By Bill Simons
On a bracing Saturday morning in January 2020, I attended Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, an iconic Reform synagogue at One East 65th Street and Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park. An immense and beautiful limestone sanctuary, Temple Emanu-El accommodates a seating capacity larger than that of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the famous Midtown Catholic landmark. The Shabbat service was moving, and a friendly congregant provided me with a late morning tour. I learned that synagogue’s membership included Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, media mogul and philanthropist. Inside Temple Emanu-El, I felt confident about the place of Jews in America.
Then, I returned to the street in front of Temple Emanu-El. This time it registered on me that the synagogue was ringed by New York City police. Although recent violent attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews in suburban Monsey, NY, and on Chasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, had announced a resurgence of antisemitism, there was then still a tendency to rationalize that the targeted were highly visible Jews, distinctive and observable by their clothing, grooming and neighborhood.
The October 27, 2018, Shabbat carnage at Tree of Life synagogue – 11 murdered and six wounded, including aged Holocaust survivors – in the comfortable Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh should have dispelled the shibboleth that only conspicuous Jews were vulnerable. Finally, in the years that have followed, the uptick in antisemitic incidents has shattered the illusion the only the most identifiable Jews are at risk.
The terrorist hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, on January 15 has put American Jews on high alert. And the murderous Russian invasion of Ukraine, a land from which the ancestors of many American Jews emigrated, reminds us that a pre-Holocaust Ukrainian Jewish population of more than 1.5 million is now reduced to approximately 43,000.
Contemporary American Jews are alarmed and growing more militant. Police protection of Jewish institutions in the U.S. has grown more commonplace. Some synagogue officials have applied for gun licenses. There are calls for the rabbinic curriculum to include crisis-response training. Indeed, by throwing a chair at a violent, pistol-waving, terrorist invader, Beth Israel’s Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker helped prevent the slaughter of congregants. Rabbi Cytron-Walker is adamant, “I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses.” Others reconsider the legacy of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and reflect upon the tactics of his Jewish Defense League.
Amidst the American tumult of 1968, the racist demagogue George Wallace gained a national audience by turning “law and order” into angry code words. Contemporaneously, Rabbi Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn native, played upon the fears and anxieties of older, less affluent, more observant Jews in New York City’s outer boroughs and founded the Jewish Defense League . Kahane’s JDL built a platform based on the solidarity of all Jews, Zionism, religious and cultural tradition, the resolve to defend Jewish people by violence and organizational discipline. Protection of New York City’s Jewish neighborhoods, rescue of Soviet Jewry and support of Israel were Kahane priorities. Although Kahane denounced the Black Panthers as antisemites, he emulated their paramilitary tactics. The JDL faced terrorist accusations and arrests, relating to plans for bombings and kidnappings. For conspiring to bomb the Iraqi and Soviet embassies and other plots, Kahane was sentenced to a year in prison.
In 1971, Kahane made aliyah. Upon moving to Israel, he founded a political party, Kach. Kahane advocated the supremacy of the Torah over secular law, removal of Arabs from Israel, limiting citizenship to Jews, criminalizing sexual relations with Gentiles and instrumental violence. Elected to a single term in the Knesset, Kahane’s legislative career was marked by controversy, rather than enactments. Arrested numerous times by Israeli authorities for illegal activities, oft marked by radical racism, he served a six-month prison term for planning armed attacks on Palestinians.
Through the years, the FBI attributed a number of terrorist acts to the JDL. Transgressions included sequestering a firebomb under the Pan Am loading dock at Kennedy International Airport in New York City on April 28, 1986. The Anti-Defamation League asserted, “Kahane consistently preached a radical form of Jewish nationalism, which reflected racism, violence and political extremism.”
Kahane forfeited his U.S. citizenship, but remained free to remain an active presence in America. On November 6, 1990, the front-page, lead article of The New York Times reported, “Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League and leader of an anti-Arab fringe movement in Israel, was assassinated last night by a gunman during a Zionist conference at a hotel (the Marriott East Side) in a midtown Manhattan.” Kahane was 58 years old. The assassin, El Sayyid Nosair, shot and wounded by a U.S. Postal Service officer, was captured. Nosair, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had emigrated from Egypt, murdered Kahane by firing two shots from a .357 caliber pistol at point blank range. The rabbi had just sat down, following a speech exhorting Orthodox attendees to emigrate to Israel. It took two trials, the first complicated and bizarre, before Nosair, also guilty of other terrorist crimes, received a life sentence without possibility of parole.
A decade after Kahane’s assassination, his son, Binyamin, and daughter-in-law, Talia, both followers of his, were murdered in an ambush by Palestinian terrorists outside of Jerusalem.
Although most American Jews publicly distanced themselves from the JDL, Kahane claimed they were privately thankful that he provided a deterrent to their potential assailants. Vigilance is prudent, but Kahane tactics were not in their heyday, nor are they now, an effective bulwark against antisemitic assault.
The American democracy provides political and legal resources, including collaboration with law enforcement. Further Jewish training in the defense of our communities and people is needed. However, appropriating the bigotry of the lawless is not the answer. On March 20, I participated in Civilian Response to Active Shooter Training at Temple Beth El co-directed by Oneonta Police Department Lieutenant Eric Berger, whose grandparents were amongst the founders of the synagogue.
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.