The Jewish Defence League (JDL) is a far-right Zionist organization founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968 to combat antisemitism by any means necessary. In 2001, the FBI declared the JDL a right-wing terrorist group due to its violent methods and ideological foundation (1). The league had been linked with numerous bombings, armed assaults, acts of racketeering, and infrastructure attacks targeting what they consider to be enemies of the Jewish people (2). Those said enemies range from neo-Nazi, Arab, or even communist groups and individuals.
JDL also strongly criticized the Soviet Union’s antisemitic policies throughout the 80s and early 90s (3). This sentiment helped the league evolve from a mere vigilante group into an established organization with 15.000 members at its peak (4). It is difficult to pin down JDL’s activities as, after the death of Meir Kahane, their presence and influence have waned. Despite that, many still share their beliefs while proudly waving the JDL flag.
History & Foundations
Rabbi Meir Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in New York City. Kahane’s motivation behind starting the league was rooted in the tense racial climate among American citizens during the 50s and 60s, specifically cases of violence against Jewish people. One of the triggers was the backlash towards New York teachers union strikes in 1968, which highlighted tensions between Jewish teachers and black residents who intended to take over Manhattan’s neighborhood schools (5). Cases like the teachers union strikes and stories of antisemitism in the Jewish media contributed greatly to working-class Jews joining the JDL.
Initially, the JDL was known as the Jewish Defense Corps. They aimed to act as a counter-organization against the Black Power activists with their violent methods (6). However, they eventually replaced “Corps” with “League” because of the militant connotations of the former (6). JDL’s overall goal also shifted to fighting antisemitism in general, adopting the “Never Again” slogan as an homage to victims of the Holocaust.
From 1968 to 1970, the majority of JDL members were young adults, but the middle-aged members served as chapter leaders (8). At that time, the league’s most prominent chapters were in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. In 1971, the JDL reorganized the chapter’s organizational structure by giving younger members more leadership opportunities. Despite being a Jewish organization, in the 70s, only 25% of the league’s members were orthodox Jews, 4% non-Jews, and the rest were ethnically Jews but not religious during the 70s (9).
After its inception, the JDL immediately gained a negative reputation for violence. Their name became widespread after the New York Times released an article about them in 1969, which displayed a picture of six young Jewish people guarding the Temple Emanu-El in New York City, armed with brass knuckles and baseball bats. Underneath the picture, a text (10) reads the following:
“Is this any way for nice Jewish boys to behave? The answer was a barely qualified maybe. Maybe there are times when there is no other way to get across to the extremists that the Jew is not quite the ‘patsy’ some think he is….Maybe—just maybe— nice people build their road to Auschwitz.”
Throughout Kahane’s leadership, the JDL carried out protests, threats, extortion, and attacks targeting whoever they perceived as a threat to the Jewish people. This list included Arabs, communists, neo-nazis, and many more. The JDL’s methods and ideology gained them a form of notoriety throughout the U.S. Indeed, they were condemned and vilified by the Jewish community as their actions were seen by other Jews as 'different' from 'typical Jewish behavior'.
In 1990, the JDL’s activities caught up with Meir Kahane, as he was assassinated while giving a speech to orthodox Jews in Brooklyn (11). Kahane was shot with a pistol by an Egyptian American named El Sayyid Nosair. After Kahane’s death, the JDL continued its ideological pursuit but experienced a decline in membership and influence. Infighting and fractures within the League did not help their cause either, which eventually led to them being weakened even more. As a result, many of their members got out of the group to seek a more moderate approach to their cause. The main factor behind their diminishing power was their struggle to replace the charismatic leadership of Meir Kahane, which was the driving force for the League’s cohesion and drive.
In 2001 the FBI officially labeled the JDL as a far-right terrorist organization. During the 2000s, the group also managed to branch its chapters out to Europe, South Africa, and Canada.
Objectives & Ideology
Meir Kahane and the JDL have made it clear that their goal is to fight antisemitism by any means necessary. That attitude stems from Kahane’s three justifications for forming a Jewish militant group, which are the following (12):
"Antisemitism is on the rise in communists countries, the Middle East, and American urban centers.
Government, police, and the Jewish “establishment” shows no tolerance to threats that target Jewish tradition and survival.
The Jewish Defense League is necessary to preserve Jewish tradition and be on the front lines of an active resistance to antisemitism of any kind. The League will use force if necessary to ensure peace for Jews everywhere."
There are also five principles that JDL members must abide by (13):
Ahavat Yisrael - Love Jewry: The JDL was formed to educate Jews on the concept of Ahavat Yisrael. One Jewish people, indivisible and united, which drives love for and the feeling of pain of all Jews.
Hadar - Dignity and Pride: Jews need to have pride and knowledge of Jewish tradition, faith, culture, history, and pain.
