Jewish Defense League (JDL)

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Jewish Defense League (JDL)

LEADER: Ian Sigel


USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: United States; Israel; Australia; South Africa; Europe


The Jewish Defense League (JDL) is a rightwing religious organization that aims to protect its members and fellow Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. When it was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York in 1968, this protection initially expressed itself as a kind of vigilantism, but the JDL's violence has, over the years, evolved and included the targeting of foreign government interests on U.S. soil, bombings, hijack attempts, and extortion.


The Jewish Defense League (JDL) was founded in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, an attorney and newspaper columnist. Concerned at the rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in America's cities, Kahane's initial idea was for a network of vigilante organizations to protect Jewish neighborhoods against African-American-instigated urban violence. Always an incendiary influence, however, Kahane soon oversaw a more radical reality before emigrating to Israel.

Kahane, in his mid-30s when he founded the JDL, had since boyhood been interested in ideas of radical Judaism. As a teenager, he had been a member of Betar—a quasi-military youth group—very loosely modeled on Irgun, that was then fighting for Jewish independence in Palestine. He was also profoundly influenced by the Jewish thinker, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and his ideas of militant Zionism. One of his proudest boasts was that Jabotinsky had been a guest at his father's house when he was a boy.

Far from protecting Jews, however, the vigilantism of the JDL did much to exacerbate existing racial tensions, particularly in New York. Kahane's speeches often hinted at or advocated the use of violence, and when JDL members took credit for attacks, they would utter Kahane's slogan: "Never again"—a reference to the Holocaust. Kahane would invariably deny involvement with illegal activity, but usually gave his approval to a protagonist by suggesting that the respective target "had it coming."

His radicalism was rather like that of the Black Panthers, a radical black nationalist organization formed around the same time, using similar ideas of "self-defense" and "empowerment" before branching in other directions. (Ironically, the growth in African-American anti-Semitism had largely been instigated by organizations like the Black Panthers). Kahane could be as incendiary as Malcolm X and his various protégés, frequently extolling a call to arms with catchphrases like "every Jew a .22" and "a .45 to survive." He believed strongly that the Jewish people had historically been too passive, and that the Holocaust had been the horrible denouement of this perceived weakness. The JDL argued fiercely that Jews would no longer passively suffer abuse.

At the time, Kahane was dismissed as an ideologue and a rabble rouser, and he grossly exaggerated the plight of Jews within American society, equating their status with those of Jews within Nazi Germany. To the majority of U.S. Jews, this was patent nonsense, but some of his ideas had relevance and effected lasting cultural change elsewhere. He highlighted, for instance, the plight of Jews within the USSR and Eastern Europe, first reminding American Jews of their passivity during the Holocaust, but also organizing demonstrations in front of and even inside Russian agencies. In November 1970, the JDL bombed Aeroflot's New York offices, causing extensive damage, and the following January, bombed a Soviet office in Washington, D.C. Other attacks included a shot fired into the USSR's UN offices, and pouring blood over the head of a Soviet diplomat at a Washington party. At the height of the cold war, these attacks were of a highly incendiary nature, but it cast global attention on the persecution of Soviet Jewry and indirectly led to huge numbers of Soviet-bloc Jews relocating to Israel during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, virtually no one crossed the Iron Curtain, much less large-scale immigration.

The JDL also immersed itself in Arab-Israeli politics. Following crushing military defeats to Israel in 1948 and 1967 and without a democratic basis for government, many Arab regimes had been reduced to using anti-Semitic invective as a way of rallying support among their own populations. Just as the JDL targeted Soviet interests, so it targeted those of Arab regimes. In September 1969, for instance, the President of the United Nations Security Council revealed that six UN Missions of Arab states had received telegrams from the Jewish Defense League, which threatened each as a "legitimate target" in revenge for acts of terrorism committed by Arabs. Further attacks included the assault of workers at the offices of an Arab propaganda agency; a failed plot to hijack an Arab airliner; and death threats issued to the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat.

Despite the JDL's exhortation for Mishmaat (discipline and unity), the group was not above attacking moderate Jews and Jewish organizations that usually had little time for the its extremism. This included several attempts at taking over the Park East Synagogue opposite the Soviet UN Mission, when fifty JDL members positioned themselves in the sanctuary, on the roof, and on scaffolding surrounding the building; they unfurled huge banners decrying the plight of Soviet Jews. On another occasion, a group of JDL members led by Kahane took over the executive offices of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York and occupied the offices for two hours, demanding $6 million for "Jewish education."

