A failure of timing: JDL remains forever a fringe group

Irv Rubin, 56, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League, today sits in solitary confinement at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. He is being held without bail on charges of plotting last fall to bomb a mosque in Culver City as well as the field office of Orange County Congressman Darrell Issa (R-San Clemente), whose origins are Lebanese.

Rubin casts himself as the protector of American Jews, but to date, not a Jewish leader, political activist, rabbi or organization has stepped forward to offer him support. Even such far-right Jewish groups as Americans For a Safe Israel (AFSI) have remained silent — and they are not ordinarily afraid to speak out. In 1994, AFSI's West Coast head proclaimed Dr. Baruch Goldstein a hero and a Jewish martyr for having gunned down 29 Arabs at prayer in a West Bank mosque before being killed himself by an angry crowd.

The silence comes as no surprise. Ever since Rabbi Meir Kahane founded the group in New York in 1968, the JDL has operated on the fringe of Jewish life.

With its rallying cry "no more victimhood for Jews," the group initially attracted a small number of followers, largely among young working-class Jews, some of whom were students at the city colleges in New York.

Borrowing heavily from the black militants of the 1960s, the JDL proclaimed it would protect Jews from attack. But there was a problem: While anti-Semitism still existed in America, by 1968 physical safety was generally not at issue for mainstream Jews, particularly in New York.

To the extent that he was able to attract followers in the mainstream, Kahane relied on his secondary cause: the freeing of Soviet Jews, a legitimate agenda that many Jewish organizations in the United States had written off because it seemed like a lost cause.

Kahane and his followers were not shy about demonstrating, heckling, shouting abuse and throwing eggs at Soviet officials. Given the Cold War political climate, there were few complaints from either Jews or non-Jews.

But history has a tendency to outflank political movements. Soon, the JDL students were at law school or taking graduate degrees in sociology; or they had married and become entrepreneurs moving into middle-class enclaves in suburbs that had formerly been closed to Jews.

By the time Soviet Jews were free to travel, Rubin had become the head of JDL, and victimhood for Jewish Americans seemed a thing of the past.

There was a small remnant of supporters left, mainly among the older generation, and most of them preferred to stay in the background. They were Jews who held fast to vivid memories of boyhood rejection and photographs of Jewish dead in German concentration camps, guarding themselves vigilantly against a gentile world they would always distrust.

It was at this time — perhaps 15 years ago — that I first met Rubin. I was the editor of a newly started weekly, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and Rubin was upset that we were not accepting JDL ads. He asked for a meeting; I agreed.

We met, to my surprise, in a conference room belonging to an upscale law firm in Century City. It smacked of money and social status. There was nothing working class here. There were about eight JDL members in the room, all men. No one introduced himself as the firm's law partner or associate, but the whole setup attested to the fact that the group still had its silent supporters.

I explained that the newspaper would not publish anything we deemed racist or that incited the public to violence. The ads seemed to me to step over the line; as I recall, they demonized Arabs. That was against our policy. If the JDL changed its language, we would consider publishing their ads.

There was some back and forth, some of it angry — charges of censorship, a cry for a free press — but I kept my tone friendly and we parted on relatively amicable terms. Eventually they modified some of their ads and we consented to accept their money and print them.

A year later, shortly after the first intifada began in Israel, and Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's defense minister, had issued his famous order that soldiers would break the bones of the Palestinian teenage rock throwers, I heard that the JDL had called a meeting in Malibu; It was partly a fund-raiser, partly a call to Jews to acquire weapons and learn the rudiments of self defense.

The host, I was told, was a wealthy Jewish activist who insisted upon anonymity. Everything about it was hush-hush. Invitation only. No names or dates supplied. No press allowed. I was informed later that a large crowd had showed up, many of them well-to-do Los Angeles Jews, but no one would acknowledge having attended. No one wanted it known that he had made a donation to the JDL.

It never has been clear where the JDL acquires its funds. According to a story by Nita Lelyveld in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times, Rubin "does his fighting on a shoestring." People donate cars, which are then sold; checks from his wife's mother help pay the grocery bills. There are neither JDL nor family funds to cover his legal fees. The fringe organization has become even more marginal; has achieved an outsider status.

The JDL, in the end, can be seen as a failure of timing. It might have fared better in the 1920s and 1930s. Jews were true outsiders in America then, rejected, unhappy, longing to be embraced — or at least accepted — by white, gentile America. The JDL's combative approach might have appealed then to those most angry at the American establishment.

But the JDL, an organization of self-identified outsiders, issued its call to arms at precisely the moment Jews were becoming insiders. Despite their numbers (three percent of the national population), Jews are today at the center of American life and have a significant hand in shaping its culture.

Given this reality, the JDL in style and message ("For every Jew a .22") sounds as though it belongs in a different America. Relatively few American Jews today have been denied education, jobs or housing — much less been physically attacked — because of their Jewish identity. Though many still fear anti-Semitism and are sensitive to its presence and its outrages, there is recognition among Jews that the JDL today represents a step back in time — and in social status. And few Jews desire that for themselves or for their children.