Jewish Defense League

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Jewish Defense League

The Jewish Defense League (JDL) and its offshoots in the United States advocate a militant Jewish nationalism characterized by racism and violence against the perceived enemies of the Jewish people. Established by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968 in Brooklyn, New York, JDL’s initial goal was to protect the local Jewish community from anti-Semitism through intimidation and violence.

Kahane taught his followers that all non-Jews, especially African Americans and Arabs, are potential threats to the American Jewish community. His preachings highlighted the perception of Jews as a defenseless and weak community, and he often denounced both the mainstream Jewish community and law enforcement agencies as unwilling or unable to protect Jewish neighborhoods. He concluded that only Jews could protect themselves.

In his writings and public appearances, Kahane echoed the rhetoric of the Black Power movement. He emphasized Jewish Power through the strength of arms and threats of violence to defend against anti-Semitism. In The Story of the Jewish Defense League (1975), he declared, “Vandals attack a synagogue? Let that synagogue attack the vandals. Should a gang bloody a Jew, let a Jewish group go looking for the gang. This is the way of pride, not evil pride, but the pride of nation, of kinship—the pride of the mountain (p.143).’

Kahane’s vision was turned into reality in May 1969, when the JDL established training camps and schools in which young Jews learned militant Jewish nationalism, hand-to-hand combat, and how to use firearms. Premeditated violence and vigilante justice followed. In September 1970, armed JDL activists were arrested in an attempted hijacking of an Arab airline.

As the JDL gained national recognition and support, its violent activities escalated. Protests and terror attacks were staged, including bombings, kidnappings, and attempted hijackings. Soviet and Arab representatives were the most common targets, as JDL wanted to respond to the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union and to participate in the Israeli-Arab conflict. However, anyone that the JDL believed was or could be a threat to Jews was threatened, including mainstream Jewish organizations, which denounced the JDL and its tactics.

In 1971 Kahane immigrated to Israel to establish the anti-Arab Kach Party. He continued to travel to the United States and direct JDL activities until he officially resigned from his position as the group’s leader on April 17, 1974. Although Kahane continued to inspire his American followers and traveled to the United States to participate in JDL activities, the organization was left to less charismatic leaders such as Victor Vancier and Irv Rubin, under whose guidance JDL support was reduced.

At the end of the 1980s, JDL’s significance declined. It had received some support from moderate American Jews for pressuring the U.S.S.R. to allow Jews to emigrate. When President Gorbachev finally permitted record numbers of Jews to leave in the late-1980s, Kahane’s focus shifted almost entirely to Israel. In addition, many JDL activists were arrested, including Vancier in 1986. However, the movement was dealt a crippling blow on November 5, 1990, when Kahane was assassinated in Manhattan by El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian Islamic fundamentalist connected to Al Qaeda.

Thus, the already weak JDL lost its founder. In addition, a split occurred within the Kach Party in Israel. Binyamin Kahane, Meir Kahane’s son, broke with Kach Party leader Baruch Marzel and founded Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), based in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Kahane Chai also established operations in Brooklyn, encroaching on JDL’s financial and political territory.

After Kahane’s death, the JDL was overshadowed by the shocking actions of its ideological brethren in Israel, particularly the Hebron Massacre of dozens of Muslims while they were praying, perpetrated by Kahanist Baruch Goldstein on February 25, 1994, and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir on November 5, 1995, in protest of the Oslo Peace Accords. The JDL leadership refused to condemn these crimes.

The JDL’s continued use of violence eventually led to its failure. On December 11, 2001, Rubin, its longest serving national chairman, and Earl Krugel, the group’s former West Coast coordinator, were arrested days before they were to carry out several terrorist attacks on Arab targets in retaliation for Islamic terrorism. While in jail, Rubin committed suicide in November 2002. Three years later, in November 2005, Krugel was murdered in jail. Following Rubin’s death, his widow Shelley Rubin feuded with JDL leaders Bill Maniaci and Matthew Finberg, which led to the JDL splitting into two rival camps.

In 2005, JDL rallies and protests rarely attracted more than a dozen supporters. Activities remain on a small scale and include rallies against Arab and Islamic interests and protests of white supremacists, antiwar protestors, and anti-Israel events. Maniaci has intimated that the JDL would like to shed its image as a violent extremist group. However, indoctrination and combat training camps are occasionally reported, and the JDL continues to threaten Arabs, Muslims, and others it deems dangerous to the American Jewish community and Israel.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism.


Anti-Defamation League. 1995. “Extremism in the Name of Religion: The Violent Record of the Kahane Movement and Its Offshoots.” ADL Research Report. New York: ADL.

Kahane, Meir. 1971. Never Again! A Program for Survival. Los Angeles, CA: Nash.

———. 1975. The Story of the Jewish Defense League. Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company.

Alexander M. Feldman

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Jewish Defense League