As the JDL expands, questions linger

Back in July, the Jewish Defence League (JDL) announced plans to open new chapters in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver (JDL’s Canadian operations are based in Toronto).

In response, The CJN ran a cover story by contributor Ron Csillag that examined the extent to which the JDL is supported in this country, and asked: “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?”

As Csillag documented, response to the JDL’s planned Canadian expansion has been decidedly mixed. During the summer, as the IDF fought in Gaza, Hamas rockets rained on Israel, anti-Semitism erupted in Europe and some worried that the same could happen here, there appeared to be more openness than previously to the JDL’s aggressive persona. Meanwhile, others, including powerful community organizations, argued the JDL was taking advantage of headlines to scare Jews.

Last week, JDL leaders were in Montreal for the second time in half a year to recruit local members. As reporter Janice Arnold writes in this week’s CJN, about 100 people attended an information session at a Montreal hotel, where JDL director Meir Weinstein received a standing ovation. Later, the group’s co-ordinator in Ontario, Julius Suraski, announced the JDL has “a good core of supporters” in Montreal, and a local chapter will soon be established.

But if some Montrealers appear to be welcoming the JDL, the city’s Jewish community institutions remain far less receptive. In a statement released just hours before the JDL meeting in Montreal, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) claimed, “The JDL is a small, marginal group that does not receive any substantial support within our community,” and, “The Jewish community of Quebec categorically rejects the sensationalist tactics of the JDL and rejects its claim of ensuring the safety of Quebec Jews and their institutions.”

Those statements are bolstered by Rabbi Boruch Perton in this week’s CJN. In an op-ed, the rabbi of Beth Zion Congregation in the Montreal neighbourhood of Cote-St.-Luc, reveals he was once a member of the JDL. In the 1970s, Rabbi Perton writes, “I felt like I was part of something great and that I was protecting the Jewish Nation.”

Over time, though, a more sinister side of the JDL began to emerge. As Rabbi Perton tells it, “It was not uncommon to hear the same words the greatest anti-Semites throughout the ages used toward us, but directed toward Arabs. ‘Expulsion,’ and even worse expressions, were a part of the JDL’s vocabulary.” 

He concludes by encouraging Montreal’s Jewish community “to send a very strong message to anyone who wishes to support and bring the JDL to Montreal… ‘Don’t set up shop here. Move along.’”

These are scary times for Jews, and the last thing any of us should be doing is burying our heads in the sand. We need to protect ourselves from our enemies – and if some worry that community institutions are not sufficiently prepared or up to the task, their questions should be taken seriously and their fear allayed. When that happens, perhaps there won’t be any more need for clenched fists. — YONI