Jewish Identity and the JDL

Jewish Identity and the JDL

by Janet L. Dolgin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691616711
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1245
Pages: 204
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Jewish Identity and the JDL

By Janet L. Dolgin


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09368-0


The Activities of the Jewish Defense League

In February 1973 a swastika was painted on the door of a house in Queens, New York. Those responsible were not identified, but the intentions of the "artists" (a word used by the owner of the house) were clearly threatening. A man claiming to represent the Hebrew Defense Association (HDA) arrived to offer his movement's "solution" for the family's "problem." Family members, already frightened and anxious, disputed the morality and viability of the militant reaction suggested by the HDAer. Some took sides against the HDA, characterizing the association as "strong-arm" and "vigilante"; the father of the family, however, found the HDAer's stance to exemplify "straight-thinking."

This scenario, serious though it was, included an element of humor, a humor that played off the rather unexpected fact that, with the exception of the HDAer, none of the participants were Jews. Events turned toward tragedy; the HDAer was the victim of a murder: this was seen as peculiar.

The episode just related formed one plot of "All in the Family," a television situation-comedy produced by CBS; the door on which the swastika appeared was a prop in a play; the protagonist approving HDA tactics was Archie Bunker; and the HDAer was an actor, who, it might be noted, appears as a Puerto Rican on the serial "Sanford and Son."

"'For too long,' he [Rabbi Meir Kahane] said, 'the Jewish people have been patsies.' He gathered a group of young men about him, and he spoke to them of the extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany. 'Never again,' he said, and it became the group's slogan. He charged that the black residents of Williamsburg and Crown Heights were terrorizing Jewish businessmen and old people; and he sent the young men forth, armed with clubs, to patrol the areas. As the organization grew, it acquired a name, the Jewish Defense League, and a summer camp where members were instructed in judo, karate and the use of firearms. The program expanded: the league entered the political arena, heckling Mayor Lindsay for being too much concerned about blacks and too little about Jews. About six months ago, Rabbi Kahane set the group on a new course, a series of vigils dramatizing the alleged oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union. It brought the Jewish Defense League, and the rabbi from Queens, to the center of the world stage." — New York Times (January 17, 1971)

"The Reb's [Rabbi Kahane's] heart was broken when he saw Jews were being beaten up. Every single thing he saw happening to Jews he didn't like. It was really hard to make up an organization. Thank God we got it. ... Before JDL, I remember once I was walking to work after school. I went to work every day after school. This guy comes up to us and says, 'dirty Jew.' He was carrying rocks and threw them. I was with my brother and sister and one rock hit my sister. And another time I was just walking slowly on the street and four guys were behind me saying, 'Let's kill the Jew.' ... And then I first heard the Reb speak about helping your brothers. ... I was about eighteen, and I started to cry. Like he said the word. Help our people. Help our brothers not to be killed. That piece of word broke my heart in pieces, and that's why 1 came and why I joined the JDL. That was a few years ago." — Twenty-one-year-old male JDLer (November 1971) The television episode and the two quotations are presented here in reverse order to their actual occurrence: a group of people joined together to form the Jewish Defense League; the league became the focus of public media coverage; and then CBS used a fictionalized JDL in a television show. Although the latter of these two media portraits of JDL was explicitly fabricated, while the former was defined as a reporting of the facts, they alike contributed to the actualization of certain of the notions being suggested (in each characterization) about the league; the appearance of JDL on television as a "Hebrew Defense Association" was a fulfillment of the "Reb" who "said the word" and represented another attaining of "the center of the world stage," referred to by the New York Times in 1971: the very fact that "All in the Family" used JDL as the basis of a plot, signals a success for the league. But there is more to it than that: JDLers themselves played with myth and history. For JDLers, the development of their movement became something more than a set of facts pertaining to the time and place in which the league came to be. From the start the Jewish Defense League encapsulated itself as a legend, that legend becoming, of course, another fact. JDLers engaged myth to empower history and used history in verifying myth; JDLers recounted league episodes, and, in the telling, sustained a sense of protest embodied in accounts of heroism. Yet the variants (the fictions, the myths, the histories) folded in upon themselves, for increasingly JDLers' own conceptions of their movement were built from communications in the public media. Particularly after the movement expanded to the point where most JDLers no longer participated in each league demonstration or action, television and newspaper reports served as a vital source of information for leaguers about the activities of their group. Exposure on page one of daily newspapers was the evidence of "success."

