Why was a Jewish lawyer wanted by the FBI? New book tells all

“I really felt like I was accomplishing something for Soviet Jewry and I believed that the JDL’s early activities, while keeping the issue of Soviet Jewry in the news, didn’t really harm anyone.”

 PARDONED FALN terrorist-activist Oscar Lopez Rivera travels along Fifth Avenue during the 2017 Puerto Rican Day Parade, New York. (photo credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
PARDONED FALN terrorist-activist Oscar Lopez Rivera travels along Fifth Avenue during the 2017 Puerto Rican Day Parade, New York.
(photo credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

In Wanted by the FBI: The Feds against a Jewish Lawyer, Arthur Miller lays out how a nice Jewish boy finds himself wanted by the US’s famed intelligence and security service.

An estimated 200,000 Jews died in the Soviet army fighting the Nazis – just a fraction of the more than a million Soviet Jews who died during the Second World War. Yet the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust did not herald the end of the suffering of the Jews in the Soviet Union.

Persecution of Soviet Jews was rampant for more than a century. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Jews were terrorized by waves of violent pogroms, often instigated or condoned by authorities. In 1937, Joseph Stalin decreed that all Soviet Jews were required to list “Jewish” in their internal passport, making it possible to discriminate against them more efficiently in educational opportunities and occupations.

For decades, Jews there were prevented from practicing or even learning about their history and religion, nor were they permitted to leave the country. More than 2.1 million Soviet Jews (1970 census) were virtual prisoners living in fear, subject to constant observation, arrest and punishment. They were unable to learn or know much about their Judaism – other than the fact that it made them targets for severe discrimination and suffering.

In 1969 in the United States the Jewish Defense League, which had been established to protect Jews in New York from local violence, made the issue of freedom for Soviet Jews its top priority. Their goal to have that issue adopted by mainstream Jewish organizations was eventually successful, although the methods employed by JDL members and the growing intensity of their anti-Soviet activities were often controversial and sometimes led to arrests.

 A poster of late radical rabbi Meir Kahane as members of the outlawed Kach and Kahane Hai parties meet in New York in 1995, marking the anniversary of his death. (credit: REUTERS) A poster of late radical rabbi Meir Kahane as members of the outlawed Kach and Kahane Hai parties meet in New York in 1995, marking the anniversary of his death. (credit: REUTERS)

One evening in 1971, Arthur Miller, who had joined JDL in 1968 but was an inactive member, was contacted by Bob Persky, who said he was from the JDL. Explaining that with the expansion of the JDL’s activities, dozens of teenage activists were being arrested and “were expecting the JDL to provide them with a lawyer when they appeared in court,” Persky hoped that Miller, a shomer Shabbat attorney, “could be of assistance in providing legal representation to these JDL members.”

Miller, a tax attorney, protested that his practice was limited to tax issues, so he couldn’t be of any real help, but Persky, a New Jersey attorney, clarified that he needed someone to be the attorney of record in New York courts. All Miller would have to do, Persky persisted, was to make an appearance as defense counsel, and then Persky would take over.

“No other lawyers besides the two of us are available,” said Persky, adding that the young JDL idealists were in danger of lacking legal representation.

“Growing up in a home where concern for our fellow Jews was of paramount importance, I could not refuse,” writes Miller. “Thus, my life changed dramatically for the next few years.”

Soon late-night phone calls became part of Miller’s regular routine. Increasingly he found himself going to night court after his workday ended, or, when the arraignment was put off until the morning, he had to appear in court before he went to his office. At first, he had only to register his appearance and Persky would take over, but gradually he found himself representing JDL members in court by himself.

“I really felt like I was accomplishing something for Soviet Jewry and I believed that the JDL’s early activities, while keeping the issue of Soviet Jewry in the news, didn’t really harm anyone.”

MILLER’S INVOLVEMENT with the JDL continued to grow due to his legal representation of JDL members – always without remuneration. He became involved in the infamous Sol Hurok case in 1972 as well as in the legal repercussions of the JDL protest against Yasser Arafat’s 1974 appearance at the United Nations.

One day Miller received a call from a JDL board member to join him for a Shabbat lunch where he could meet another lunch guest: JDL founder Rabbi Meir Kahane. Miller soon found himself agreeing to help secure tax-exempt status for Kahane’s Jewish Identity Center.

Miller had little or no further contact with Kahane, who was living in Israel in the early 1970s, but in 1975, upon his arrival in the US for a speaking tour, Kahane was arrested and sentenced to a year in a halfway house (permitted to leave the premises during daylight hours) for violating the probation terms for a 1971 firearms charge.

On January 24, 1975, during Kahane’s partial internment, FALN, a Puerto Rican independence group, executed and claimed credit for a number of terrorist bombings, including at the historic Fraunces Tavern (which served as George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution). That explosion killed four and injured more than 50 others. An exorbitant cash reward was offered for any information that led to the arrest and conviction of the bombers.

At this time Miller received a phone call from an individual who introduced himself only as “Saul.” Saul said he might have information about the identity of the FALN bombers, but instead of the cash reward, wanted to exchange his information for Kahane’s release (replacing Kahane’s freedom during daylight hours with full freedom of movement and the ability to return home to Israel). This deal could get the bombers off the street before another blast and there is ample legal precedent for such an exchange.

How Miller’s innocent involvement in this matter turned him into a man wanted and threatened by the FBI – a sordid tale of institutionalized antisemitism and ill will on the part of US legal authorities – is the crux of the exciting story that the author proceeds to unfold in carefully documented detail.

An informative, fast-paced first-hand account of those tumultuous times, Wanted by the FBI takes readers behind the headlines many of us lived through and illuminates realities in the American legal system that both shock and inspire.

The book also takes us a step or two further, raising related matters such as 1) the Jonathan Pollard case, and 2) president Bill Clinton’s puzzling rejected offer of clemency to FALN leader Oscar Lopez Rivera, the terrorist whose group was responsible for more than 130 bomb attacks in the United States (inadvertently affecting Miller himself) and president Barack Obama’s subsequent full pardon of Rivera’s 70-year sentence.

Despite minor drawbacks, such as an overly detailed appendix and the lack of an index, Miller’s tale, written in a frank, open and engaging style, is a rewarding read for people who seek to better understand the workings of the US legal system and key events in our recent history from an insider’s viewpoint.

Just as the Soviet Jews ultimately won their freedom, with many opting to move to Israel, Miller himself retired and moved to the Holy Land. His post-America experiences are entertainingly chronicled in Because It’s Israel, An Aliyah Odyssey. 

Both are available online or via email at [email protected]

Wanted by the FBIBy Arthur Miller184 pages; $13.95