Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Backgrounder from Its Start in the 1960s, Jdl Has Been Willing to Use Force

December 14, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

On its Web site, the Jewish Defense League says one of its principles is “to help Jews everywhere and to change the Jewish image through sacrifice and all necessary means — even strength, force and violence.”

If the charges that led to Wednesday’s arrest of the JDL’s leader, Irv Rubin, and member Earl Krugel are true, the group remains true to its ideals.

In the name of fighting anti-Semitism, the JDL has used violence and intimidation ever since it was formed in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane to mount an armed response to anti-Semitic incidents in New York City. Its symbol is a raised fist inside a Star of David.

The group has been implicated in hundreds of violent or provocative incidents, according to Gail Gans, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights Information Center.

Kahane moved to Israel in 1971, and resigned as head of the JDL in 1974. He formed the Kach Party, which advocated expelling all Arabs from Israel, and was elected to the Knesset in 1984. But Kach was declared racist and forbidden to run in the 1988 elections.

When Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian extremist in New York in 1990, his son, Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane, worked with Kach and later started another organization called Kahane Chai.

Kahane Chai and Kach were named terrorist organizations by the Israeli government and outlawed in 1994. Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane and his wife were killed earlier this year in an ambush on the West Bank.

Rubin, 56, a former Air Force sergeant and conservative Republican, joined the JDL in the 1970s and became chairman in 1985. He has been arrested more than 40 times, by his own count.

The Los Angeles group headed by Rubin is one of two in this country that splintered from the original JDL. It considers the other group, the Jewish Defense Organization in New York, an archrival.

JDO’s head, Mordechai Levy, shot at Rubin from the roof of his apartment building in New York when Rubin tried to subpoena him for a slander suit in 1989. Levy was jailed for the act.

The JDL has claimed it has 13,000 members nationwide, a figure Gans dismissed as “wildly exaggerated.” She estimates they have no more than a couple hundred members in the United States.

Most active in the 1970s, the JDL has been accused of complicity in numerous actions designed to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. They include pouring blood over the head of a Soviet diplomat after crashing a Washington reception, letting loose mice at a concert by a Soviet orchestra, commandeering a New York synagogue across from the USSR’s U.N. Mission to hold an anti-Soviet demonstration and detonating a bomb in the Manhattan offices of Aeroflot.

The group often denied responsibility for attacks, while still praising them. For example, Kahane denied responsibility for the Aeroflot bombing, but said, “Any protest to help enslaved people is a legitimate form of protest — including bombing and other forms of violent action.”

Other JDL targets included Arab diplomats, neo-Nazis, Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and even left- wing Israelis.

The group has targeted Jewish institutions as well.

When they thought the Jewish federation of San Francisco was not meeting the community’s needs, JDL members broke into the office of the vice president and assaulted four staff members, including a cripple who was a concentration camp survivor.

JDL members also locked themselves in the lobby and blocked entry to a New York building that houses many Jewish organizations, demanding to see an official from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

They frequently invaded New York’s Park East synagogue, opposite the Soviet Union’s U.N. mission, to demonstrate for Soviet Jews. At other times they took over the offices of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Israeli Consulate in New York, an Israel Aliyah office in Queens, N.Y., and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies office in New York, among others.

In recent years, however, the group has been less active, and Gans was surprised by the alleged bombing plot revealed Wednesday. She called it “counterproductive,” given the immense pressure right now on both the United States and Israel to fight terrorism.

But she said one shouldn’t discount the group’s quest for publicity as a motive.

“They want very much to appear that they are the ones the Jewish community would look to for protection, and they’re not,” she said. “The organized Jewish community disdains what they do and is very critical of them.”

In fact, she noted, an ADL publication once referred to the group as the “Jewish Defense League: Exploiter of Fear.”

Though the JDL was among the earliest advocates for Soviet Jewry, it’s unclear to what extent their exploits helped force the issue onto the agenda of more mainstream Jewish organizations.

Some discount their contribution.

Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, said the JDL was only one of several groups that were beginning to press the establishment to be more active on the issue.

Friedman, who is working on his third book on Soviet Jewry, said the JDL was not a “major player” on the Soviet Jewry issue, and he called many of their techniques “odious.”

Gans too said the group has been ineffective as an advocate for Jews.

“The JDL is the self-appointed guardian that really is an unwanted guardian, because in fact they haven’t improved the lot of Jews in America at all, not one iota,” she said. “Not one good thing that has happened to the Jewish community in America can be attributed to the JDL.”

Yet Friedman said the group did help solidify the Jews’ determination to defend themselves after the Holocaust.

“One small residue of the moment is their slogan, ‘Never Again!’ which captured a mood that began in the late 1960s and early ’70s,” he said. “Jews weren’t going to allow themselves to be pushed around again.”

The JDL lionizes Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the right-wing Zionist ideologue who said that only concerted Jewish self- defense — what he called the “Iron Wall” — would deter Arab aggression.

The group also counts Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Arabs praying in a Hebron mosque in 1994, as one of its charter members.

Recommended from JTA