In speaking about the growth of their movement, JDLers talked of a period of early development (1968-1969): they recast these beginnings in terms of a heroism in the absence of "fame" and public attention — the bravery of the actor not yet observed. Members' accounts of league development after about 1969, on the other hand, emphasize the league actions and episodes that received media attention. Concomitantly, members' tellings of league activities after 1969 are focused through a series of "events," clearly demarcated and linearly organized. The news reports provide a form through which the objectification of JDL's history for league members themselves can be effected. In consequence, a tension develops between the separation of each JDLer from that history and the sense of participation and conscious creation that JDLers have (and believe they should have) vis-a-vis the league. Or, to say it differently, various modes of reification are co-existent: the JDLer, inclined to conceive of the league through one sort of (created) history, is compelled to entertain, and then retain, an entirely different variant. "The very principal of myth," writes Roland Barthes is that "it transforms history into nature. ... what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as motive, but as reason" (1972:129). What Barthes calls "myth" is the essence of reification — the course through which the histories people make are naturalized.

The news (and with it, history) may secure itself around and within the Event: the uniform and the uninterpreted are segmented and selected out in the name of the eventful. Linear time is reified through the seriality of events which are, in turn, taken to be the very products of linear time: historic continuity, that is to say, finds its composition in the linking of discrete episodes that history itself reunites. Thus Lévi-Strauss says: "History seems to restore to us, not separate states, but the passage from one state to another in a continuous form" (1966: 256).

News recedes into history where, apparently risking nothing, it remains for possible classification as "historically significant." And here, risk reemerges with all the equivocality of the original News. "Intonation matters," writes Joseph Levenson in Confucian China and Its Modern Fate. "We may describe an item in the human record as historically (really) significant, or as (merely) historically significant" (1968:111, 85). The "historical significance" of the Jewish Defense League almost immediately became an object of debate: while JDLers intone "really," their critics — especially within the New York Jewish community — as frequently intone "merely." One anti-JDL employee of a secular Jewish organization, based in NYC, said: "They [JDL] may be important to history. I don't deny that ... the trouble is the attention they're now getting." This intonation carries a paradox of another sort: the devaluation implied in "merely" is attenuated in its very formulation, a formulation that judges the present as significant through the imagined eyes of the future.

JDLers and their critics, despite discrepant judgments on the league, tend to agree in their enumerations of the Events of JDL, the Events that made JDL newsworthy, precipitating the "scandal" JDL effected within the New York Jewish community. JDL was a scandal — indeed, JDLers themselves prize the tag — not through the facts of poverty, religious Orthodoxy, or even Jewish militancy; these existed before and without JDL. Rather, the Events, because they were reported, made it impossible to ignore or overlook JDL. And that was the scandal. Moreover, it was a scandal that, once imagined, could be regenerated and sustained, for as Pierre Vilar suggests, "professional sensationalists like to multiply 'events.' 'Historic facts' are all the rage on a day of lunar landings or barricades" (1973:79).

To understand the cultural construction of JDL, it is necessary to examine the context within which JDL grew and in terms of which JDLers constituted themselves through their movement. JDLers built barricades, and that has been recorded. But the "sensational" episodes in JDL's short history tell only part of the story: there is, in addition, the struggle of JDL to define the essence of Jewish identity and to enact that identity in its own "defense," to create the terms within which to act and the terms in whose name ethnic action could be authenticated. In seeking to base action on ethnicity, JDL has been faced with a series of contradictions. In part the contradictions must be seen in light of the very necessity for JDL to be "newsworthy"; but, inversely, contradictions appear to be absorbed in the league's activities, which have been reified — as Events — through the medium of news; this was possible because history (past news) is definitionally freed of disturbing contradiction.

A dominant contradiction in the Jewish Defense League's project to enact ethnicity was present from the first. In a broader frame, this contradiction occurs generally in the United States, where class tends to be denied as a foundation of group identity and action. Even where ethnicity has been admitted and paraded, the publication of class identity remains taboo. Indeed, "ethnicity" replaces and masks class consciousness, and has lain the ground for the particular form that absorption — the appropriation of negation in the name of that which "is" — has taken in the U. S. in the last decade (cf., Marcuse 1964). The process of JDL's development illustrates the dialectic of absorption: the league in large part modeled its presentation of identity on identities presented by other ethnic activist movements, especially black groups (which thus became both model and antagonist for JDL); and, JDL's own slogans and signs of identity were quickly taken up and used by other groups (from non-Jewish activist movements to what JDLers called the "Jewish establishment").

