I Was a 12-Year-Old Street-Fighting Jew
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes Never Again really means never again.
By Noam Freedman
In 1968, the American social conscience was focused on the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Going unnoticed was that the short-term moratorium on Jew-hating, paid for with 6 million lives, had expired. So in the face of what would end up being a growing local and global anti-Semitism and a seemingly indifferent public, Rabbi Meir Kahane, an associate editor at The Jewish Press, co-created the Jewish Defense League.
The basic concept of the JDL? To teach Jews to defend both themselves and other Jews from harm. They adopted the slogan “Never Again” and flew a Jewish “power” logo of a clenched fist within a Jewish star. The intention was to emulate the empowerment and community-action activities being used by the Black Panthers, and, as with the Panthers, the establishment immediately conflated activism with fanaticism, and dismissed the JDL as “goons” and “hoodlums.”
A man named Mr. Singer came to my school, a New York Hebrew day school, to recruit for the JDL. He wanted young men and their fathers. The JDL needed members, leadership and funding. It was the autumn of 1971, and I was interested. My father was not. But he indulged me, which is how we found ourselves in a rundown building in Brooklyn that served as JDL offices, classrooms and dojo.
When we approached the guy who gave the rather long-winded presentation, he told my father that I was “simply too young.” I was 9 years old, and they had bar-mitzvah age, 12 to 13, as the minimum. My father said, “You have a chance to gain a member today … or we both walk out.”
There were lots of torn clothes, bloody lips and several people looking dazed, with flowing crimson head wounds.
The guy continued his objections by pointing out that the self-defense classes might be too difficult for me. My father told him I had some experience and should be fine, so he let me take the class. The class went well; in fact, it was a bit basic compared to the twice-a-week judo I’d been studying. So, at the end of class, dues were paid, information was exchanged and I officially became a “JDLnik.”
I stopped going to the JDL self-defense training, relying instead on my judo class, which was local, twice a week and more in-depth. So that left activism. The hot topic of the time was Soviet Jewry. Russian Jews had a giant boot on their neck, and refuseniks often went missing while their families waited years for exit visas.
Jews like to protest, and, armed with this cause, protest we did.
Where? The Russian Embassy, a newspaper, a bank, but the U.N. was the most frequent location. The goal? To make the public, at least the Jewish public, aware of what was happening to the Jewish community in Russia. When the Jewish groups would gather to protest something, there was invariably a group of Arabs showing up to protest Jews in general.
These “counterprotests,” as the media called them, often ended with the Arabs targeting the Jews with thrown bottles, even direct physical assaults. This is where the JDL would come in, positioning ourselves between the Jews and the Arabs, and violence would be met in kind. Sometimes with even greater violence. For several years my involvement consisted of helping promote a particular rally or protest, stand with the JDL while things were calm and then make myself scarce once the bottles and police barriers started flying.
Rabbi Kahane … called for Jews to kill neo-Nazis planning to march in Skokie, Illinois.
When I was probably around 12, I was at a rally taking place at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, near the U.N. The crowd ended at Second Avenue. The counterprotesters gathered across the street on the west side of Second. As the day wound down and people started to leave the rally, several people were accosted by members of the group.
This sent some of us charging across the street. Things descended into a long, drawn-out dustup. The JDL guys chased Arab guys up the avenue, more Arab guys joined and then the fight spilled back down. People, cars and store windows all took abuse in the process. There were lots of torn clothes, bloody lips and several people looking dazed, with flowing crimson head wounds.
I was positioned between two cars when I saw a Jewish kid running toward me. He appeared to be maybe 14 or 15, wearing a white button-down shirt, a black tie and a yarmulke. His head was bleeding, and there was a splash of blood on his shoulder. His shiny black shoes clacked loudly as he ran, knees bent and flat-footed down the block. He had three Arab guys hot on his tail, and he was wild-eyed with fear.
Just as he ran past me, I stuck out my foot from between the cars and took out both legs on the lead pursuer, who belly-flopped violently to the ground, both of the trailing guys tumbling over him in the process. I looked down the block to see the kid making his escape, looking a bit like Groucho the way he ran. Before the guys on the ground could get their bearings, I stepped out from between the cars into the street and blended in with a group of people walking in the street.
It’s been 40 years, and I’m still not sure if that was an act of bravery or cowardice on my part. I remained a member of the JDL well into high school, carefully cutting my embroidered JDL patch off of my old jackets as I outgrew them and sewing it onto my new ones. The last hurrah for me came in 1977–78 when Rabbi Kahane, who had become progressively more hard-line since moving to Israel, called for Jews to kill neo-Nazis planning to march in Skokie, Illinois.
Kahane, and his Kach party in Israel, were nationalist extremists, and he had gone from recruiting “members” to having “followers.” I had planned to travel to Skokie for the counterprotest, but the march never happened. On top of that, it was clear that the JDL was no longer about empowerment. So, it was time for me to move on.
The lessons and ideology that the JDL imparted never left me: Self-identify as a lion, not a lamb. This, and feeling capable of effecting change, was invaluable. “Never again!” Truer words have not been spoken.
- Noam Freedman, OZY Author Contact Noam Freedman