The founder of the Jewish Defense League pushed the boundaries between spiritual leader, politician, and terrorist.
Perhaps no name is more synonymous with the Jewish radical religious right than Meir Kahane. Born in Brooklyn in 1932, and assassinated in Manhattan in 1990, Kahane's lasting infamy came mainly from two projects: founding the Jewish Defense League in America and forming Kach, the political party under which he would eventually run for--and win--public office in Israel.
Kahane was raised in a traditional Orthodox home where radical politics were common conversation. His father was a strong advocate of militant Zionism, with positions informed by Ze'ev Jabotinsky's revisionist Zionist school. Jabotinsky's politics spoke to central features of the Kahane family's history: Five of their relatives were killed in a 1938 ambush by anti-Zionist Arabs, and another flank of the Kahane clan perished in the Holocaust.
In 1946, Meir joined Betar, Jabotinsky's youth movement. Kahane did not shirk from the group's illegal activities. In one early episode, he was arrested in New York City for pelting British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin with vegetables in protest of Bevin's anti-Zionist stance.
The First Steps
After receiving rabbinic ordination in 1957, Kahane worked as a pulpit rabbi at a small Conservative congregation in Queens. He was fired in 1960 over religious differences. Kahane soon found work with the Orthodox-oriented Jewish Press. He published partisan editorials, often warning Jews of a coming holocaust at the hands of inner city Blacks or Hispanics. Through his writing, Kahane achieved modest fame in the New York Jewish world.
During this period, Kahane also moonlighted with the FBI, assuming a false identity to infiltrate the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. And as the student protest movement intensified in 1965, he worked to cultivate pro-Vietnam War sentiment on American college campuses. In 1968 Kahane and his long-time friend Joseph Churba released the book The Jewish Stake in Vietnam.
Kahane believed that the John Birch Society was notoriously anti-Semitic, and that the Vietnam War was a must-win Cold War quagmire that would determine American strength and Israel's future. So, Kahane explained, his disparate activities were actually united in their aim to protect Jewry in America and abroad.
Still, Kahane was largely unknown outside of Jewish world until he founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968.
Formed in New York City, the JDL proclaimed its commitment to "protect Jews from anti-Semitism by whatever means necessary." Using "Never Again" as a rallying cry, the JDL ran small-scale, sometimes thuggish patrols in changing New York City neighborhoods, where elderly and impoverished Jews faced anti-Semitism, robberies, and harassment.
As the JDL grew wealthier and attracted more devotees, its operations became more ambitious. Though still small in ranks, the League bombed numerous Arab and Soviet targets in the United States between 1968 and 1971, including the New York offices of the Soviet airline Aeroflot, a Soviet cultural building in Washington, and even a Russian gift shop in Minnesota.
These stints attracted global attention. Kahane became a known name, and through his extremist activities he gained some supporters, and even more detractors, worldwide.
Naturally, the League drew ire from the American government, which was fearful that Kahane would foil the détente that had only recently been achieved in US-Soviet relations. By 1970, the FBI was monitoring JDL phone calls.
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