Fight Club: Is the JDL now mainstream?

Does the JDL fill a void in street-level Jewish activism?

They were once dismissed as little more than violent street hooligans looking for trouble, often finding it. Confrontational in style and openly reverential of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the forced transfer of Arabs from Israel, members and followers of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) marched, rallied, raised clenched fists and came home bloodied, but never bowed.

After all, it was the 1960s and ’70s.

Today, especially in local protests freighted with ugly anti-Semitic imagery and chants of “Death to Israel” in the wake of the Gaza war, the JDL is there again, counter-rallying, waving Star of David flags, chanting pro-Israel slogans and going nose-to-nose with Hamas supporters. Their calls to the community to come out for events have not gone unheeded.

Is the JDL filling a vacuum in Jewish advocacy, which has traditionally shunned street-level agitation? Does the group’s resurgence reflect a hardening of attitudes in the Jewish community?

Once reflexively labelled as “far-right” and a vigilante group, is the JDL appealing to mainstream Jews?

Writing on left-wing and Palestinian-friendly websites recently, one anti-Israel activist noted: “Rather than being an isolated fringe group the Jewish mainstream tries to ostracize, the JDL seems to be gaining influence.”

There’s no denying its presence. The group has been front and centre at several recent high-profile street rallies, such as last month at Palestine House in Mississauga, where stories varied as to which side started a fracas that resulted in two arrests and one JDL member shedding blood, as well as at the annual Al Quds Day event at Queen’s Park July 26, and the next day, when members provided “security” at the Canadians for Israel rally (there were some violent incidents).

There have been other raucous gatherings generating media headlines.

In the past few weeks, the JDL has announced intentions to set up chapters in Montreal and Calgary – and potentially Ottawa and Vancouver – allegedly in response to growing demand in the face of attacks against Jews.

In Montreal, the effort was met with a cool response. Rabbi Reuben Poupko of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) dismissed the JDL as “marginal,” “superfluous” and receiving of “much more attention than they deserve.”

Even so, no less than Prime Minister Stephen Harper boosted the group’s fortunes considerably – and controversially – when he included a JDL member in his official delegation on his trip to Israel.

In the United States, in an oft-cited 2000-2001 report, the FBI branded the JDL a “right-wing terrorist group,” pointing to a botched plot by its leader to bomb a California mosque, and as “violent” and “extremist.” No such designation has happened in Canada regarding the JDL itself, although in 2005, Canada banned Kach, the far-right Israeli political party founded by Rabbi Kahane, as well as a breakaway, Kahane Chai, established following the rabbi’s assassination in New York in 1990. Ottawa added both to its list of terror organizations (Israel outlawed the groups in the 1980s).

And in 2011, the RCMP launched an investigation into at least nine members of the Canadian JDL following an anonymous tip that they were planning to bomb Palestine House. (The RCMP did not return The CJN’s calls. Meir Weinstein, JDL Canada’s founder and national director, said nothing came of the probe.)

Now, France may ban the JDL following violent street demonstrations in Paris in which members allegedly waved metal bars and gas canisters while chanting “f— Palestine.”

The group’s current profile in Canada derives from its tapping into heightened tensions in the community, believes Bernie Farber, former CEO of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress.

“They have been very clever at taking advantage of a brutal situation in the Middle East, which is their stock-in-trade,” Farber told The CJN.

“All of us care about what’s going on in Israel, but [JDL members] don’t do this on a political basis,” Farber said. “Much of their focus is on Canadian Muslims and Islam, and they support known bigots – including [U.S. anti-Islamic activists] Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. Anyone who takes an anti-Islam stance of any kind, they embrace.”

But Farber denied the JDL is experiencing a renaissance.

“They’ve never been away,” he said. “When groups like CJC spoke out on anti-racism issues, they didn’t really have a voice. Today, [Jewish advocacy] is concentrated on Israel, and a lot of mainstream [Jewish] organizations are seen mostly as being more verbal than active.”

The JDL has “jumped into this vacuum, and they’re in people’s faces. And that’s what the JDL has always done. They are not sophisticated.”

The Canadian JDL was established in 1979 by Meir Halevi (formerly Marvin Weinstein, and now known as Meir Weinstein), who was born and raised in North York’s Jewish Bathurst Manor neighbourhood to Holocaust survivor parents. When neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers were making noise during the 1980s, Weinstein uttered remarks unmistakably calling for violence against them and their sympathizers.

The group lay dormant for years afterward and was reconstituted in 2006 in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah and the ensuing anti-Jewish rhetoric.

“I thought we made a lot of accomplishments until then,” Weinstein, now 56, told The CJN. “And I never thought I would be bringing the group back.”

Today, the JDL has gained traction because of its strident opposition to radical Islam, which is now more widespread “than any neo-Nazi group in the ’80s was ever capable of,” Weinstein said.

“We’re on the same page [as] many people in Canada in opposing radical Islam. A lot of people speak a similar language. We’ve connected with a lot people. The JDL has definitely appealed to a wider base in Canada, that’s for sure.”

Weinstein also attributed what he sees as increased support for the JDL to other factors: a rise in the number of observant Jews who tend to be onside, and his claim that established Jewish organizations aren’t doing their jobs.

“Jewish groups don’t really address these issues and don’t really monitor these [Muslim] organizations the way they’re paid to. They’re paid to do it, but they don’t do it.

“So people look to groups like the JDL, because they see that we are out on the streets, and we do have a proven track record [in] getting some results.”

Those results include some Islamic groups being stripped of their charitable status and Ottawa’s 2012 decision to defund Palestine House, he claimed. “We had a lot to do with exposing these groups.”

Weinstein acknowledges the JDL took part in in violent incidents in the 1980s involving Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel and Jim Keegstra. The neo-Nazis came “toe to toe with the JDL [and] were meeting Jews who were not going to allow people to push them around. When we’re dealing with these radical Islamic organizations, it’s the same thing.”

Asked whether the JDL today rejects violence, Weinstein said: “It’s not an issue of rejecting violence. If Islamic radical groups are going to attack Jews and seek [to] harm, we have a firm right to self-defend and try to apprehend the person and throw the guy over to nearest police station. And you’ve got to use force for that.”

As for extremist Islamic groups, “we want these organizations shut down,” he said flatly. “And there’s going to be a reaction from those organizations, because they don’t want to be shut down. You either ignore the problem [or] don’t fully address it, and it’s just going to get bigger, and worse. That’s what we believe.”

Martin Sampson, a spokesman for CIJA, agreed that the JDL is exploiting current tensions around the Gaza war.

“I think that the JDL is making some calculations around that and are looking to establish a foothold in communities” they have not been in previously.

“My guess would be they are looking at the situation and thinking the time is right to expand.”

Like other community officials, Sampson, “firmly” believes, “based on the many, many conversations I have had with members of our community across the country, that [the JDL] represents a very narrow view that is on the margins. They do not represent the mainstream Jewish community. Their methods are not effective, and I really don’t think that type of shriller message appeals to the vast majority of members of our community.”

To Farber, the JDL is “very firmly planted on the extreme right of the spectrum. And that’s not a place for Jews.”

Perhaps, but some not thought to be on that end of the spectrum are taking notice.

Avrum Rosensweig, the socially conscious president and CEO of Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, recently posted on his Facebook page: “JDL once again taking the lead in the Toronto Jewish community, ensuring our presence at pro-Hamas rallies. Where are the mainstream Jewish organizations for hasbarah, rallies, defending against anti-Semitism?”

Rosensweig said he posted the message partly to prod community groups “to step up in an area that they need to. If the JDL is responsible for the 185,000 Jews in Toronto by attending rallies and [doing] hasbarah, then there’s something inherently wrong with the motivation of our mainstream Jewish community organizations.”

He said he’s “asked around” about whether the JDL is violent or hates Arabs.

“What I’ve heard to both of those is ‘no.’ I’m hoping that’s the case. I really am, because I would not feel comfortable aligning myself with an organization that’s either of those.”

As far as B’nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant is concerned, “any Jewish group operating within the law has a right to exist and be part of the Jewish mosaic,” and that includes the JDL.

Dimant sees a rise in support for the JDL.

“There is a growth factor. Their visibility on the street is gaining them support in the community. The community expects a Jewish presence when there are rallies by pro-Hamas forces across the country. And the JDL has been the one to provide a lot of that presence.”

But he turned aside the argument that B’nai Brith is shirking its duties.

“Not everyone is out on the street. We’re dealing with issues of anti-Semitism and a lot of other concerns.”

However, he noted that B’nai Brith and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto were scheduled to partner for an Aug. 20 outdoor rally against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism entitled “We Won’t Be Silent Again.”

Or perhaps Canadian Jews opt for indoor activism. As one Jewish online commentator, Alan Simons, archly put it, community members “prefer to attend rallies sheltered from public view in their synagogues rather than voice their support in public, open-air locations.”