JDL was created in the spring of 1968 by a small group of Orthodox Jews concerned with the explicitly particularistic issues of "crime in the streets," "black anti-Semitism," "liberal do-nothing city government," and "changing neighborhoods." From the start the league's undisputed leader was Meir Kahane, a rabbi who at the time of JDL's founding worked as an associate editor and columnist for the Jewish Press, an English-language weekly newspaper published in Brooklyn. As the JDL spread in championing a host of national and international "Jewish concerns," the membership grew to contain a wide spectrum of Jews. JDLers, by the early 1970s, included wealthy members, young members, and suburban members. These recruits shared with the original membership an expressed marginality to Jewish institutions and groups ordinarily considered as most important in America — groups JDLers called the "Jewish establishment" — and a sense of personal authenticity as Jews. (The opposing definitions of Self — JDLer — as isolated and as central is found throughout JDL's development.) The early JDL members were people who did not see their daily concerns (religious education for their children, fear of crime, economic hardships) tended by city government or reflected in the programs and perspectives of the major secular Jewish organizations (e.g., B'nai B'rith, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress), groups characterized by JDLers as falsely representing the Jewish position to non-Jewish America. The early, blatant expressions of disdain for "establishment Jewry" later provided the form in terms of which JDLers could become the ("natural") guardians of world Jewry. But this came later. The scenario within which thirty JDLers joined together at their first meeting was that of racial and ethnic antagonism: JDL was created against the Other.

The league was created by middle-aged, lower- and lower-middle-class Jews, reacting to a situation in which they perceived themselves the forgotten people; not wealthy or powerful in a land where Jews were viewed as both, they also resented "benefits" they felt liberal politicians were bestowing upon blacks and other ethnic groups but from which they were somehow exempted. The people who founded JDL and whose concerns remained preeminent within the movement lived in Williamsburg and Boro Park in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The men drove trucks and taxis, were employed in city offices, owned small businesses, often in neighborhoods once Jewish, now largely black. The women worked as secretaries and clerks; they served as waitresses and salespeople, frequently in their husbands' stores; they had heard of feminism, and their lives had not been totally unaffected by the movement, but most JDL women (with the frequent exception of young women, especially those attending college) accepted a subordinate position as rightfully theirs and within the league did not seriously compete for general leadership positions. Whether through choice or through compulsion, the first league members had remained "Jews," self-consciously denying assimilation to be a viable alternative. JDLers conclusively encompassed the possibility for the development of class consciousness by that of ethnic consciousness in defining their perceived marginality as an index of authenticity (by, for instance, denying the "Jewishness" of "establishment" Jewish groups); the foundation for identity became increasingly one of substance and thus universal (i.e., for all Jews) and "natural."

The structure within which JDLers defined themselves was fashioned through the dual relations of Jew to non-Jew and of JDL Jew to Jew. White ethnic group identity in the late 1960s was largely elaborated in opposition to perceived threats of the black movement; the perception of these threats combined familiar racisms with a new fear of being replaced. JDLers did not simply imagine themselves in negative relation to blacks; a conglomerate pattern developed in which the league rejected a set of "liberal" models and institutions (both Jewish and non-Jewish) that were equally the targets of black, and even more of radical, groups. That rejection became the basis for JDL's own "radical" posture that later attracted college students and middle-class Jews, not part of the population among whom JDL gained its first note.

The scenario within which the league came to be is well represented by the New York City teachers' strike of 1968. That strike — actually three strikes between September and mid-November — crystallized from a demonstration project in public school decentralization financed by the Ford Foundation in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a largely black population. Decentralization was to provide a framework for local communities to gain decision-making power in educating their children; the Ocean Hill-Brownsville project was designed to give blacks control in a white-dominated school system with a large black student body. From the start there was tension between the Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), but the immediate determination of the strike and the matter around which the conflicts arose was a recommendation of the district's governing board in April 1968 to dismiss nineteen personnel, considered in opposition to the experimental project. When Superintendent of Schools Bernard Donovan called for the return of the dismissed teachers to the district, local parents, acting from years of anger at a school system perceived to be immune to concerns of educating their children, prevented the teachers from entering the schools. The teachers returned in May with police escort; in September, the conflicts no nearer solution, approximately 95% of the city's teachers did not report for work on the first day of the fall term. The original contestation of the experimental project — which had been given, in what was an apparent paradox, institutional support and government sanction — was met with the counter-tactics of the UFT; the tactics of each side turned out to be the same as those of the other. Hesitancies about racist and anti-Semitic expression vanished; discourse was found to allow increased revelation of the codes through which racism had previously been veiled; the dialectic of absorption resulted not only in increased militancy but in a situation where the only allowable definitions of Self and Other became those based in substance — categorizations through "blood" and "land" (cf., Schneider 1968; 1969).


Excerpted from Jewish Identity and the JDL by Janet L. Dolgin. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Table of Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • I. The Activities of the Jewish Defense League, pg. 10
  • II. Motionless Dance, pg. 50
  • III. Scholar/Chaya, pg. 65
  • IV. Upright Kneeling, pg. 100
  • V Silent Screaming, pg. 141
  • VI. The Parable of the Motionless Dance, pg. 175
  • Bibliography: Works Cited, pg. 179
  • Index, pg. 185

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