Barzel - Iron: Helping all Jews through sacrifice and all necessary means, including strength, force, and violence as a last resort.
Mishmaat - Discipline and Unity: Discipline and Unity will lead Jews to victory and gain triumph. A lack of discipline is what has failed Jewish people in the past.
Bitachon - Faith in The Indestructibility of The Jewish People: Jews need to have faith in the indestructibility of their people and traditions. This faith was instilled by God and the incredible story of Jewish history.
The JDL also adopted an ideology called Kahanism, coined by Meir Kahane himself. Kahanism pushes the belief that Jews and Arabs cannot coexist peacefully inside the same state (14). This ideology advocates for the establishment of a theocratic Jewish state in Israel, which -- if it was to ever be achieved -- would signify that Arabs living in Israel would be exiled. This is mainly because of the fundamental Kahanist belief that views Arabs as the enemies of Jews, and that non-Jews should have no voting rights (15).
Kahane and the JDL also believed that Jews have historically been scapegoats for all of the world's problems. Kahane once said: “when the world is in trouble it is demanded of the Jew that he help because he is human. When the Jew is oppressed humanity is freed from any obligation because it is a Jewish problem” (16).
During the 1960s and early 1990s, the JDL also had strong objections toward the living conditions of Jews in Soviet states (17). They felt that the Soviet government had been oppressing Jews with their policies, mainly because of the prosecutions of Jewish students and intellectuals during the Soviet government’s reign (18). Jewish books have also been burned as part of the Soviet’s crackdown operations, and such policies were seen as a threat to Jewish traditions and a potential cultural genocide by the JDL.
Approach to Resistance
The JDL prides itself in active resistance against any kind of antisemitism. Active resistance comes in many forms. The first is instilling pride in the Jewish youth, by holding speeches and spreading cultural propaganda. The League would often manipulate the media to give the JDL attention. Kahane often organized mass meetings, rallies, and demonstrations. He would express the League’s views through his columns in the Jewish Press. Staged JDL events would also be used to garner attention from reporters (19).
The second approach to resistance employed by the JDL is based on violence. The JDL primarily gained its reputation through its vigilante actions rather than through its role as an advocacy group. In fact, the group is armed and has used violent tactics to further its agenda; these tactics are what Kahane would call “creative disorder” which include blackmail, extortion, arson, armed assault, unarmed assault, hostage-taking, hijacking, and bombings (20).
One of the big incidents linked with the JDL was the murder of Alex Odeh. Odeh was a Palestinian-American regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). He was killed in 1985 when a bomb exploded in the ADC office in Santa Ana, California. No one was ever convicted, but the FBI heavily suspects the JDL’s involvement. Before Odeh’s death, he denied the involvement of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) in the hijacking of the Achille Lauro boat that killed the Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer (21). Irv Rubin, the JDL chairman, reacted to the bombing by stating that Odeh had “got exactly what he deserved. My tears were used up crying for Leon Klinghoffer” (22).
The French chapter of the JDL was responsible for their more recent actions. On July 13th, 2014, JDL members clashed with pro-Palestinian protesters outside a synagogue in Paris. At first, the public was outraged by the incident and thought it was an anti-semitic attack by the pro-Palestinian demonstrators (23), but some witnesses testified that the JDL had provoked the incident to a greater extent.
A couple of days later, two JDL members were jailed for detonating a homemade bomb under the car of Jonathan Moadab, the co-founder of the “Cercle des Volontaires” (Circle of Volunteers) blog in 2012. After the attack, the letters “LDJ” (Ligue de Défense Juive) and the Star of David were written all over the car. Moadab also said that he received calls that threatened to “Kill you, your mother, your father, and your brothers” (24). This attack was motivated by Moadab’s criticism of the French Zionist nebula in one of his articles.
Alliances & Relations
One of the JDL’s main strategies is to form partnerships with ethnic organizations, specifically non-Jewish groups that they also deem to be ostracised. For instance, during the early days of the JDL, Kahane allied with the Mafia Chief Joseph Colombo Sr., who ran the Italian Civil Rights League (25). The group failed on numerous accounts to form alliances with other Jewish groups, for these would usually reject any cooperation with the JDL.
Despite the League’s political isolation, it has managed to spread outside of the U.S., most notably in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and South Africa (26).
The JDL’s ideology, specifically Kahanism, has influenced contemporary Israeli politics. The Otzma Yehudit party, for example, adopted Kahanist rhetoric and ideology. In 2022, Otzma Yehudit grew to be Israel’s third-largest party and gained six seats in parliament (27). One of the party’s members, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was appointed Minister of National Security in Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration (28).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) “Jewish Defense League.” Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/jewish-defense-league.
