A Man Out of Time

It‘s telling somehow that Irv Rubin was critically injured in a paroxysm of violence. Rubin, who headed the Jewish Defense League, was an agitator known for duking it out with latter-day Nazis, Soviet-era emissaries and sometimes even fellow Jews.

Authorities say that the right-wing Jewish extremist slashed his throat with a prison-issue razor early Monday morning and then fell or leapt over a prison walkway, landing on a concrete floor about 18 feet below. Rubin had been awaiting transport from the Metropolitan Detention Center to a court hearing. He faced a January trial for allegedly plotting to bomb a mosque and the office of a congressman. Rubin went into surgery, but doctors declared him brain-dead later that day. Wednesday morning, he was reportedly breathing on his own, but not expected to recover.

The apparent suicide attempt surprised people who knew Rubin, because while he never hesitated, metaphorically speaking, to go for the jugular of real and perceived enemies, supporters never expected Rubin to go for his own throat, especially given Jewish strictures against suicide. “We were looking forward to fighting the case,” said attorney Bryan Altman. “He was confident he would be vindicated.” Rubin’s wife talked of foul play; a supporter spoke of the government‘s wanting to silence Rubin, who was arrested last December. But it’s hard to fathom either a motive or a conspiracy.

Rubin‘s friend Gary David Copeland, the Libertarian candidate for governor, talks of a different sort of foul play. “I don’t know what happened in the jail,” said Copeland, “but when you cut Irv Rubin off and isolate him, you kill him. He‘s just a politico, a guy who was out there and believed something. The government is wrong for what they did to him in the name of their political war on terrorism.”

To be sure, the Rubin case was a godsend for the feds; it deflected criticism that Muslims and Arabs have been unfairly targeted and detained in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s domestic war on terrorism.

Rubin had ample reason to worry about his upcoming trial in a tough-on-terrorism climate that could cast aside reasonable doubts and lead to stiff sentences. If convicted, Rubin and alleged confederate Earl Krugel were looking at a minimum penalty of 40 years in jail. Both men pleaded not guilty. Krugel still awaits trial.

Rubin had been arrested dozens of times, but never had done serious time. Before, he‘d always beaten the rap, which infuriated opponents, especially when Rubin seemed to offer smirking confirmation of his involvement in the very illegal acts for which he avoided guilty verdicts. This time, though, from the start, the 57-year-old activist was handled like an ongoing security threat, spending three months in the “hole,” the portion of the jail where prisoners are kept in isolation and denied privileges. During this period, apparently, Rubin was especially despondent. It must have felt like betrayal to the Air Force veteran when the Bush administration, which was going after al Qaeda and Iraq with a zeal that Rubin could applaud, all of a sudden turned on Rubin himself, the onetime president of his high school’s club for young Republicans, as Public Enemy No. 1.

And all this at a stage when many of Rubin‘s long-standing Jewish critics had dismissed him as superannuated and irrelevant, a bombastic hate-monger who headed an organization that was little more than himself and a few belligerent associates. The JDL today is nothing more than three guys and a megaphone, they were wont to say.

The organization was founded in 1968 by militant Rabbi Meir Kahane, who talked of preventing future holocausts by arming Jews and promoted violent confrontations with “enemies” of Judaism. Some JDL acts were publicity stunts -- like setting off stink bombs during performances by touring Soviet artists to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews. But people did get hurt -- numerous injuries and a handful of deaths were linked to the JDL. When Kahane immigrated to Israel, Rubin took over the organization, which rapidly splintered into clownish but sometimes dangerous factions. Rubin himself was a suspect in the 1985 letter bombing that killed Arab activist Alex Odeh, though he was never charged in the crime.

Perhaps the most chilling irony is that Rubin’s personal fortunes ebbed lowest even as his methods and doctrine enjoyed a resurgence. U.S. officials could not have sounded more Rubin-like this week as they declined to confirm a widely suspected U.S. role in an attack in Yemen that killed six, including Qaed Sinan Harithi, an alleged al Qaeda leader. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of Harithi: “It would be a very good thing if he were out of business.”

Seventeen years ago, Rubin commented about Odeh -- who, it should be noted, was not implicated in any crime: “I have no tears for Mr. Odeh. He got exactly what he deserved.”

And high-ranking members of Ariel Sharon‘s right-wing Israeli government have advocated the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel, even those who are Israeli citizens. Such talk used to be dismissed as racist extremism when voiced years ago by Kahane and Rubin.

Closer to home, United Jewish Communities -- and many of its affiliated Jewish federations -- recently ended their prohibition against direct aid to Jewish settlements located in territories that are controlled by Israel, but not within Israeli borders. Such settlements are hotbeds of reactionary sentiment, which holds, in part, that Israel has a right to keep conquered territory. So on one hand, the venerable Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, which does much good work in the community, has consistently condemned the JDL, but on the other, it now supports settlements where many, though certainly not all, residents espouse beliefs similar to Rubin’s.

Through it all, the hyperactive Rubin could only watch helplessly from the sidelines, from inside a jail cell. “I am in hell,” Rubin wrote in a December 2001 letter to Libertarian Copeland. “And now I know why that evil bastard Timothy McVey [sic] may he rot forever NAZI SCUM bastard. Now I know why he chose death over incarceration. Uncle [Sam] has a way to make one feel most uncomfortable.”

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