Kahane emigrated to Israel in 1971 where he established a JDL offshoot, Kach, although he retained close links to the United States, visiting regularly. Without his rabble-rousing invective, the JDL were less effective in gaining publicity (Kahane, at his peak, was rarely off the front pages), but continued to regularly engage in extremism. The campaign against the Soviet Union continued, with attacks including the sabotage of a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet and an abortive plot to kidnap a Soviet diplomat. Other incidents included the firebombing of part of JFK Airport; the targeting of evangelical Christian organizations, such as Jews For Jesus; and the bombing of an Iranian bank in San Francisco.

The JDL also carried out acts of violence against suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States and against white supremacists. In a prerecorded telephone message in February 1978, the JDL offered $500 for every Nazi "lawfully killed during an attack on a Jew." Calls to the New York headquarters of the JDL activated the telephone message, which also stated "We are calling for Jews to unite in an all-out war against Nazis and other Jewhaters … We are also advocating mass executions of Nazis in order to make their stay in this country an unhealthy one." Attacks on suspects included fire bombings, assassinations, and intimidation.

As the 1980s progressed, however, the JDL became increasingly marginalized by accusations that foul play was used to further the business interests of its leaders. Moreover, its claims that American Jews were victimized in the same way as German Jews in the 1930s rang hollow. In 1990, Meir Kahane was assassinated by a member of an Arab terrorist cell while speaking at a meeting in New York. Although his U.S. presence had diminished since he left for Israel, his death still represented the loss of the JDL's most pivotal figure.

Distaste for the JDL peaked following the 1994 massacre in the Israeli town of Hebron, when Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Jew (and former JDL member) and member of JDL's Israeli offshoot, Kach, opened fire in a mosque, killing twenty-nine worshippers. In the United States, JDL's leaders vigorously defended Goldstein, stating that they "understood" his "motivation, … grief, and his actions" and that they were "not ashamed to say that Goldstein was a charter member of the Jewish Defense League."

The JDL was increasingly operating on the margins of even right-wing opinion, and by the turn of the year 2000 was essentially a two-man operation backed by a handful of supporters. Offshoots had opened up in Europe, Australia, and South Africa, but the days when Meir Kahane commanded front-page news seemed to belong to a different bygone era.

The al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 prompted new fears that the JDL would reemerge as a serious force and carry out "reprisal" attacks on Muslims in the United States and elsewhere. Instead, it led to a federal crackdown on extremist groups operating within the United States, including the JDL. On December 12, 2001, JDL's International Chairman, Irv Rubin, and Earl Krugel, a leading member in the organization, were charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism following an FBI sting operation.

While awaiting trial in November 2002, Rubin committed suicide. Krugel pleaded to the charges at his hearing three months later and was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.

Following the FBI crackdown, the JDL in the United States went into a meltdown, with a series of factions emerging that claimed its title. Its former chairman, Moshe Finberg, has claimed that it remains a powerful militant force and is continuing to grow in size. Other chapters still exist elsewhere around the world. However, its opponents claim that it is down to less than a hundred, mostly elderly, members in the United States.


JDL founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Kahane leads protests against Soviet targets in America against the plight of Russia's Jews.
Kahane emigrates to Israel where he founds Kach.
The JDL offers $500 to anyone who can kill or maim a Nazi.
JDL bombs an Iranian bank in San Francisco.
JDL founder Meir Kahane assassinated in New York.
Following the Hebron massacre by a former member, Baruch Goldstein, the JDL causes consternation by defending him.
JDL's Chairman, Irv Rubin, is arrested along with another member, Earl Krugel, in an FBI sting operation.
Rubin commits suicide while awaiting trial.
Krugel found guilty of conspiracy to commit terrorism.


Set up, as its name suggests, to protect Jews from rising anti-Semitism, particularly from African Americans, the Jewish Defense League operates around five principles drawn from the Bible, Talmud and Rabbinical teachings. These include Ahvat Yisroel (love of Jewry); Hadar (dignity and pride); Barzel (iron); Mishmaat (discipline and unity); and Bitachon (the indestructibility of the Jewish people).

These articulate themselves in a variety of ways, but, in basic terms, they teach followers that faith should be the most important part of a Jew's life and identity, and that the historic weakness of the Jewish people should be confined to the past.

The JDL has aggressively followed its ideas of Jewish nationalism in both America and beyond. Nevertheless, it has always punched above its weight, and its membership has probably never numbered more than several thousand—and at present, is probably less than four figures in the United States.