(2) “GTD Search Results.” Www.start.umd.edu, www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?page=1&casualties_type=&casualties_max=&perpetrator=1236&count=100&charttype=line&chart=overtime&ob=GTDID&od=desc&expanded=yes.
(3) Bird, David. “Jewish Defense League to Step up Protests at Soviet U.N. Mission’.” The New York Times, 10 Apr. 1976, www.nytimes.com/1976/04/10/archives/jewish-defense-league-to-step-up-protests-at-soviet-un-mission.html.
(5) Seibold, David. “Jewish Defense League: The Rhetoric of Resistance.” Today’s Speech, vol. 21, no. 4, Sept. 1973, pp. 39–48, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463377309369117.
(6) Iancovici, Henry. “The Jewish Defense League.” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 5, no. 4, July 1971, pp. 11–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/0031322x.1971.9968999.
(8) Seibold, David. “Jewish Defense League: The Rhetoric of Resistance.” Today’s Speech, vol. 21, no. 4, Sept. 1973, pp. 39–48, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463377309369117.
(10) Sholkoff, Avraham. “Is This Any Way for Nice Jewish Boys to Behave?” American Jewish Masculinity and the Jewish Defense League Advised by Professor Deborah Dash Moore. 2019.
(11) “Meir Kahane | Israeli Political Extremist and Rabbi.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/biography/Meir-Kahane.
(12) Seibold, David. “Jewish Defense League: The Rhetoric of Resistance.” Today’s Speech, vol. 21, no. 4, Sept. 1973, pp. 39–48, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463377309369117.
(13) “Five Principles | Jewish Defense League.” Web.archive.org, 9 Dec. 2011, web.archive.org/web/20111209115505/www.jdl.org/index.php/ideology-advocacy/core-ideology/five-principles/
(14) Asher, Abe. (Re-)Making the State: Religious Zionism, Religious Violence, and (Re-)Making the State: Religious Zionism, Religious Violence, and Israel in the 21st Century Israel in the 21st Century.
(16) Seibold, David. “Jewish Defense League: The Rhetoric of Resistance.” Today’s Speech, vol. 21, no. 4, Sept. 1973, pp. 39–48, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463377309369117.
(17) Bird, David. “Jewish Defense League to Step up Protests at Soviet U.N. Mission’.” The New York Times, 10 Apr. 1976, www.nytimes.com/1976/04/10/archives/jewish-defense-league-to-step-up-protests-at-soviet-un-mission.html.
(18) Seibold, David. “Jewish Defense League: The Rhetoric of Resistance.” Today’s Speech, vol. 21, no. 4, Sept. 1973, pp. 39–48, https://doi.org/10.1080/01463377309369117.
(19) Baumel, Judith Tydor. “Right‐Wing Ideologies among American Jews: The Seductive Myth of Power in Crisis.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol. 4, no. 4, Dec. 1998, pp. 75–109, https://doi.org/10.1080/13537119808428547.
(20) Baumel, Judith Tydor. “Kahane in America: An Exercise in Right-Wing Urban Terror.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 22, no. 4, Nov. 1999, pp. 311–329, https://doi.org/10.1080/105761099265667.
(21) SheenFebruary 6 2020, David SheenDavid, and 1:00 P.m. “Alex Odeh Was Assassinated. Two Suspects Live Openly in Israel.” The Intercept, 6 Feb. 2020, theintercept.com/2020/02/06/alex-odeh-bombing-israel/.
(23)https://www.france24.com/en/20140729-calls-mount-ban-france-violent-jewish-defence-league. “Calls Mount to Ban France’s “Violent” Jewish Defence League.” France 24, 29 July 2014, www.france24.com/en/20140729-calls-mount-ban-france-violent-jewish-defence-league.
(25) Baumel, Judith Tydor. “Right‐Wing Ideologies among American Jews: The Seductive Myth of Power in Crisis.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol. 4, no. 4, Dec. 1998, pp. 75–109, https://doi.org/10.1080/13537119808428547.
(26) “Jewish Defense League.” Web.archive.org, 3 Dec. 2011, web.archive.org/web/20111203053257/www.jdl.org/index.php/about-jdl/locate-your-local-jdl-chapter/international#.
(27) Keller-Lynn, Carrie. “Separating from Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam Now Independent Parties.” Www.timesofisrael.com, 20 Nov. 2022, www.timesofisrael.com/separating-from-religious-zionism-otzma-yehudit-and-noam-now-independent-factions/.
(28) Staff, ToI. “Otzma Yehudit Says It’s Ending Boycott of Government after Launch of Gaza Operation.” Www.timesofisrael.com, 9 May 2023, www.timesofisrael.com/otzma-yehudit-says-its-ending-boycott-of-government-after-launch-of-gaza-operation/.