Jewish Defence League & Montreal’s chilly welcome
National Post - Friday February 20th, 2015
Having established a successful base in Toronto seven years ago, the Jewish Defence League of Canada (JDL) is opening a branch in Montreal, announced at a launch Feb 16 attended by about 180 members of the Jewish community and others. At the launch a certain tension prevailed. Everyone there was well aware that the arrival of the JDL in Montreal had fomented much-publicized hostility to the very idea, most notably by Rabbi Reuben Poupko, speaking for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Montreal police and Mayor Coderre himself.
Rabbi Poupko stated: “By claiming that the Jews of Quebec need a rapid response team to anti-Semitic threats, the JDL is irresponsibly contributing to the creation of a climate of fear within the Jewish community.” Mayor Coderre tweeted: “Message to JDL: You are not welcome in Mtl! The Jewish community doesn’t need the Jewish Defence League.”
Most local commentary followed their lead. Two themes stand out in the criticism: first, that the JDL was once listed as a terrorist organization in the U.S. by the FBI because of violence initiated by JDL’s controversial and pugnacious founder, Rabbi Meir Kahane, and second, that the JDL is infringing on the function of the Montreal police, who happen to have an outstanding record of taking anti-Semitic hate crime very seriously and efficiently.
I do not deny or defend the violence committed in the name of liberation for Soviet Jews committed by the JDL (even though it was JDL activity that made Soviet Jewry a national cause spurring political action that ended in their liberation). But the past is the past, and the era in which the JDL came into being was tumultuous, filled with violence on all sides (environmental groups, Black Panthers, Weathermen, Black September, etc). The new Canadian branch of the JDL – it was for some years dormant until the 2006 Hezbollah war with Israel erupted here in demonstrations that featured anti-Semitism, inspiring its rebirth – is squeaky clean, and although still led by Meir Weinstein, a disciple of the original JDL founders, the mission for the Canadian JDL does not include pro-active violence.
As for the JDL’s position vis-à-vis law enforcement, far from usurping their function, they play a supportive role to police. The issues today are not Soviet Jewry or neo-Nazism, but extreme anti-Zionism, a form of anti-Semitism that only blinkered ideologues would nowadays deny, which translates into intimidation of Jews on campus, as well as Islamism in the general population with the potential for violence or even terrorism.
Virulent anti-Semitism is almost invariably a component of jihadism, as we have seen in the recent Paris attacks and elsewhere. Radical Islamism is growing, everywhere in the world. That it is especially bad in Europe does not mean we will remain immune from the disease. Jews are always vulnerable wherever Islamism rears its head (when Canadian plots are foiled, there are usually Jews or Jewish organizations on the list of targets).
The JDL offers their presence at anti-Israel protests to lend confidence to Jews who, like myself, would be afraid to, say, carry an Israeli flag – there has been physical aggression to Jews in that position elsewhere in Canada – and to monitor the behaviour of individuals who seem likely to erupt in unacceptable hateful discourse or action, and report them to the police. The police have their work cut out for them in ensuring protests stay within orderly bounds. They cannot keep tabs on individuals. By providing that extra monitoring and security service to the timid and vulnerable, the JDL fills a gap the police does not have the resources for. In Toronto, the police appreciate the JDL’s non-violent but assertive presence.
But non-violent activism is only one of the JDL’s functions. Penetrating radical cells and relaying information to law enforcement and security agencies is something official Jewish organizations do not do, and do not wish to do. As I noted in arecent column in the National Post’s Full Comment blog:
It was not the official Jewish community that got the infamous Holocaust denier and Judeophobe Ernst Zundel busted and returned to Germany. It was information turned over to Attorney-general Roy McMurtry by the JDL working in collaboration with Holocaust survivor Sabrina Citron that lost Zundel his mailing privileges, and subsequently to charges that stuck. It was not CIJA that got the despicably and overtly anti-Semitic Palestine House in Toronto defunded of their millions in grants; it was the JDL, through information they dug out and passed along to grateful government authorities. It is not CIJA that stands shoulder to shoulder in the streets with Jews protesting Hamas and Hizbollah supporters screaming “Death to Israel”; it is the JDL. It wasn’t CIJA that organized a counter-rally to the 2014 Toronto Al-Quds Day rally, whose members in 2013 had called for the shooting of Jews in Jerusalem; it was the JDL.
Mayor Coderre’s objections to the JDL were formed on the basis of information (and attitude) he received from CIJA spokespeople, who are biased against the JDL. I think their own strong feelings created anxiety in the mayor that could have been allayed, had he dealt directly with the JDL in order to understand their purpose and their “personality.” Perhaps he got the impression that JDL marshalls are thugs, or Hell’s Angels types. They are on the contrary volunteers from the community, guys with families and jobs, and nothing like the stereotype some people hold of them.
Rabbi Poupko, CIJA’s point man on security, is now adamantly opposed to the JDL, but in the past he was a fervent admirer and supporter of the JDL. He has not publicly indicated why he changed his mind. After my column in Full Commentappeared, Rabbi Poupko asked me to contact him, and I did. We had a very amiable conversation, and to my surprise, I found that we were in agreement more than in disagreement. He acknowledges that CIJA and the police and the JDL are focused on different objectives, and that all are complementary. In fact, we agreed that the principal obstacle to a positive reception to the JDL is the name itself, which definitely comes with “baggage,” and which many people can’t get past. We agreed that putting distance between the Canadian JDL and its controversial past in the U.S. through a change of name would go far in putting the negative image of the JDL to rest. If their name was (in Hebrew) “Brothers’ Keepers,” or “Shepherds of the flock,” say, I think people would have open minds in assessing their value to the Jewish community and others (about 40% of JDL Canada’s support comes from other ethnic groups). Branding in an organization of this nature is an issue that cannot be shrugged off, and it is my hope that the JDL will reflect on this “elephant in the room” with the necessary objectivity.
Although I disagree with Rabbi Poupko on the need for the JDL in Montreal, I have great admiration for him personally. For many years Rabbi Poupko has stood with Jewish students on campus during Israel Apartheid Week and openly challenged Palestinian solidarity groups in charged auditoriums and street protests, proudly wearing his kippah and boldly identifying himself (he told me he gets threats of violence all the time). When I praised him for his courage, he laughingly told me that in protests he always positions himself near police officers, who all know him and make sure he is safe. Well, fair enough. He is a target as a spokesman for the community, and certainly deserves special protection.
But what about the rest of us, who don’t have the luxury of police protection (nor should we expect individual attention of that kind)? What’s wrong with having a bunch of strong, fearless, well-trained men who will not lose their cool in a crisis to stand beside ordinary people at protests? Police hope they will never have to deploy their arms to control unrest, and count on their presence alone to keep order. It usually works. The same holds true for the JDL. Just being there is value added to protesters, and helpful to the police. That’s not fear-mongering, as some people charge. That’s confidence-mongering. If there is one thing Jews lack today, especially on campus, it is the confidence to stand up to hateful, intimidating ideologues. The JDL is performing a useful service – gratis to the public purse – to Jews and to the communities in which they operate.
Prince Arthur Herald