believe that Jews were tough enough to do anything, even topple the Soviet Union. In the spirit of the ’60s, scruffy Jews were convinced that Jewish history would be played out in the streets, not the Manhattan suites of Jewish organizations led by “Nice Irvings,” as they were mocked by JDL leader Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Jews had been getting beat up with impunity in the deteriorating inner city, and the JDL put on brass knuckles to defend those Jews. As Kahane, in a college auditorium, said one evening in 1970, “Tonight we have a different Jew, a fighting Jew! Some say, ‘Violence is un-Jewish! The Bible says so!’ In the Bible,” Kahane continued, “we find the story of a man named Moses who saw an Egyptian beating a Jew. And what did Moses do? Set up a committee to investigate the root causes of Egyptian anti-Semitism?” No, said Kahane. Moses killed the Egyptian.
The JDL in New York didn’t survive Kahane moving to Israel in 1971, nor Kahane’s personal and political instability. (That year, he was convicted here on a charge of conspiracy to manufacture explosives; he received a suspended sentence. In the early and mid-’70s members of the JDL and various offshoots were suspected in a number of bomb plots targeting Russians, Arabs and former Nazis. Few of the charges stuck, although various members did go to jail for plots involving the Soviet Mission to the U.N., Palestinians in Los Angeles, and the brother of an accused Nazi war criminal, among others.) In 1990, Kahane, by this time banned from the Knesset for racism, was assassinated in a Manhattan hotel by an Egyptian later convicted for his part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
There have been various rogue revivals of the JDL over the years, most notably a branch in Toronto that has a website and claims several thousand on its e-mail list. But the JDL was mostly relegated to the junk heap of history, leaving little but the tales told by Kahane’s once-young rebels, now growing old. In New York, though, with anti-Semitism ratcheting up in numbers and severity, more and more Jews, perceiving themselves to be helpless, are remembering the JDL with longing: It wasn’t so crazy, was it? Yes, there was the recent march over the Brooklyn Bridge against anti-Semitism, but now what?
We called former Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and founder of Americans Against Anti-Semitism. He understands the frustration feeding talk of a new JDL. “People want to do something,” Hikind told us. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘We need some kind of self-defense organization; we need to have people — or we need to be those people — who know how to fight. I hear this a lot. It reached a point like never before.”
Hikind himself was in the JDL from age 19 to 22 (1969-72). “I was involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, more than anything else, but crime was rampant in the Jewish community. I had no involvement by the time Meir Kahane moved to Israel.”
But Kahane was increasingly respectable until then, both with yeshiva kids and with hipsters. Woody Guthrie, then living in Brooklyn, hired Kahane to give Arlo Guthrie bar mitzvah lessons in 1960. “Rabbi Kahane was a really nice, patient teacher,” Arlo said years later, “but shortly after he started giving me my lessons, he started going haywire. Maybe I was responsible.” Leading up to Bob Dylan’s pro-Israel “Neighborhood Bully” phase, in 1971, Rolling Stone, Time and then The New York Times wrote about Dylan’s “unexpected relationship with Rabbi Meir Kahane. … He has reportedly attended several meetings of the JDL.”
Jeff Wiesenfeld is a financial adviser who was an executive assistant to Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Al D’Amato, but in the 1970s he was living in a rough part of the South Bronx that most Jews couldn’t leave fast enough. He remembers, “My father passed away when I was young. We couldn’t afford to move. Elderly Jews in the East Bronx were targets, getting beat up, same as today. You know what chaya means? An animal. I was part of the Chayas Squad, an adjunct of the JDL. If we saw [young men] messing with an elderly Jew, we’d — pardon the language — beat the sh– out of them. That happened when there was no law and order in these neighborhoods. Jews were targets.”
Is it time for another JDL? “There may be no other answer,” said Wiesenfeld. “Jews are getting beat up, left and right. People have to engage in self-defense. If there a return of the JDL it is prima facie proof of government’s failure to protect its citizens.”
Evoking Kahane’s disregard for the Nice Irvings, Wiesenfeld added, “There’s also been the failure of Jewish organizations to make demands the way other ethnic groups make demands. We’re such honorable, polite people, so high class, us Jews. We just beg people not to hate us. We’re satisfied with people saying, ‘Oh, anti-Semitism is not nice.’ But we don’t make demands for our self-preservation.”
New York City announced it will soon install 100 security cameras in Brooklyn’s Orthodox neighborhoods. And Hikind noticed that “our shuls and yeshivas have started looking like synagogues in Paris or Belgium,” with city policemen and state troopers outside. “People are grateful when they see this,” but fear has settled in like a fog. There’s been an increase in applications for gun permits from heavily Orthodox areas of Rockland County and an increase in Jews in Brooklyn signing up for self-defense classes.
“There isn’t the sense that we’re safe,” said Hikind. “A mother told me she won’t let her child go on a bus or subway, only Uber. A father said to me, ‘I work in Manhattan. I wear a yarmulke. Yesterday was the first day I took my yarmulke off because I was afraid.’ When I repeat what that man said, people answer, ‘Yeah, I hear that a lot.’ No one says, ‘We don’t have to worry. People are saying, ‘We have no one we can depend on.”
Hikind added, “These people may or may not have any memory of the JDL,” but it sure keeps coming up in conversation.