“The Jewish Defense League of Canada is committed to the restoration of pride and integrity to the Jewish people, the return of Jewish values, the reclamation of the Jewish sense of Justice and the abolition of hatred and bigotry.”

I had the opportunity to meet Meir Weinstein of the JDL at a rally at Queen’s Park the summer of 2014. Until recently, I didn’t have any particular feelings toward the JDL except for a certain “ooh” factor. I had internalized a view that something wasn’t quite right about an organization that was “in your face.” And at one time labeled a terrorist organization in the USA. Jews just aren’t like that. We’re cerebral: doctors, lawyers, businessman, talkers-but not fighters.

That women’s rights, gay rights and civil rights came about as a result of in- your-face tactics as well as the written word, doesn’t seem to make a connection with us. We’re just not like that.

But we are. We have a history of brains and brawn. We’ve forgotten it. 1948, 1967, 1973. Entebbe. Munich. And during the Shoah-in the Warsaw Ghetto, at Sobibor; all the way back to King David, and his glorious soldiers. We have been fighters since we entered the Holy Land.

The JDL has had a bit of a bad reputation. Thugs. Meir Kahane, the founder of the JDL in 1968, is not a particularly beloved man amongst many in the Jewish community. Yet, “He came to believe that the major Jewish organizations in the United States had failed to protect America’s Jews from anti-Semitism, which he saw as ‘exploding’ all over the country. ‘”

Kahane wanted to change the image of the Jew from “weak and vulnerable” to one of a “mighty fighter, who strikes back fiercely against tyrants.” 

Long before Kahane and the JDL entered the lexicon, Toronto had a history of Jewish fighting pride. It was August16,1933 when Nazi sympathizers spread a white sheet emblazoned with the Swastika amongst members of a Jewish baseball team. And the battle began. The Christie Pits Riot. The Jewish boys swarmed the Nazis and a six hour battle ensued.

This was during a time when “Anti-Semitism was acceptable …You’d hear ‘dirty Jew’ all the time.” Toronto the Good was “unfriendly”-discriminatory- toward Jews and the Irish.

Cyril Levitt, who co-authored the book The Riot at Christie Pits and interviewed dozens of people who participated, summed up the change in attitude by the Jews. “Basically the message was ‘you don’t have the impunity you had before’ … people felt a sense of pride that they fought back.” No backing down, no apologizing for existing.

Today, the JDL is making a comeback. Not by choice, according to Meir Weinstein. He came out of retirement in 2009 when he sensed that the Jewish community was too quiet (I think at times apologetic) in the face of rising anti-semitism.

Mr. Weinstein told me in the 1980’s the Jewish community was more active. He was invited to university campuses, student conferences and debates at York University and Toronto, now hot-beds of anti-Semitism. He believes the Jewish community changed following the failure of the Oslo agreements: that Jews, today, think back to those agreements and see their failure as a rebuke of peace. Jews, today, who do not agree with Oslo, are referred to as right wing (a pejorative these days).

In 2011 he had attended a lecture at University of Toronto by Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and an advocate for the academic boycott of Israel for being an “apartheid nation” while calling for its isolation. Mr. Weinstein was escorted out after throwing questions at Barghouti. There was a bit of a tumult!

Asked then if he were concerned that his outburst might make things worse for the Jewish students he replied:

“It’s already happening on campuses versus pro-Israeli speakers. It’s been going on for years and it’s about time they get a taste of their own medicine. Is it something we like to do or relish? No. We wish we didn’t have to protest.”

But, he added “We’re looking to embolden the Jewish community here and other Jewish communities and cities to not take a back seat anymore.”

Why the need for the JDL when we have CIJA and StandWithUS, Hillel, B’nai Brith and all kinds of grass-root organizations? Mr. Weinstein summed up his reasons:

“Never start a fight-but we cannot let others hit Jews.”

“If someone hits a Jew, physical force is acceptable.”

Mr.Weinstein believes that most people respond to passion. Jewish people, he said, need to stop “complaining and whining” and act with passion.  Respond to the hate the same way as other groups who have succeeded in changing the culture.

I agree. We need to make anti-Semitic attitudes unacceptable and that requires visible passion. We are passionate in our writings and our speeches-sometimes we need more.

I think of the JDL as a mother bear. I raised my children with the knowledge that I would never let anyone hurt them. Get between me and my cubs and watch out! Bully my child? Never. I told that to Mr. Weinstein and he laughed and said, “Yes, that is one way to look at the JDL.”

To that end, Mr. Weinstein believes that the JDL has a place on campus to advocate for Israel and counter anti-Israel lies that he believes go unchallenged on campus. If I were a student on campus, today, I think I would feel safer knowing that while there were those speaking against anti-semitism, a member of the JDL was quietly watching, like a mother bear.

The JDL doesn’t go unchallenged. Martin Sampson, a spokesman for CIJA(Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) believes the JDL is exploiting current tensions around the Gaza war. “I think that the JDL is making some calculations around that and are looking to establish a foothold in communities” they have not been in previously. “My guess would be they are looking at the situation and thinking the time is right to expand.”

Sampson “firmly” believes,

“based on the many, many conversations I have had with members of our community across the country, that [the JDL] represents a very narrow view that is on the margins. They do not represent the mainstream Jewish community. Their methods are not effective, and I really don’t think that type of shriller message appeals to the vast majority of members of our community.”

To Bernie Farber the JDL is “very firmly planted on the extreme right of the spectrum. And that’s not a place for Jews.”

To Mr. Weinstein “the problem is a level of assimilation and alienation by too many in the Jewish community and that leads to apprehension of a group like JDL.” Yet the JDL works with police and the federal government.

Mr. Weinstein says he gave the Federal government information about organizations that have charitable status that are actually terrorist-affiliated which resulted in stripping Palestine House of its charitable status.

The JDL works with police and security groups when there are demonstrations that could lead to attacks against Jews. He worked with the Queen’s Park police meeting with them 3 days prior to the July 27 rally at Queen’s Park.

Mr. Weinstein was invited by the Harper government to go to Israel in “recognition of our contribution … in defence of the community.” The JDL is “just trying to expose organizations that want Israel destroyed.”  Shimon Fogel of CIJA said that the composition of the 208-members “was varied, reflecting the broad range of Canadian stakeholders in the Canada-Israel relationship.”

Mr. Weinstein sees the JDL’s place in the community as leading the Jewish community out of its malaise, help dust off its apathy, and recognize anti-Semites. Then lead us in standing up, protesting and demonstrating. It’s time to counter the anti-Israel symbols and name anti-Israel, anti-Jewish hate publicly.

He believes the JDL is gaining in popularity because of “its strident opposition to radical Islam, which is now more widespread ‘than any neo-Nazi group in the ’80s was ever capable of.’”

There is a fear of the JDL. But I think it comes from its early days when the JDL was listed as a terrorist organization. The JDL has evolved. Israel was born by the words of those who spoke eloquently about our right to a Jewish state and by the hands of those who fought for that right with bombs. Those same people evolved into leaders of Israel.

“The Galut image of the Jew as a weakling, as one who is easily stepped upon and who does not fight back is an image that must be changed. Not only does that image cause immediate harm to Jews but it is a self-perpetuating thing. Because a Jew runs away or because a Jew allows himself to be stepped upon, he guarantees that another Jew in the future will be attacked because of the image that he has perpetuated. JDL wants to create a physically strong, fearless and courageous Jew who fights back. We are changing an image, an image born of 2,000 years in the Galut, an image that must be buried because it has buried us.”