The Return of the Jewish Defense League

Are There Still Any Jewish Terrorists in North America?

According to court documents, Jewish Defense League chairman Irv Rubin arrived at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Encino, California on December 11, 2001 to see two men about a firebombing. He brought with him two addresses: the first a mosque in Culver City, the second the field office of Congressman Darrell Issa. One of the men he was meeting had agreed bomb them both the following day. Rubin would have preferred to have the bomber plant a larger explosive, one that would demolish an entire building, but for now he lacked the capacity. The firebombs would have to do. The materials for the explosive had already been purchased, but the bombs themselves still needed to be built. After taking the addresses from Rubin the would-be bomber drove the gunpowder to the third man’s garage, where the pipes were already being stored. It was all still there when the F.B.I. arrived. Rubin and the third man were arrested. The bomber, it turned out, had been wearing a wire. Rubin committed suicide in jail a few months later, slashing his own throat before jumping over a railing to his death.

In an affidavit that accompanied the criminal complaint against him, Rubin was quoted saying that the bombing would let the world know that the JDL was still active in a “militant way.” What’s perhaps most puzzling about the entire episode is that the JDL hadn’t been active in a “militant way” for decades. Founded in 1968 in New York City by the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, the JDL was initially mobilized around the simmering racial tensions in Brooklyn’s transitioning neighborhoods. Kahane preached a pessimistic vision of American Jewish life, arguing that Jews needed to take up arms against anti-Semitism or risk a new holocaust. His JDL borrowed the aesthetic of the Black Panthers and the tactics of the Yippies. Members wore black berets and uniforms to their protests and adopted a clenched fist logo reminiscent of the black power salute. Meanwhile, they released mice into the audience at the performance of a Soviet dance troupe while agitating for the rights of Soviet Jews, and shot at and bombed the Soviet Embassy and harassed Soviet diplomats. Kahane was skilled at attracting media attention, and his group became well know. In 1971, when Kahane and his family made aliyah, the group’s significance began to wane. Some of the most dedicated members followed Kahane to Israel. Others simply grew up. By the mid 1980s, the group, then under Rubin’s control, was little more than a footnote.

After years of turmoil in the wake of Rubin’s death, during which time a splinter faction seceded from the organization, the JDL is now regrouping. They claim to be distancing themselves from their violent past while attempting to use the internet to build their organization into a national movement. Although it is apparent that their membership is small, the group has its eyes on a new generation of right wing Jewish activists.

Leading this push is Ari Rubin, the current Vice President of the JDL. A 2006 graduate of Cal Poly Pomona, Ari is Irv’s son. His mother Shelley took her dead husband’s position at the head of the JDL.

“JDL is needed more now than ever,” Ari says. “We are a different organization than we were. The JDL is still militant on our terms, which means we will go out and confront whatever hatred there may be and we will defend ourselves if we have to, but we will always be law abiding. We are not vigilantes.”

This perspective is apparently distant from that of his late father, who allegedly planned the violent, illegal acts that led to his arrest. Ari believes that the charges against his father were false, and says that his father was committed to the same legalistic approach that he now espouses.

Ari spends most of his time working on 4.0, a brand new website whose launch is meant to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the JDL. He hopes that it will allow the group to beef up its organization on the local level.

“One of the big problems we had as an organization was that we expanded quickly over the internet to places we had never been before. There was too little leadership,” Ari said. “We couldn’t coordinate the people we were signing up.”

Turning a few scattered internet users into cohesive chapters should prove difficult. Ari wouldn’t say exactly how many chapters or members the JDL currently has, but the numbers seem to be low. When I asked to speak to a young member of the sort Ari hoped to better serve with the new website, I was given the number of a 26 year old in Farmington Hills, Michigan who had only met one other JDL member face to face in his life.

Ari says that when the new site goes live, he plans on using it to organize JDL Street Squads to protect Jews in troubled neighborhoods. This is a practice with roots in the early days of the JDL. Then, the group was known as the chaya squad. Chaya means “wild animal” in Hebrew, which referred to the idea that the members of the squad would fight like wild animals in defense of another Jew.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, one of the JDL’s regional chapters is experiencing a different kind of reawakening. Rather than manifesting in clicks and virtual social networks, JDL Canada is reemerging in the old fashioned way. This February, fifty members of JDL Canada staged a protest against an Israel Apartheid Week event at Ryerson University. In March, JDL Canada hosted a lecture by the far right Israeli politician Moshe Feiglin. Attendees were searched by men wearing vests with the League’s yellow-fisted logo on the back. In late November, the group held a public memorial for Meir Kahane.

Meir Weinstein, the head of the chapter, says that he reestablished JDL Canada in 2006. After running the group through the 1980s, personal issues got in the way in the 1990s. Weinstein says he was inspired to bring JDL Candada back in the wake of the war in Lebanon and what he calls pro-Hezbollah demonstrations in Toronto.

Since 2006, JDL Canada has been staging protests, holding events, and sending out a parsha e-mail, which offers a JDL gloss on the week’s portion. Weinstein also says that the group also holds martial arts classes once a week.

While Ari Rubin’s rebuilding efforts have yet to be visible, Weinstein’s efforts have met with some resistance from the local Jewish community. In October of 2007, an group called the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians issued a press release protesting a JDL Canada-sponsored Moshe Feiglin lecture. In the release, ACJC leader Andy Lehrer is quoted saying, “There is no place in the Jewish community for fascists.”

Regardless, the group doesn’t seem to be struggling. Recent JDL Canada-sponsored events were reported to have enjoyed good turnout.

“There are a number of macro factors that are occurring in the world that are causing a corresponding rise in interest in JDL,” says Ari Rubin. “You can go down the line. We have rather bad actors on the international stage and world economy that’s in trouble. And Jews as usual will be blamed because they’re such a convenient target and scapegoat for the non-Jewish world.”

So, are young Jews ready for Rubin and Weinstein’s messages? Perhaps some indication lies in the sizes of their respective Facebook groups. A group that appears to be affiliated with Rubin’s national organization has 507 members. A group affiliated with Weinstein’s chapter has 177 members. Surprisingly, both have somewhat active Walls and Discussion Boards.

As Ari reinvents the JDL for a savvy new generation, he’s confident that the organization will survive. “There is an attraction to the underlying philosophy of the Jewish Defense League that goes to the heart of many Jews who for other reasons wouldn’t support us,” he says. “We are the premier Jewish activist movement in the world.”

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