Like an aging group of retro rockers, the Jewish Defense League resurfaced in Toronto recently after a decade of dormancy, trying to look a little more mainstream. Sort of.
The group made its largest public foray in quite some time on March 27, when it hosted a meeting of about 150 for Israeli pol Moshe Feiglin at Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue on a stretch of Bathurst south of Wilson that conjures Jerusalem’s Mea Shirim with its black top hats, piety and peyes.
Once targeted by the FBI as “domestic extremists” and linked to two banned anti-Arab groups in Israel, the JDL now considers Feiglin, leader of the far-right Jewish Leadership faction of the already hardline Likud party, its political mentor.
Nerdy-looking and prone to sports metaphors – as in “We can’t play any other game”– Feiglin saved most of his bile at the meeting for Israel’s leadership, accusing them of caving in to the violence perpetrated by the enemy, namely the Palestinians.
“We are not going to get used to it,” he declared to an applauding audience about Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Nevertheless, said this West Bank settler, “The Arabs are not the problem; [some] Jews are.”
But make no mistake, Feiglin advocates an Israel without Arabs. Where JDL inspirer Rabbi Meir Kahane, assassinated in New York City in 1990, advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israeli-controlled territory, Feiglin, in a new wrinkle, urges they be paid to vacate.
“We are talking about more than 60,000 people on the military payroll,” he says. “We’re talking about $150 billion that Israel spends every 10 years. That money is enough to give every Arab family in Yesha [Gaza and the West Bank] $250,000.”
Meir Weinstein, aka Meir Halevi, JDL national director, brings the angst home later when he directs my attention to the growing Muslim population and the shrinking number of Jews living in Canada.
“The significance of that is that Muslims come from countries that don’t have a friendly view of Jews. A lot of these countries promote material denying the Holocaust, so when they come here in greater numbers and their population is on rise.…”
Weinstein tells me he’s willing to go to court to refute any racist tag attached to his organization. Recently, he issued a letter of intent threatening to sue Canadian Arab Federation president Khaled Mouammar for defamation over comments allegedly made on the CAF’s website.
Mohamed Boudjenane, CAF exec director, tells NOW the organization has no comment at this time.
In fact, the JDL is on the offence on more than one front. One of its directors, Lou VanDelman, a white-haired militant whose participation began in the later 1960s, says the group’s thuggish reputation is overblown.
“People always like to dramatize. The JDL was always a defensive organization, and it always will be. If somebody hits us, we have the legal right to hit back.”
VanDelman regrets “the deterioration’’ in relations between the JDL in it’s heyday and U.S. authorities, in contrast to what occurred in Canada. “We had an association with the police, we had association with members of Parliament,’’ he says.
In 2002, U.S. JDL leader Irv Rubin died in jail awaiting trial on charges of allegedly planning to bomb a mosque in southern California.
Casting their lot with Feiglin, the JDL is working to increase his clout within the Israeli Likud party which has been leading in the polls lately. Feiglin came in a significant second at 22 per cent in a leadership contest with subsequent winner and former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
But how serious a force is Feiglin on Israel’s complex political landscape? According to Beate Zilversmidt, a spokesperson for Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, even within Likud he is considered “too extreme.”
“But he definitely has some leverage, and the more relevant question might be how much influence he can exert on the more mainstream Likud candidates. They don’t want him to break away and compete with them from the outside, forming powerful blocs together with other Judeo-supremacists.”
Meanwhile, Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, casts doubt on the re-emergent Jewish Defense League’s ability to be anything but a marginal force in Canada.
Farber says his organization had “serious concerns” about the JDL in the past in regard to its “highly inappropriate, even racist” language.
“They have come back again, as I understand it, a different version of what they were. As long as they maintain the peace, as long as they do not engage in racist language or hate or violate Canadian law, they have the right to exist. They will not in any way be connected to the mainstream, nor do they want to be, from what I understand.”
Michael Neumann, a Trent University philosophy professor and the author of The Case Against Israel, also warns against getting diverted by fears of JDL ultranationalism.
“Hell, if I’m going to be concerned about violent or extremist Jews, I’ll be concerned about the Israel Defense Forces. By far the greatest threat to peace are the lobbying efforts of impeccably well-behaved, well-connected Zionists and the decent but fence-sitting Jews who allow these lobbyists to speak in their name.”