MONTREAL — The militant Jewish Defence League of Canada (JDL) came to Montreal to find recruits for its resistance against those it views as radical Islamists, but its first battle here is with the leadership of the Jewish community.
JDL director Meir Weinstein, who revived the controversial group in Toronto about six years ago, blasted the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) for its denunciation of the JDL’s attempt to form a Montreal chapter.
Before about 100 people on Feb. 16 at Ruby Foo’s Hotel, Weinstein called it a “disgrace” that CIJA would speak against the JDL. He said CIJA’s main spokesperson on the issue, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, is “two-faced,” because Weinstein alleged he used to be a JDL supporter.
(Rabbi Poupko responded to The CJN, “I question the premise that one’s views in 1981 are relevant to this discussion.”)
He was referring to a CIJA statement issued a few hours before the meeting in which Rabbi Poupko, a CIJA board member, is quoted as saying: “The Jewish community of Quebec categorically rejects the sensationalist tactics of the JDL and rejects its claim of ensuring the safety of Quebec Jews and their institutions.
“The JDL is a small, marginal group that does not receive any substantial support within our community. By claiming that Jews 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.”
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre also tweeted that the group is not welcome nor needed in Montreal.
Those who attended the widely publicized meeting – the second attempt by the JDL in six months to set up a chapter in Montreal – appeared to be supportive of Weinstein’s message that Jews are at risk and the established community is not doing enough to protect them.
Many in the mostly middle-aged and older crowd gave Weinstein a standing ovation when he “pledged never again will we turn a blind eye and place our faith in false leadership.”
The evening was without incident. About a dozen JDL “marshals,” burly young men in black jackets emblazoned with “never again” and clenched fist on a yellow star logo, with bullet-proof vests underneath, patrolled the venue.
Both Weinstein and Julius Suraski, the JDL’s co-ordinator for Ontario, described themselves as sons of Holocaust survivors and several times invoked the Holocaust while painting a dire picture of the peril Jews face today. Muslim extremists want to kill Jews, they said, and Jews have to know how to defend themselves physically.
However, they stressed that JDL members aren’t vigilantes and don’t carry guns or other weapons. They say they’re law-abiding and work with police and government, monitoring and infiltrating groups that they deem a danger to Jews.
(This was backed up by CIJA, which stated that the JDL in Canada has “never committed any criminal or violent act, nor has it been accused of inciting hatred.”)
Suraski noted that he is active with the federal Conservative Party, heads his riding association, and was a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s delegation on his official visit to Israel last year.
Nevertheless, Weinstein said, “We have to be on the street and show we are not afraid of the bullies.”
Weinstein, who first became involved with the JDL in 1979, expressed admiration for its American founder, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose extremist Kach Party was banned from Israel’s Knesset, for his “use of violence to make Soviet Jewish emigration a page 1 issue.”
He also has no regrets about his past. “In the 1980s, when the neo-Nazis tried to attack me or other Jews, I’m not ashamed to say that we smashed them,” Weinstein said.
One audience member, who described himself as “on the fence” about the JDL, asked Weinstein about Israeli Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Palestinians in 1994. Goldstein was a onetime member of the JDL.
Weinstein said he would have stopped Goldstein if he had known ahead of time. “But you have to understand the context: Goldstein was a doctor who was saving Jews and Arabs, who saw mobs massacring Jews, who was held back by mobs from treating them. He lost it.”
Suraski said the JDL now has “a good core of supporters” in Montreal and will establish a chapter, with details of its activities to be made known soon. It’s also trying to form chapters in Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver.
Jack Kincler, chair of the independent Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, told The CJN he did not think his organization could work with the JDL, but added: “We need both. We complement each other. We are more academic, and they are more action-oriented.”
Another well-known community member, Evelyn Bloomfield Schachter, was unreserved in her support for the JDL.
“The community’s sha shtil [“be quiet” policy] is not working. We need to defend ourselves,” she said.
Similar views were voiced by others.
Ber Lazarus, who claimed he never hit anyone in his life, said, “It’s the age-old Jewish question: after 2,000 years they are still killing us. The Montreal community does not want to rock the boat. They deal with problems after the fact… We are not looking for trouble, but we can fight if we have to… Just [the JDL’s] presence would show we are not lying down and taking it.”
Shmuel Spicer, who had been involved with the JDL in Toronto in the 1980s, said, “I think we can help the police. We’ve done it in Toronto,” where he said the JDL was effective in exposing links between Muslim organizations in Canada and extremist groups.
“The enemy right now is radical Islam, there is no question.
“The [JDL] is not doing anything illegal,” Spicer said. “If they were, I would not be involved. I have a business.”
Lisa Benhaim, a signed-up Montreal member who used to live in Toronto, said she is impressed by how the JDL behaves at pro-Islamist rallies there.
“My daughter was at Concordia [University] for three years, and she was afraid to wear a Jewish symbol. Something is wrong here. Our youth need to be ready, to be educated.”
This “new” JDL is not like its American counterpart, she insisted. “Canadians are much more conservative… They ask questions. No one would buy into [anything like the JDL was in the United States in the 1960s.]”
She believes many Montreal Jews “secretly” support the JDL.
As Weinstein and Suraski noted, the JDL works with other faith groups – Christians, Hindus and even Muslims, of whom they named a few.
Two non-Jewish friends in attendance were introduced: André Drouin, a councillor of the small Mauricie town of Hérouxville, who authored the 2007 “code of conduct” for immigrants, targeting supposed Muslim and other minority religion practices, which made international news; and Valerie Price, a local leader of Act! for Canada, a group that warns Islamism threatens democratic values.
Price said she has admired the JDL since members drove in from Toronto to join a demonstration outside Huntingdon town hall against its mayor, Stéphane Gendron, for his anti-Israel remarks in 2012.
“I’m the little Christian girl who stands with Israel. I like to think I am a righteous gentile,” she told the audience.
The last word went to artist Haim Sherff, who said he had been an Israeli air force member: “Your group is absolutely necessary. There is no need for us to be sheep for the slaughter any more.”