On Motzei Shabbos, about an hour before the brutal Monsey attack, I happened to scroll down a list of topics a journalist was planning to address that night during his weekly radio broadcast. The content was compelling, but what was most riveting to me was a question he planned to pose: “Is it time to bring back the JDL?”
As someone who is old enough to remember the origins of the JDL – and was a JDL member herself (I earned my stripes at 19 by sitting in front of the Soviet Mission in New York and getting arrested) – I felt startled by the question, which implied a comparison between today and the mid-20th century when the JDL was at its peak. For I can dig deep into the recesses of my own personal memories and say with the utmost conviction: “What we’re experiencing now is nothing compared to earlier times. It’s far worse.”
The JDL was originally established by Rabbi Meir Kahane to protect elderly Jews who had been forgotten and abandoned by their younger cohorts as they fled Brownsville and East New York. These Jews were mostly verbally harassed and threatened when they trudged out of their homes to pray at one of the last remaining shuls in the area, shop, or go to doctor’s appointments.
If, on the rare occasion, these vulnerable Jews were subjected to any kind of physical abuse, it was relatively minor – some pushing and shoving – never a critical injury sustained by a gun shot or knife. That would have caused an uproar.
Still, Meir Kahane was anguished by the thought that Jews – of any age – should live with the fear that these incidents prompted, so he founded a squad (somewhat similar to shomrim today) to patrol the streets where the Jews still lived and escort them safely to their appointments and shopping expeditions, helping them live a semi-normal existence on the sketchy streets where Jewish life had once been vibrant.
This was the earliest incarnation of the JDL, in the mid-late ‘60s. There were no mass shootings, and no one with a machete ever invaded a shul. By comparison to what we’re experiencing today all over the country, the troubles Jews experienced in the two specific locals of Brownsville and East New York were relatively minor. The implication, therefore, that we are returning to an earlier era of similar anti-Semitism is downright wrong. We are, in fact, entering a new wave.
After patrols were set up in Brownsville and East New York, the JDL focused its efforts in altogether different arena and scored its second major achievement. In 1970, a gravediggers’ strike was crippling burials, but in particular creating untenable circumstances for Orthodox Jews. The strike occurred in the dead of winter, when the ground was frozen, and it was difficult to find able-bodied men who possessed the temerity to cross the strike lines and were also physically capable of cracking the unyielding earth. So Meir Kahane rounded up his squadron of “tough” Jews and, as a result, frum Jews were laid to rest in accordance with halacha.
The third phase of the JDL was launched when Rabbi Kahane turned his attention to the agonizing problem of Soviet Jewry. Three million of our oppressed brethren were barricaded behind the Iron Curtain, virtual prisoners of the Soviet Government – unable to practice their religion, and unable to leave. Activists were imprisoned, sent to the Gulag, sentenced in “show trials.”
Askanim had tried valiantly to work behind the scenes for years, but few inroads had been made. Meir Kahane decided to put the plight of Soviet Jewry on page 1 of The New York Times. The way to do it, he reasoned, was by causing a tumult, noise, interference, problems – anything that would attract media attention.
His protest rallies were legendary, and one day he told 800 kids to quietly sit down in front of the Soviet Mission – an illegal act of passive resistance. We were carted away to various jails and many of us (including me) sat all night in waiting rooms (baruch Hashem not cells) until we were taken to court. The following day, the plight of Soviet Jewry did indeed make Page 1.
I vividly remember how galvanized we were by the undeniable charismatic leadership of Rabbi Meir Kahane, z”l. Those were halcyon days, when idealism and activism were at its height, and when we were blessed with a leader who brilliantly stoked those qualities that truly reside in all of us and are only waiting to be set aflame.
So, to the perspicacious journalist who asked, “Is it time to bring back the JDL?” I wish to respond from the perspective of a seasoned veteran: First, please be aware that things were never so bad as they are today. We are not seeing sporadic attacks spawned by inner-city rage; we are seeing something far different, and far more malignant.
Second, underlying the question “Should we bring back the JDL?” is the presumption that we possess the ability, the power, the wherewithal, and the will to revive the JDL and that anyone can lead it.
This presumption is wrong. For there was a vital ingredient in the JDL’s success that simply doesn’t exist anymore: Rabbi Meir Kahane.