It was the late ’60s, with the world slowly forgetting the enormity of the crime perpetrated against the Jewish people, when the attacks on Jews began to increase (again).
Readers of the Jewish Press (the main Jewish newspaper in Brooklyn) were writing to complain about yet another Jew attacked on his way to the synagogue. Others called the paper to report similar incidents. The editor, Rabbi Meir Kahane, began to document these complaints. The attacks on his fellow Jews bothered him deeply, like a hard blow to the belly. No one was doing anything about such incidents, so shortly thereafter, he started a self-defense group to fill the vacuum. He called the group the “Jewish Defense League” or the JDL for short.
In 1968 Kahane reached out to me to join this group. I was a Black Belt in Karate, recently graduating from one of the toughest “dojos” in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. I was the only white kid training among prison guards, firemen and other tough denizens of the community. Kahane’s call to action and his request that I teach Jewish kids karate for self-defense, resonated with me. Also, the JDL’s slogan of “Never Again” especially reverberated with me, a child of Holocaust survivors.
The 15 or so activists that I joined in my first meeting with Kahane blossomed into hundreds and then into thousands. Apparently, the JDL resonated with others, as well. My karate trained squad was getting better and ready for action. We mobilized to answer physical attacks while at other times, we organized demonstrations in front of City Hall or a police station demanding increased protection for Jewish neighborhoods. Our activities garnered press coverage giving us much needed publicity. Jews standing up for themselves defied the age-old stereotype. For the press, we were the “man bites dog story”. Each story in the papers or on TV, amounted to hundreds of new members and support.
Rabbi Kahane devoted most of his time to the JDL. He led all the demonstrations, while also teaching us Zionism and Jewish history. We learned about Zev Jabotinsky, the great Zionist Revisionist leader who warned the Jews of Europe to get out as a “fire was raging about to consume them”. But his warnings fell on deaf ears. We also learned about Menahem Begin and his underground fighters, the Irgun. I dare say, we were moved by their sacrifice.
Meir took a special interest in me and mentored my Jewish education. He referred me to many books, and I devoured them enthusiastically. As I read about the boys who were hanged by the British occupation forces, I must admit, I romanticized their sacrifice, naively thinking, I too was prepared for that ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish nation. I was 18 years old as were many of them. The passion of Kahane influenced and motivated us, as he taught us that part of Jewish history that was omitted in our previous education. Our pride in our Jewish identity grew with each lesson. Some years later, many of our members served in the IDF, and made aliyah to Israel. (I often remember when he told us, with that twinkle in his eye, “You know boys, when your friends get older what stories will they have to tell their grandchildren? But all of you, boy, you will have plenty”. He was, of course, right.)
Our membership reflected the mosaic under the Jewish umbrella. We had yeshiva students and religious Jews as well as alienated and assimilated or non-observant Jews. What motivated us to activism was Kahane’s message of Ahavat Yisrael, love of fellow Jews. Meir reminded us that we were all Jews responsible for each other!
I began to travel with him to speaking engagements all over the tri-state area and then to many places further away. Because I was the Black Belt karate instructor, many assumed I was his bodyguard. But my role was to assist in setting up chapters and karate classes in those new areas.
Those were heady days for me. I continued to read all the books Meir suggested and eagerly waited for more. Soon, I was knowledgeable enough to conduct lectures for incoming new members. I was also sent out on speaking engagements to synagogues and men’s clubs to fill in for Meir, who couldn’t possibly cover the many new invitations. Having listened to him so often when I accompanied him, I could easily deliver many of his stump speeches.
On a personal level, I was no longer attending college with any regularity as I was completely devoted to the cause. I spent the days in the office, teaching karate in the evenings. Many of my nights were devoted to less legal activities. My parents, hoping I would pursue a career in law, were devastated. It wasn’t that my father didn’t agree with our aims. It was just that he wanted someone else’s son to be doing the work. I seldom argued with him as I understood his concerns. (Sometime later, I was told by my mother that, at times, my father attended JDL demonstrations — but in secret).
Then the plight of Soviet Jews caught our attention. Learning about the meager effort to save Europe’s Jews by the previous generation, we were determined to be different. We decided to highlight the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union by bringing the issue to the front pages. We began by picketing Soviet cultural programs, such as concerts but graduated to disrupting them when the press no longer covered our picketing activities. It appeared, that we constantly needed to ‘up the ante’ to generate the headlines that kept the focus on Soviet Jewish issues. As our activities garnered headlines, many adults I encountered ridiculed our efforts.
“Do you think you will take on the Soviet Union and win”? They asked. “A bunch of teenagers defeat the Soviets”? But Kahane’s clever insight led us to many successes. We embarrassed the Soviets as our activities became more daring. Kahane understood that the Soviets, hated to be exposed to public scrutiny. Our activities shone a spotlight on them. Their propaganda apparatus wanted, at all costs, to depict the Soviet Union as the proletariat paradise and they could not tolerate the bad publicity we were generating. In this we were hugely successful. Admittedly, not all our activities were safe and perhaps not all of them were smart. But, in retrospect, we were teenagers and post teenagers. We dared to publicize the odious treatment of Russian Jews by their government, the mighty Soviet Union, and in retrospect we accomplished this. While the Soviet Union (and mainstream Jewish organizations) called us hooligans and thugs, the Soviet Jews called us heroes.
In 1971, Kahane moved to Israel and left no clear leader in charge of the US group. Leaderless, the JDL slowly disintegrated. In truth, we were also getting older and needed to move on with our lives. Some became lawyers or businessmen, while I earned a doctoral degree from the SUNY College of Medicine. We may have left the JDL, but we never forgot the lessons taught by Meir Kahane.
Dr. Alex Sternberg Former JDL activist 1968-1972
Author: “ Recipes from Auschwitz– The Survival Stories of 2 Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight”