Bonnie Bernstein

I Was Fascinated By The JDL, Then I Hated JDL, Now I Support The JDL

In college, I had a fascination with the Jewish Defense League guys, one in particular. Then something happened that caused me to dislike them. But now with Israelis fighting to save themselves from Hamas rockets and tunnels, and French Jews depending on the Jewish Defense League, the JDL, for their lives, I don’t hate the JDL anymore. And I, a New York born and bred Jewish woman, am stunned by my reaction when it comes to the JDL.

I remember my college experiences with the JDL and its founder, Meir Kahane. As an undergrad studying political science, I fell for a member of the JDL. He held his kipot covered head high, walked with a confident strut, something I, growing up a Reform Jew with a Christian stepfather, was not familiar with. One summer away in Connecticut, my mother told me to hide my Jewishness from the kids in the bungalow neighborhood. So I followed him, with his blue eyes, soft skin and self-assured walk, and the rest of the JDL to New Jersey to protest a concentration camp guard who was found living there. It was supposed to be for a story I was writing for the college newspaper I worked for, but I think I just wanted to be part of a Jewish community that I, after non Jewish boyfriends and Christmas trees, lacked. And I wanted the Yeshiva educated boyfriend to seal the deal.

As an mid level editor for that newspaper, The Phoenix, at Queens College, I had a reputation for trashing just about anyone and everything including liberal and conservative politicians, black ministers and the ROTC. I slipped into the Iraqi Embassy under a fake name, thinking I shouldn’t let them know my Jewish name, to write a story. I still remember the brownstone with the sweeping circular stairs, and a whole lot of maroon. Too afraid to ask many questions, I was given a two hour lecture on the history between Iraq and Iran. I was relieved to leave, having gotten in and out of the Iraqi Embassy without being realized for who I was, am. A Jew. A week later, when the piece about the Embassy was published, I sent them a copy.

When Meir Kahane spoke at the college, I had a front row seat. Kahane was busy bouncing around the stage, talking about how we as Jews should always be able to protect ourselves, take care of ourselves. Kahane kept saying, “Never Again.” A young and extremely inexperienced reporter, I wrote a news story about Kahane. I thought as a reporter who was influenced by the Watergate Era, I had to journalistically devour and spit out Kahane. And I felt I did it in quite a fair way. But the JDL must’ve thought it was awful because soon after publication the Kahane supporters walked into a very busy newspaper office. I was sitting in a back room, behind a large desk filled with papers. They didn’t look too happy, and asked for a meeting. I, not thinking much of this because I believed we were on friendly terms, said I was not in the position to grant them the meeting. I told them they’d either have to wait for the editor in chief or come back.

The JDL proceeded to take over the newspaper office, blocking us from leaving. The guy who stood at the door was well over 6’5” with broad shoulders. It only went on for a few minutes, and then it was over. They left. But before they left, it felt like hours of being alone without anyone to help us. I did not have a phone in the room I was in. We, one student organization receiving school funds, brought up on campus charges against the JDL, another student organization receiving school funds. We wanted them defunded for what they did. They were found not guilty. I was very disappointed believing that if someone did not like what I wrote he or she could simply block my office door with me stuck inside.

And so today, I find myself doing something I never felt I could or would do. I’m supporting the JDL in their mission to defend my French mishpucha, my French family. We Jews are all mishpucha, family, no matter what part of the world we hail from. This is the organization that made me bristle all these years for what happened that college semester. I still think of the kipot wearing confident guy who dumped me after I wrote the Kahane piece. I thought my political views were cemented by these experiences.

But as I watched video’s of French Jews under attack, under threat of a pogrom and the French JDL being the ones who rescued them my opinion of the JDL changed, I became thankful to and for the JDL. The French Jews were in synagogue remembering the three young Jews who were murdered by the Hamas in Israel. There were just five police officers guarding the entrance. Without the arrival of the JDL, the protesters would’ve been able to enter and I believe kill innocent Jews like what happened in Mumbai in 2008. I thought of Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s when there was no JDL, no organized Jewish organization to battle the SS, when Jews were alone. Now, in the year 2014, in Paris it was not going to happen that way anymore. Agreeing with the JDL words, “Never Again,” I’ve come to believe that instead of running scared to death, it is better to be hated and alive.

About the Author
Bonnie Bernstein, born and bred in New York City, now lives in the Catskill Mountains. A freelance writer, Bonnie's words can be found in places like TheFix, YourTango, Salon, Babble and Newsday. Lisa Belkin wrote about Bonnie in Motherlode, Anderson Cooper interviewed her and Craig Carton read a story of hers on the radio. Bonnie Bernstein is, currently, writing a book.
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