A power struggle is tearing apart a right-wing vigilante group that once served as the stander bearer of Jewish militancy in America.
The Jewish Defense League, founded in 1968 by late militant rabbi Meir Kahane, has been in a virtual tailspin since 2001, according to experts who monitor extremist groups. It was then that Irv Rubin, the group’s national chairman and Kahane’s handpicked successor, was arrested in Southern California by federal authorities in connection with a plot to kill Arabs, including a local congressman. Rubin died — in what authorities called a suicide — just four days before preliminary hearings on his case were slated to begin.
In the 18 months since Rubin’s death, the organization has been wracked by internal dissension, according to observers and several key leaders inside the feuding factions of the JDL. A fierce power struggle has emerged, pitting Rubin’s widow, Shelly, and her followers against the leaders of as many as seven local chapters of the JDL. This past fall, at a conference in Reno, Nev., the insurgent group picked a new chairman: Matthew Finberg, a 44-year-old lawyer from Boulder, Colo., and a Wharton School of Business graduate.
The feud comes at the organization’s low point in terms of influence. But one prize is still up for grabs in the fight: a recognized brand name in the world of extremist politics.
“I don’t think that Kahane left behind the kind of legacy that there was this very large residue of assets,” said Rich Ross, a New Jersey-based researcher who tracks cults and extremist groups, and has been monitoring the feud on his Web log Cultnews.com. “It seems like what’s going on now is that they’re quibbling about the name itself…you can look at it as a kind of cult branding.”
Shelly Rubin and her followers boycotted the convention in Nevada and are refusing to recognize Finberg’s appointment. Rubin, who served as her husband’s confidante and lieutenant during his incarceration, insists that she is next in a direct line of succession extending back to her husband and Kahane.
“I refuse to turn the JDL over” to Finberg and his followers, Rubin insisted in a recent interview with the Forward.
Kahane, an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, founded the JDL to advocate armed Jewish self-defense against street crime, with the slogan “Every Jew a .22.” Shortly afterward, 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. He was murdered in New York in 1990.
Rubin conceded that no formal mechanism exists for selecting the group’s next leader. However, she maintains that before his death, Irv Rubin made it clear that he expected her to take up the reins in his absence. “Every time I went to visit him in prison… he told me what to do,” she said. “I’m the only person who knows JDL as well as my husband did.”
In the past, disgruntled JDL members who felt ill at ease inside the organization formed their own group, Rubin said. The best-known member is Mordechai Levy, who broke from Irv Rubin to launch his own Jewish Defense Organization in the early 1980s. “At least those guys were decent enough to say, ‘I don’t like how you’re running JDL. I’m going to go and run my own thing,’” Rubin said. Levy’s feud with Irv Rubin eventually turned violent, landing Levy in prison after a 1988 shootout in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Rubin insisted that no precedent exists in the JDL for the kind of national meeting or convention like the one this past October, at which the attendees unanimously elected Finberg as chairman. “You can go back to the Kahane days,” she said. “There were never… yearly conferences or conventions or things like that.”
Even as they fight for control of the organization in America most identified with Jewish militancy, each side is accusing the other of being too extreme.
Rubin and others contend that one of the biggest problems with Finberg and his faction is that they hew too closely to the Kahane line.
Kahane’s Israeli movement, Kach, was outlawed as a racist organization in 1988 on the grounds that it espoused the forced expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Since Kahane’s assassination, his group and a spin-off, Kahane Chai, have been suspected of fomenting violence at the extremes of the West Bank settler movement.
Rubin and her backers say that the Finberg camp is bent on linking the organization to the banned Kahane Chai.
Finberg, who prefers to be known by his Hebrew name, Moshe, described himself in an interview last month as a proud “Kahanist,” but he denied that he plans to lead the organization into any kind of alliance with dangerous fringe groups or organizations that advocate violence as a means of political action. “We don’t advocate violence against anyone,” he said. Finberg did draw a distinction between violence for its own sake and self-defense; and he continues to urge all Jews to carry weapons — firearms if they’re legal, knives and clubs if they’re not.
Finberg refused to comment directly on his dispute with Rubin. But he was willing to sketch out what he sees as some of the key differences between the factions.
The way Finberg sees things, the JDL has been wounded by a series of controversies over the years, not the least of which was Rubin’s arrest on terror-related charges. His prescription for repair is to feed the JDL a large dose of Torah and a dollop of Wharton School business practices.
His vision of the JDL, he said, is to shed the organization’s reputation as a rag-tag bunch of street-fighting Jews and wild-eyed extremists and replace it with a more upscale — some critics have called it Yuppie — image. “Jews need to be better prepared to defend themselves physically from a Torah tradition with a Torah heart, a Torah mind and in a more polished manner than the impression I had of the JDL,” Finberg said. “Not a bunch of thugs, but instead a bunch of rabbis, doctors, lawyers, professionals, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who are good family men but also know how to defend themselves and their families.”
“The way that we survive is not by becoming a world of passive scholars only, or businessmen only, [but] scholar warriors,” he said.
Finberg said that he plans to immigrate to Israel in the next four-and-a-half years, and he vows to step down from his post at the JDL before then.
So far, it remains unclear how the dispute will end. Finberg refused to discuss any possible legal strategy, and Rubin insisted that the organization is probably too weak to survive a lengthy and costly legal battle. As one observer put it, the dispute could be the end of the beginning of the end of the JDL.
The JDL is likely to come under intense public and official scrutiny if, as expected, the trial of Irv Rubin’s alleged accomplice, Earl Krugel, begins sometime this year. Krugel recently withdrew his guilty plea to weapons charges in connection with the case.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Rubin and Krugel plotted to blow up the King Fahd mosque near Los Angeles and the office of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a descendant of Lebanese Christians.
Law enforcement officials said that while Rubin was in jail awaiting trial, he slit his throat with a prison-issued razor and plunged 18 feet over a railing at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. He died nine days later.
Rubin and Finberg supporters insist that the only real asset that the JDL has is its name. And to a very great extent, that is what the current dispute is really about. “It’s an established platform that has a certain cachet,” Finberg said. “It gets people’s attention and they have a visceral reaction…. Usually it’s negative, [but] it does have a certain value because the bad guys know that deep down in our core, we’re not to be messed with.”
But there is another, more intangible element to the dispute, Ross suggested.
“You know,” the extremist group observer said, “there’s an old saying… that seems to fit this whole situation: Kol mamzer melech — you know every bastard wants to be a king, and it isn’t so much about ideology as it is, you know, competing egos.”