In its heyday the JDL was heavily reliant on the charismatic and controversial Meir Kahane who, by stating invariably contentious and headline-grabbing opinions, brought attention to the perceived plight of Jews in America, and to the very real suffering of Jewry elsewhere in the world. Kahane was largely responsible for initiating the large-scale emigration of Soviet and East European Jews to Israel and elsewhere.

Kahane's political aims for the JDL were initially twofold. He wanted to draw attention to the plight of Jews living in the USSR, but also to radicalize America's Jewish population, which he believed to be largely complacent. Writing in 1975 Kahane stated: "We wanted two things. One, the freedom of every Soviet Jew who wished to leave Russia. Two, to awaken the American Jew into a recognition that he had shamefully buried the Soviet Jewish problem while he himself enjoyed the freedoms of America, and to make him understand the pain of Jews anywhere is the pain of Jews everywhere. We wanted to force a world and a Jewish community that did not give a damn, to solve the problem or we would not give them peace. And finally we wanted to teach the American Jew who he was: first and last a Jew, and fated to struggle for or fall with all other Jews."

Publicity seeking was the least benign aspect of the JDL's make up, however. Overt violence against Soviet, Arab, and suspected Nazi targets included fire bombings, beatings, vandalism, and assassinations. The FBI estimates that the JDL was responsible for around fifty acts of terrorism.

Less quantifiable are the acts of vigilantism carried out in its name and encouraged by its leaders. Just as members of its Israeli offshoot, Kach, have committed hundreds of racially motivated attacks against Arabs, so did JDL followers carry out numerous assaults on gentiles, particularly African Americans. While the JDL currently denies the use of violence, its origins as a street-fighting organization and the blatant provocation of racial tensions by men like Meir Kahane point to a different reality in the past.



Ian Sigel became International Chairman of the Jewish Defense League in June 2005 after Moshe Finberg stepped down from the role. Sigel was born and raised in the Midwest and is of Russian-Jewish heritage. He previously worked in law enforcement and as a private contractor in conjunction with President Reagan's "Star Wars" program.

Only a member of the JDL since 1999, Siegel has held a variety of senior positions—which either reflects his ability, or the JDL's present lack of numbers—including the Chicago Chapter Chairman, Midwest Director, and National Vice-Chairman.


Writing in Commentary magazine in 1971, Milton Himmelfarb argued that the main reason the Jewish Defense League's campaign of protest and violence against the USSR was so successful was because it struck a chord among American Jews still harboring feelings of guilt about their compliance when faced with Hitler's Germany a generation earlier. As he muses, "how do you answer an eighteen-year-old son or daughter who asks you why the Jews of America were so well-behaved while the Nazis were murdering the Jews of Europe?"

By contrast, Meir Kahane, the Jewish Defense League's founder, believed that there was an awakening among Jews across the world of their need for solidarity in the face of oppression. "There are no boundaries when it comes to Jewish pain and oppression," he wrote in 1987 in Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews. "There are no Soviet Jews or Syrian Jews or American Jews. There are only Jews who live in the Soviet Union or in Syria or in America. There is one Jewish people, indivisible, that the Jewish State, which has the power and expertise and professionalism, is obligated to defend in every way, across and within any border."


The arrest, and subsequent suicide, of JDL's Chairman, Irv Rubin, in 2001 was the latest chapter in a long-running story of decline for the JDL, which can be traced back almost to the day that its charismatic and controversial founder, Meir Kahane, emigrated to Israel in 1971. Though his speeches and writings were often laden with undertones of violence and overt racism, Kahane radicalized America's, then Israel's, Jewish populations, placing their perceived persecution on the front of every newspaper. Campaigns that mixed noisy demonstrations with violence—such as that waged against the USSR—were incredibly successful, despite usually being dismissed by more moderate Jews. Without Kahane, the JDL was half the organization it had once been, and although it continued its campaigning and violence, it seemed to lose the streak of populism that had once made it so potent.



Kahane, Meir. The Story of the Jewish Defense League. Radnor, Penn.: Chilton, 1975.

Dolgin, Jane. Jewish Identity and the JDL. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Web sites 〈〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).

The Jewish Defense 〈〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).

Jewish Virtual Library. "Rabbi Meir Kahane (1932–1990)." 〈〉 (accessed October 14, 2005).

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Jewish Defense League (JDL)

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Jewish Defense League (JDL)