Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2001 / 4 Teves, 5762

Understanding the JDL

By Yossi Klein Halevi -- IMAGINE if the two leaders of the extremist Jewish Defense League who were arrested on Wednesday for allegedly plotting to bomb a Culver City mosque had succeeded. Just as American troops close in on Bin-Laden and Israel convinces American opinion that Yasser Arafat is an unreconstructed terrorist, a Muslim house of worship is destroyed by Jewish madmen during the holy month of Ramadan.

A suicidal contempt for the world impels the tiny and pathetic Jewish Defense League (JDL) - a remnant of the charismatic extremist movement founded in the late 1960s.

As a teenager in early 70s, I was drawn to the JDL, especially to its violent campaign to free Soviet Jewry. While my own activism was limited to vandalism - like throwing bags of chicken blood at Soviet folk dancers during a performance in Manhattan's Lincoln Center - some of my friends were indicted for bombings and shooting attacks against Soviet institutions in America. Jewish victimization, we believed, granted us moral immunity.

We were moved by contradictory impulses - maddened by the impotence of the Jews during the Holocaust, inspired by Israeli resolve and emboldened by the student radicals of the 1960s. With its evocative slogan of "Never Again," the JDL promised a new fighting Jew, undoing the passivity of the past. Yet in our obsession with anti-Semitism, we allowed our enemies to define our identity and to obscure the fundamental shift in Jewish fate created by the empowerment of American Jewry and the founding of Israel.

JDL's violence sought to resolve the contradiction between our psychological and our actual lives. We were traumatized by the memory of the Holocaust yet secure in the safest haven Jews have ever known. By fighting New York cops and drawing FBI agents to our homes, we could exchange the prosperous Jewish community around us for the danger zone of Jewish history.

Many former JDLers now distinguish between the "good JDL" that helped free Soviet Jews and the "bad JDL" that followed and that indulges in anti-Arab racism. Yet we prepared the ideological ground for the dangerous misfits of today's JDL - by insisting that "the world" hates the Jews and that all means are permitted in defense of our people.

There is of course no difference between Jews who plot to blow up a mosque and Muslims who detonate themselves on Israeli buses. But, tragically, there is a crucial difference between the responses to terrorism among Jews and Muslims generally. When Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslims during prayer in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1995, Jewish leaders across the world repudiated the atrocity. Leading rabbis denounced Goldstein's act as a desecration of Judaism and sent letters of condolence to Muslim clerics. The late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, told the Israeli parliament that Goldstein had excluded himself from the Jewish people. Only extremist apologists suggested that Goldstein - a doctor who had treated victims of terrorism at the scene of attacks - was driven to desperation.

Contrast that overwhelming Jewish repudiation with the so-far tepid Muslim response to terrorism. Even many moderate Muslim spokespeople have been unable to denounce the World Trade Center attack - let alone suicide bombings in Israel - without appending the excuse of Arab "frustration."

Still, Jews shouldn't feel entirely secure in our own righteousness. For while only miniscule numbers support the JDL's violence, many more sympathize with its basic worldview that divides the world into "us" and "them." The alleged bombing plot against the Culver City mosque is a warning to those Jews who cling to a victim identity and to a contempt for outsiders that, however inadvertently, they encourage the madmen among us to mimick the ugliest behavior of our enemies.

JWR contributor Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He is the author of "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (Little, Brown) and, most recently, "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for G-d with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land." Comment by clicking here.

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11/20/01: Good try, Mr. Powell, but Mitchell Report is fundamentally flawed

© 2001,Yossi Klein Halevi. This article originally appeared in the LA Times.