Inmate Claims JDL Head Had a Change of Heart

By Howard Blume

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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In the days before his death, Jewish Defense League head Irv Rubin had second thoughts about his radical philosophy, according to one of his fellow prison inmates.

In a letter obtained by the Forward, the inmate claims that through conversations with Muslim and Palestinian prisoners, Rubin had grown almost repentant for his Israel-for-Jews-only stance.

“I introduced him to a number of the Palestinians with us on the floor, and he spoke to them a lot about the Middle East conflict,” read the letter. “It appeared to me that this was the first and only time that he had ever sat to hear quietly the Palestinians and to hear the other side, the travail that they are undergoing…. He would strike his right hand with his fist in the area of his heart as if he were reciting the confessional prayer: ‘I have sinned, I’ve gone astray.’”

The inmate did not request anonymity, but the Forward has elected not to disclose his name because the letter was obtained through the assistant of intermediaries, after prison officials expressly forbade access to inmates with direct knowledge concerning Rubin’s case.

In an interview with the Forward, Rubin’s wife, Shelley, said that although her husband had developed a rapport with Muslim and Palestinian inmates, the claims of a last-minute philosophical change were absurd.

“I have never heard anything more ridiculous in my life,” she said. “My husband harbored no ill will about people on a personal level, but the National Enquirer couldn’t make up a stranger story….We’re going to a demonstration in Santa Monica on Sunday where we will say one of his favorite chants in his honor. It went: ‘2-4-6-8, Israel is a Jewish state; 3-5-7-9, No Such Thing as Palestine.’”

One year ago, the fiery leader of the right-wing organization died after plunging over a railing 18 feet onto a concrete floor at the city’s Metropolitan Detention Center. Rubin, 57, was awaiting trial on domestic-terrorism charges, for allegedly planning to bomb a mosque, as well as the Orange County office of Congressman Darrell Issa. Rubin’s alleged co-conspirator, Earl Krugel, pled guilty three months after Rubin’s death to conspiracy and a weapons-possession charge related to the bombing plots. He faces a December 15 sentencing hearing and a 10- to 20-year prison term.

The unveiling service for Rubin’s headstone was a strangely quiet ceremony in the suddenly subdued foothills north of Los Angeles. Early rains had abruptly, almost unexpectedly, halted nearby wildfires that had burned savagely only days before in 95-degree heat, racing across brushland that was cracked dry and incendiary.

Approximately 40 well-wishers — Rubin’s wife called them “true friends” — made the trek up Lopez Canyon Road to a cemetery in the foothills above the San Fernando Valley. Although the surrounding hillside had cooled, ardor for Rubin glowed like stubborn embers among adherents, many of whom view his death as a state-sponsored murder. Members of Rubin’s family openly question official accounts, which state that Rubin first slashed his throat with a prison-issue razor, then sustained fatal injuries after he fell or leapt over the walkway railing.

“My Dad was assassinated by the government of the United States of America, the country that he loved and passionately fought for,” said Rubin’s 22-year-old son, Ari.

Shelley Rubin said she saw no signs of an impending suicide during her final visit. The government has routinely denied family and outside requests to speak to witnesses and cell mates. For that reason and others, she said, the family intends to file a wrongful-death lawsuit, preferably before the end of the year. Even putting notions of foul play aside, the government could still be liable for Rubin’s death while in custody, said family attorney Bryan C. Altman.

In addition, family and friends highlighted their sense of betrayal by the Bush administration — they supported the war on terrorism, only to see Bush’s Justice Department pursue Rubin himself as a terrorist. “The government needed someone to take out to say, ‘Look, we’re arresting Jews as well as Muslims,’” said family friend Gary David Copeland, to murmurs of approval.

The JDL credo holds that Jews should be aggressive, even violent, defenders of themselves and of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Rubin, who took over when founder Meir Kahane immigrated to Israel, lacked the movement-building charisma of his predecessor, and the U.S. organization fractured even before Kahane’s 1990 assassination, though Rubin did prove adept at getting on TV and in the newspapers. But during the last three decades, an organization once variously thought of as valiant or criminally dangerous became more often characterized as buffoonish.

Still, “small numbers of people can have a disproportionate effect,” said historian Mark Pitcavage, who monitors extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League.

“Their ideology was dominated by extreme, narrow religious prejudice and other prejudices,” added Pitcavage, who said that the organization has grown quieter since the disclosure of the alleged bombing plot, which he called a throwback to the early JDL.

Despite the vacuum left by Rubin—and whatever change he may have undergone in his final days—his wife spoke hopefully of resuming the weapons-training and martial-arts classes that epitomized the early JDL, so that today’s American Jews would “lose their fear of weapons.”

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