Almost immediately after Jewish extremist Earl Krugel was bludgeoned to death in an Arizona prison, his allies began describing him as the latest in a string of Jewish Defense League officials to be targeted for assassination. Federal authorities investigating Krugel’s death, however, said they do not know whether he was murdered because of his extremist views or killed in a run-of-the-mill jailhouse dispute.
Authorities said the 62-year-old Krugel, a former dental technician, was assaulted about 5:30 p.m. Friday, November 4, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix. Family members have said that he was attacked from behind while exercising, apparently by a fellow inmate armed with a concrete block.
The killing came just three days after he had been transferred to the facility to begin serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a 2001 plot to blow up the King Fahd mosque near Los Angeles and the office of Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, a descendant of Lebanese Christians. Krugel was sentenced September 22.
Though authorities are not prepared to describe it as anything but coincidence, his slaying came three years to the day after Irv Rubin — Krugel’s co-defendant in the case and the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s hand-picked successor to head the JDL — slit his throat with a prison-issued razor and plunged 18 feet over a railing while awaiting trial at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. Rubin died nine days later. Authorities declared his death a suicide, but Rubin’s supporters continue to suspect that he was killed. Kahane himself was killed by an assassin’s bullet in New York on November 5, 1990.
So far, federal authorities have made no arrests in Krugel’s death. Officials acknowledge that they are focusing on one inmate as a suspect and said that they have been interviewing scores of fellow inmates and guards at the facility to determine whether the suspect acted alone and whether Krugel’s history as a member of the Jewish extremist group played a role in his slaying.
Investigators declined to identify the inmate, but the Web site www.earlkrugel.com, citing published reports, described him as a reputed white supremacist.
In an interview Tuesday, FBI spokeswoman Deborah McCarley would say only that investigators had not yet ruled out the possibility that Krugel was targeted because of his association with the JDL. But she urged caution. “We don’t want to rush through this… we want to make sure that we thoroughly investigate the crime… obviously you have to look… into everything before you can make those determinations.”
The investigation is also expected to determine whether Krugel received adequate protection at the Arizona facility. In an interview with the Forward, his former attorney, Mark Werksman, said that Krugel had been kept in protective custody for a time while he was awaiting trial in Los Angeles. “There were threats from lots of different types of inmates who wanted to do him harm, so we were always concerned about his safety,” Werksman said.
“Eventually they did allow him into general population, and he was fine for quite some time in Los Angeles,” Werksman said. But Werksman still questions whether appropriate security measures were taken after Krugel’s transfer to Phoenix. “Here he is in a new prison, and three days later he’s murdered,” Werksman said.
If Krugel was indeed killed by a white supremacist, it would be a tragic irony, suggesting that he was killed by one of the few remaining people who still may believe that Krugel or the organization he once represented plays any significant role in the American Jewish community. That is the opinion of several experts who have monitored the JDL’s controversial rise to prominence in the 1960s and its descent in the past decades into internecine squabbling and virtual irrelevance in the larger Jewish community.
Kahane, an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, founded the JDL to advocate armed Jewish self-defense against street crime. The group took the slogan “Every Jew a .22.” Later the organization took up the cause of Soviet Jewish emigration, advocating violent attacks on Soviet diplomats that landed several adherents in prison for terrorism and for murder. In 1971 Kahane moved to Israel, where he founded the militantly anti-Arab Kach (“Thus”) Party.
In the years after his emigration, the JDL, dubbed a hate group by such organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, was wracked by internal conflicts. For example, in a bitter dispute in the early 1980s, Los Angeles activist Mordechai Levy split off and formed his own group, the Jewish Defense Organization, charging that Rubin’s JDL “spent more time attacking other Jews than antisemites.”
Even now, two key factions of the JDL — one led by Rubin’s widow, Shelly, the other by Ian Sigel, are locked in a court battle over leadership of the shattered organization.
But while the JDL has drifted toward irrelevance in the greater Jewish community, as evidenced by the virtual silence of major Jewish organizations in the wake of Krugel’s death, it remains a key target for equally marginalized white supremacists and members of other hate groups, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“They were marginalized years ago,” Potok said.
“There was a time when they were frightening, when they seemed to carry out a large number of bombings and had these… violent intramural rivalries between themselves… but it’s true, as a group they have not been terribly important in the last few years… they went so far off the rails they just lost any kind of political credibility,” except, perhaps, among white supremacists and other hate groups who saw them as a useful foil, Potok said.
That sentiment was echoed by Steve Rombom, a well-known private investigator who severed his ties with the JDL decades ago. “If you look at what the Jews… were saying about the JDL, it wasn’t positive, but if you look at what the white supremacists thought about the JDL… I mean, they really thought that the JDL was this little mini-Mossad,” Rombom said.
And in a final irony, even as the factions of the JDL decry Krugel’s death and characterize it as a possible hate crime or conspiracy, it is unlikely that his death will have any impact on their feud. As Sigel, who is feuding with Rubin’s widow, put it, “It does not impact the organization from a functional standpoint. It is more a personal issue.”