Guest Column: JDL - 40 years later

It hurt to hear my husband insulted, but I knew he was right and they were wrong

0606-guest.jpg (photo credit: Richard Novitz)
(photo credit: Richard Novitz)
My husband Rabbi Meir Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League precisely 40 years ago in New York City. He did so in response to a rise in violent crimes committed by African Americans who were doubtlessly reacting to difficult socioeconomic conditions. Nevertheless, crimes like purse snatching and muggings were an everyday event. Robberies increased 70 percent from 1967 to 1968, and assaults went up 25%. Like many New Yorkers, I never went out at night alone, and when I shopped I kept my cash in an inside pocket. New York City was typical of other American cities. In fact, in 1967 and 1968, blacks rioted in over 150 cities in the United States. Black - and Puerto Rican - crime often had distinctly anti-Semitic overtones. In New York City, Jewish teachers were assaulted in the public schools, cemeteries were desecrated and synagogues defaced and firebombed. Jewish neighborhoods were hit the hardest because Jews and minorities often lived side-by-side and Jews had a reputation for not fighting back. The JDL aimed to change the image of Jews from patsies to fighters. Meir often said, "To turn the other cheek is not in our Bible." So the JDL organized classes in judo, karate and riflery, and its members patrolled high-crime areas. The media were intrigued by Jews who defied the Jewish stereotype. Newspapers, TV and radio carried reports about the JDL's training camp, and about its daring confrontations to protect Jewish teachers and shopkeepers. JDL chapters were formed in cities throughout America. The JDL also opposed preferential quotas in college admissions and employment. We maintained that quotas discriminated against Jews, whose hard-won advancement was based on merit. Meir challenged the quotas in the courts, and to publicize their unfairness, JDL members picketed the offices of the New York Mets baseball team. They carried signs demanding that the Mets hire enough Jews to make up 26.2% of their roster - the percentage of Jews in the city at the time. WHILE MIDDLE and lower-class Jews appreciated JDL efforts to counter crime and discrimination, leaders of the Jewish establishment were only concerned with maintaining their respectable image. They called Meir a rabble-rouser and termed the JDL a vigilante group. It hurt to hear my husband insulted, but I knew they were wrong. Regular police protection was inadequate, and American cities had become jungles. No one could deny the need for self-defense groups. Leaders of the Jewish establishment never had to walk alone at night in a rough neighborhood. That establishment's oft-repeated criticism was that the JDL's violent means were "un-Jewish." Meir refuted this: "...From the days that our father Abraham went to battle against the four kings in order to save his nephew Lot, to the moment that Moses smote an Egyptian rather than create a committee to study the root causes of Egyptian anti-Semitism; from the Maccabees... to the students of Rabbi Akiva who were sent from their studies to fight in Bar Kochba's army... Jewish leadership has taken an active and violent part in the struggle for freedom." THE IDEALS that Meir taught JDL members were based on Torah. An important tenet was ahavat Yisrael, loving one's fellow Jews and helping them. Ahavat Yisrael motivated JDL patrols and confrontations, and it applied to any Jew in trouble, even one far away in the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, there was no contact with Soviet Jews. Only in 1964 did information begin to leak out about their oppression. Circumcision was forbidden, and it was illegal to teach a Jewish child about his religion or to bake matzot for Pessah. No Soviet citizen was allowed to emigrate, so a Jew could not even practice his religion elsewhere. Official Soviet papers like Pravda fanned anti-Semitism by blaming the Jews for the Soviet Union's severe economic problems. It was to solve their economic problems, and to buy American wheat at low prices, that the Soviets sought friendly relations with America. Meir saw the window of opportunity. He wrote: "...Wracked by economic problems, [the Soviet Union] desperately needs friendship with the United States... If we can challenge this era of good feeling... it is possible that the Soviets will consider it not worth the bother of persecuting their Jews... "We must make headlines, and they are made only by audacious and dramatic activities. If need be, these activities cannot be confined to sweet respectability and legality... It is not a pleasant task... This is not a job for people who fear getting their hands soiled." In 1964, when Meir wrote this, few were willing to "get their hands soiled." By 1970, however, JDL members were accustomed to disregard "respectability." They were ready to bring the plight of Soviet Jews to the attention of the American public. They disrupted Soviet ballet performances with shouts of "Freedom for Jews" and "Let my people go." At a performance in Chicago, someone threw a tear gas bomb, forcing the audience of 3,500 to leave. In Philadelphia, mice were let loose in the auditorium. Jews held rowdy demonstrations, shouting "Two, four, six, eight, let our people emigrate!" AFTER A demonstration that blocked a vital Manhattan intersection for 20 minutes, Meir was arrested. This was not his first arrest, and I had learned not to worry; he was usually out on bail in the morning. More important: an arrest brought media interest. That morning he told a nationwide NBC TV audience, "We lost 6 million Jews 25 years ago. We have no intention of losing three and a half million more to national genocide. There is not the slightest doubt that after 53 years, the Soviet-Jewish issue is now on page one." Numerous dramatic JDL demonstrations did indeed put the issue on page one. They moved American public opinion to support basic freedoms for Soviet Jews, and this pressured the Soviet Union to release its Jews. Beginning in 1971, an average of 22,000 Jews emigrated each year. In those years, "violent" JDL demonstrations for Soviet Jews were condemned by the establishment. Today, most people recognize the important role of the JDL. As Glenn Richter, director of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, stated: "Rabbi Kahane propelled the issue of Soviet Jewry into the headlines in a way we, with our less confrontational demonstrations, could not." Meir was right about self-defense and Soviet Jewry. Will it take another 40 years to realize that he was also right about much, much more? The writer is the author of Rabbi Meir Kahane: His Life and Thought, Vol. I 1932-1975