You are a tourist.
You are walking along East 67th Street in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
It is a warm, summery day, and the sun’s reflection gleams off of shiny vehicles all honking their horns in the incomprehensible mess that is city traffic. You plod slowly down the street, and then to your right you see a beautiful, ornately styled building dominating the immediate landscape.
It is fairly tall, with pillars, arches, and curlicues of carved stone that climb up towers reaching up to the smoggy clouds. This building piques your interest. Let’s take a look, you think to yourself. As you ascend the small steps leading to the entrance, you see the biblical phrase, “Enter into His Gates with Thanksgiving and into His courts with praise.”
"Enter into His Gates with Thanksgiving and into His courts with praise.”
Must be one of those Jewish houses of prayer. God, what are they called again? Snausages? Analogues? Oh, wait, synagogues. Yeah, that’s it. You walk inside.
The inside is absolutely stunning. The inner sanctum consists of a carved ark below a circular, stained-glass window, that lets blue and yellow light sprinkle the floor. There are sleek mahogany pews behind velvet ropes that line the sanctuary. You can see, from your vantage point in the back, a cluster of religious Jews finishing up the morning prayers. What a peaceful scene.
It wasn’t always.
What if I were to tell you that not 50 years ago, there was a violent takeover of this synagogue? That such a takeover was repeated that same year? That, both times, paramilitary forces seized this space for a rally the likes of which hasn’t been seen since? Look to these dusty pews and imagine them brimming with sweaty protesters shouting themselves hoarse, punching tightly clenched fists to the roof, teeth clenching as they shriek mantras in adulation of the man who rouses them with a fire and brimstone discourse at that pedestal in front. Look at him standing up there, starched white shirt collars pointing diagonally out of his vest, gesticulating passionately as he screams about what the world ignores.
*SKIP TO 11:49 IN THE VIDEO*
Who is he? Come to the front, swim through the crowd, and end up face to face with Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Meir Kahane. Never before has there been two words that will strike up passion in a Jew so quickly, be that for or against him. Meir Kahane was an American Rabbi born in 1932 in Flatbush. He was a brilliant student, held graduate degrees in law and international affairs, and was ordained a Rabbi by the esteemed Mirrer Yeshiva (school of religious learning). However, he was soon to become one of the most controversial figures of the late 20th century. It all began when he founded the Jewish Defense League.
The Jewish Defense League, or JDL, was a paramilitary activist group founded by Rabbi Kahane in New York City in 1968. In those days, there existed a tremendous amount of anti-Semitic violence perpetrated against NYC Jews. There were muggings, beatings, robberies, anti-Semitic teachers, Nazi-ist graffiti, and gang crimes all directed at Jews that were rampant that time. At that point, it was considered life threatening to wear a yarmulke (skullcap) on the subway! Tensions between African-Americans and Jews at the time were very tense as well. Rabbi Kahane was first awakened to action when he saw swastikas painted on numerous synagogues in Brooklyn in 1952. Finally, he grouped together the JDL. Though it began as a vigilante club, at its prime the JDL could boast a membership of over 15,000 people! The JDL trained its membership in martial arts and gun use, often in upstate summer camps. They then put these skills to use, patrolling the streets of NYC in defense of the Jewish people. The JDL was unafraid to meet violence with violence. The main mission of the JDL was stated as “To combat anti-Semitism in the public and private sectors of life in the United States of America.” However, as they began to grow in membership, one of their main goals became the war against the oppression of Soviet Jewry.
Under the communist regime of the USSR lived millions of Jews. When communism began, it was inherently anti-religious. Thus, the speaking and learning of Hebrew was banned, Rabbis were arrested, and Jewish thought, learning, and traditions were outlawed. Furthermore, there existed tremendous anti-Semitism there, that contributed to pogroms and violence that took many forms. Moreover, in many cases, Jews were forbidden from certain jobs. Thus, many Jews had religion stamped out of them, and many others, who were religious, had to live without the traditional necessities and in constant fear of violence. Jews who tried to escape often faced prohibitions on visas. They were trapped.
