Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, part I

By Bill Simons

It was 1973, a time, like our own, of resurgent antisemitism. The residents at 704 Hauser Street in the Astoria section of Queens, New York City, found a swastika spraypainted on their front door. An accompanying note read: “This is just the beginning. We’ll be back.” Fear pervaded the household. 

Paul Benjamin, a charismatic leader of the Hebrew Defense Association, showed up offering protection. The Bunkers explained that they were not Jewish, apparently their home was mistaken for that of their neighbor, David Bloom, a vocal school board member. Benjamin retorted that, as in Nazi Germany, once paranoid extremists target you, irrational hate trumps facts, and his hosts were in danger. Prepared for a long stakeout, Benjamin pulled the curtains. When he resolved that “if they use force, we use force,” the Bunkers’ liberal son-in-law termed Benjamin a vigilante and warned that counterviolence would only escalate a dangerous cycle. Derisively, Benjamin dismissed dialogue and law as futile. 

The Bunkers’ crisis apparently diffused when Benjamin received word that the antisemitic terrorists had now circled the Bloom residence. As Benjamin departed, he offered an ambiguous “shalom.” Seconds later, hearing an ominous explosion, the family opened the front door. His face frozen in shock, the father muttered, “Wholly jeez, that’s Paul... they blew him up in his car.” 

The preceding was fictive in specifics, but perhaps not in capturing the prevailing zeitgeist. The events were depicted in the Saturday, February 24, 1973, 8 pm episode of the groundbreaking CBS situation comedy “All in the Family.” Clearly, the Hebrew Defense Association was a pseudonymous calling out of the Jewish Defense League by the program’s Jewish producer Norman Lear. “All in the Family” frequently took on controversial and serious issues, laced with wit. Even in this episode, there was humor in the growing camaraderie between the working-class, head of the household, Archie Bunker, whose bigotry reflected a mean-minded ignorance leavened by occasional displays of sensitivity, and the dynamic Paul who calls Archie “Boobie.” The dramatic car-bombing fadeout, however, was, by intent, stunning and disturbing.

Events both transformative and challenging punctuated 1973, with added dimensions for Israeli and American Jewry. Ambiguity clouded the formal ending of the Vietnam War; the Watergate cancer continued to metastasize on the Nixon presidency; stagflation appeared intractable; and the Roe v. Wade decision further polarized the abortion debate. Although Israel won a stunning victory in the high-stakes Yom Kippur War, an OPEC oil boycott followed, bringing an energy crisis and sentiments reflected in a proliferation of bumper stickers of the “America Needs Oil, Not Jews” genre. Amidst this canvas, Rabbi Meir Kahane’s militant and controversial Jewish Defense League grew in notoriety. In 1973, it was cited in 98 articles in The New York Times.

At this time, I was teaching social studies at the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, CT. Alex Schwartz was a student in one of my 10th-grade Western Civilization classes. He was bright, idealistic, polite, confident and Jewish. At 15, Alex was already 6’5”, 210 pounds, and excelled in the javelin throw. His parents, however, had a concern about which they spoke to me. During a summer 1973 immersive work experience in Israel, he had met Kahane and, drawn to the rabbi’s courage, charisma and Jewish solidarity, Alex joined the JDL. 

Carrying a lacrosse stick, Alex provided security for elderly Jews in the high-crime Albany Avenue area of Hartford and participated in a Jewish Defense League counter rally in Washington, DC. I shared my feelings with Alex about the provocative and sometimes dangerous activities of the JDL. Listening intently and responding in measured tones, Alex indicated that, with caution and responsibility, he would continue his endeavors. A half-century later Alex, now an attorney, and I continued the dialogue on March 16. Although still strongly committed to the fight against antisemitism, Alex had, long ago, broken with the JDL when Kahane’s racism surfaced. 

In the late 1970s, I again brushed up against the Kahane forcefield. On the evening of Wednesday, April 25, 1979, Kahane spoke for over two hours on the SUNY Oneonta campus in the Instructional Resources Center, Lecture Hall 1. Attendance numbered close to 100, a mix of students, faculty and community. Security stood at the ready. I served as the advisor to the Jewish student group for a year in the late 1970s during a colleague’s sabbatical and then for a long stretch as co-advisor two decades later. I arrived just before the start of Kahane’s program. 

Kahane’s reputation preceded him, and the atmosphere in the room on that late April night was intense and focused. Rabbi Kahane praised militant American Jews who agitated on behalf of their persecuted Soviet co-religionists and castigated comfortable, silent, assimilated, intermarried, suburban Jews for their oversensitivity to Gentile opinion. The JDL, claimed Kahane, was formed to protect the poor and elderly Jews of Brooklyn and the Bronx who had not fled to comfortable Long Island sanctuaries. As for Israel evolving into a multiethnic nation, Kahane called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel lest their birthrate destroy the defining character of the Jewish state. Reception to the lecture was polarized. A true believer, immune to nuance, doubt or fear, Kahane exuded a preternatural confidence and dynamism. As Philip Steinbach, a reporter for the student newspaper, observed, “Kahane was able to evoke a multitude of emotions… individuals reacted by applauding, growing uncomfortably silent… and by angrily stating their disapproval.” 

During the volatile question-and-answer session following formal remarks, an Oneonta student castigated Kahane for advocating violence and intolerance in violation of the Torah. Kahane evoked the obligation of self-defense and Jewish survival. A visiting Jewish student from SUNY Albany sought counsel as to what he and allies should do about an upcoming lecture by a Palestine Liberation Organization leader. Kahane told the student to disrupt the PLO representative by shouting him down. When the student asked about employing violence, Kahane shrugged, “And who am I to tell you not to use violence?” 

Part II of this series will engage Kahane’s question. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.