We now come full circle, back to the Park East Synagogue; this shul was directly across the street from the USSR Mission to the US. In May of 1971, fifty members of the JDL, including Kahane himself, snuck into the synagogue with food, water, and bedrolls. They set up a microphone system in the upper balcony of the building, a mere 30 yards away from the windows of the Mission. Thus began a constant deluge of passionate yelling and speaking on behalf of the USSR Jews, directed at an incredibly high volume at the Mission’s inhabitants. Kahane and others yelled about the mistreatment of Jews by the USSR and also lectured the JDL members inside about the history of Russian Jews. Soon after this began, a police blockade separated the building from the Mission. Threats of arrest began to arise, and Kahane actually got into a shouting match with the lead police inspector, who threatened to fistfight him one-on-one. Richard Rosenthal, an undercover police officer posing as a JDL member, vividly describes this moment in great detail.
“The police inspector in charge of the precinct, David Fallek, called Kahane to the street to talk to him. He told Kahane that unless the JDL left, officers would come in and arrest the entire group. The two men got into a shouting match more appropriate to bickering fourth graders.
Kahane shouted at Fallek ‘YOU’RE A JEW, YOU SHOULD’NT BE DOING THIS!’
Fallek became enraged. He screamed back ‘COME ON RABBI, WE’LL FIGHT MAN TO MAN, JUST YOU AND ME!’
‘Hey, Fallek, you’ve lost your cool.’ As Kahane walked back into the building, he added ‘We have nothing to talk about.’
At that moment, the police didn’t have the authority to enter the synagogue (it was private property) unless invited, or I’m sure Fallek and Kahane would have been rolling on the ground.“
Eventually, on a very serious threat of a police takeover, the JDL fled the building.
Kahane’s story did not end here. He went on to grow the JDL into an international movement. He came under investigation by the FBI, and the JDL was tagged by many as a terrorist group. He was arrested over 20 times, and even spent a year in federal prison for violating probation having to do with the creation of explosives to use in protest against the USSR. In 1971, he moved to Israel and formed the Kach party, an extremist right political movement in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He actually attained a seat in the Knesset, and was predicted to obtain over 5 more before his party was banned for being racist, having some very strong views on how to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Through this time, Kahane was fanatically loved by his followers and fervently hated by his dissenters. He was eventually assassinated after speaking at a hotel in Manhattan by an Islamist terrorist.
Was he right? You don’t know. When you look into him now, you hear people shouting opinions. “KAHANE TZADAK, HE WAS A MESSIAH!” “Kahane! Evil! Violence! A racist terrorist!” Kahane, it seems, was morally like many of the pictures of him – a vivid grayscale. He stood up for what he believed and defended the Jews in times of crisis, against the overwhelming majority of rampant persecution, and even an entire country! But, he chose to wield certain modes of power that many would find forbidden. He firebombed cars, staged takeovers, attempted kidnappings, and involved himself in gang warfare. He started out just to protect simple NY Jews, so that was okay. But, later, his movement became political. Is that where he loses you? For a man who loved peace, he certainly didn’t live it. Is that okay? Do the ends justify the means? Kahane may be gone now, but these questions aren’t, you think.
The synagogue is beautiful. But, you can still hear the shouts. The roar of an approving crowd. You can see the Rabbi shouting his message, face red with fury. You see the New York Times of his era, with his face plastered on the front. You see this, and wonder why you’ve never heard of him. He was here not so long ago…
Diner, Hasia R. The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. University of California Press, Ltd., 2004.
“Jdl Seizes Synagogue to Conduct ‘Liberation Seder’ for Soviet Jews.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 21 May 1970, www.jta.org/1970/05/21/jewish-holidays/passover/jdl-seizes-synagogue-to-conduct-liberation-seder-for-soviet-jews.
“The Jewish Defense League.” Anti-Defamation League, 2017, www.adl.org/education/resources/profiles/jewish-defense-league.
“Jewish Defense League.” Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/jewish-defense-league.
Kaufman, Michael T. “The Complex Past of Meir Kahane.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Jan. 1971, www.nytimes.com/1971/01/24/archives/the-complex-past-of-meir-kahane-meir-kahanes-past-as-scholar-as.html.
Kifner, John. “Meir Kahane, 58, Israeli Militant and Founder of the Jewish Defense League.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Nov. 1990, www.nytimes.com/1990/11/06/obituaries/meir-kahane-58-israeli-militant-and-founder-of-the-jewish-defense-league.html.
“Meir Kahane Part 01 of 14.” FBI, FBI, 5 May 2011, vault.fbi.gov/meir-kahane/meir-khane-part-01-of-14/view.
Rosenthal, Richard. Rookie Cop: Deep Undercover in the Jewish Defense League. Leapfrog Press, 2000.
Featured Image photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, 1977