Were there not a wider world out there, Earl Krugel and Irv Rubin would just as likely inspire snickers and pity as federal prosecution for terrorism. To the greater Jewish community of Los Angeles, the two accused bomb plotters are superannuated radicals with bullhorns and bad manners, who perpetuate a relic called the Jewish Defense League, which, these days, is little more than a pet name for themselves.
The JDL has a violent past — with a history of bombings and vandalism — and a rhetoric that is confrontational and sometimes racist. But in recent years, the JDL has been notable to most L.A. Jews as an annoyance and embarrassment. Annoying — given that the direct targets of Rubin’s in-your-face protests and public disruptions often have been Jews, those Jews who are too peace-loving and assimilated for JDL tastes. And embarrassing — because the actions of this handful of publicity-savvy hotheads paint an image that other Jews find unflattering.
True to form, it was no surprise to see Rubin, in 1999, heckling an interfaith ”Unity Rally“ just five days after a shooting rampage by a white supremacist killed a mail carrier and wounded three children and two workers at the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills. While some 2,000 others gathered to express grief and solidarity, Rubin took raucous umbrage at the suggestion of restrictions on gun ownership. ”There‘s the governor and thousands of people, representatives of all faiths, and Irv and his three guys are there just screaming when the governor is speaking, about how they’re opposed to gun control,“ said Sue Stengel, western-states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. ”They‘re trying to capture media attention and trying to turn people away from the good that others are trying to do.“
It was vintage Rubin, who, presumably, would have preferred to see Uzi-toting secretaries shoot it out with gunman Buford Furrow while the preschoolers performed a perfect duck-and-cover maneuver.
Jewish leaders in Los Angeles would like to dismiss the JDL as both irrelevant and anachronistic, but the uncomfortable wider world has indeed intruded: The attack on the World Trade Center, the Palestinian uprising, the collapsed Middle East peace process and the surge of suicide attacks in Israel — all have the potential to energize the Jewish ”extremist“ movement, especially in Israel, where there are echoes of the JDL call to arms that presumes no possibility of peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Arabs.
JDL founder Meir Kahane openly advocated deporting all Arabs from Israel, by force as necessary. Under the leadership of the charismatic rabbi, whose base was in New York City, the JDL quickly became known in the 1970s and ’80s for brawling with Nazi sympathizers, setting off stink bombs during performances by Russian artists — to protest the plight of Soviet Jews — and even worse mayhem, such as planting crude bombs to intimidate those perceived as enemies.
But that was then. By September 10, 2001, with Kahane long dead and his adherents splintered, it was easy to forget the JDL entirely. ”They want to see themselves as the defenders of the Jews,“ said Stengel, whose organization monitors extremist groups. ”But on a good day, Irv Rubin probably could have conjured up five people.“
September 11 hasn‘t necessarily changed that, but the terrorist attacks allegedly spurred Rubin and Krugel to seek a higher, more dangerous profile. September 11 also ensured that law-enforcement agencies would be scrutinizing any such threats more closely. Rubin and Krugel ran smack into an all-American-style jihad, one led by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, which is clapping irons on anything that remotely walks and talks like terrorism.
Krugel, a 59-year-old dental hygienist, and Rubin, 56, the titular leader of the JDL, were arrested exactly three months after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. They stand accused of plotting to bomb the King Fahd mosque in Culver City and the offices of Congressman Darrell Issa, an Orange County Republican of Lebanese descent. A grand jury is expected to return an indictment this week. If convicted on the charges, Rubin and Krugel face minimum 30-year prison terms.
The case against Krugel and Rubin is likely to hinge on two things: the credibility of a confidential informant and recordings made by the informant that allegedly capture the hatching of the plot.
The informant is well-known to the JDL’s circle of supporters, though at this writing he has not been named in court documents. According to these filings, Krugel recruited the informant in October to make and plant bombs. Instead, the informant contacted authorities, who wired him for sound.
Other details about the informant were offered in an interview with Barry Krugel, the twin brother of Earl. Barry Krugel is also a longtime member of the JDL, but authorities have not implicated him in the alleged bomb plot. Barry Krugel said that the informant approached him about two years ago: ”His story was, ‘I’m interested in the JDL. I‘m Jewish. My parents are Jewish.’“ Krugel insists that the JDL did not participate in illegal activities with or without the informant.
But according to an FBI affidavit, the informant joined the JDL as a teenager and willingly ”committed criminal acts on behalf of the JDL including building and placing a destructive device at a mosque at the direction of the JDL.“
After some time, the informant joined the Navy. ”We had on-and-off contact,“ said Barry Krugel. ”He was in the Navy, not around, in and out of town, up to a couple of months ago.“ At that point, the informant started to attend JDL meetings and protests, but ”he was a quiet kind of fellow. He wasn‘t demonstrative like Irv or myself, who are not afraid to mix it up. It takes a special individual to get in front of a crowd and make some noise.“
Apparently, the youth had a change of heart while in the military. ”If a person at a younger age does things, regrets it, then spends time away and they [the JDL] don’t know he is reformed, then he turns to law enforcement,“ said a police source.
The affidavit asserts that, in the recordings, ”Krugel stated that the Arabs needed a wake-up call and that the JDL needed to do something to one of their ‘filthy’ mosques.“ Moreover, the tapes allegedly record Earl Krugel discussing ”other bombings he was involved in or knew about.“ For his part, Rubin ”said that the JDL needed to let people know they were alive in a ‘militant way.’“
Potential targets were discussed or cased, including an Orange County bar that purportedly catered to Nazis, local mosques and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, in 11 meetings from October 19 through December 11, the day of the arrests. The affidavit recounts Krugel going through the finer points of bomb making while also directing the purchase of necessary raw materials, to be assembled at his modest home in Reseda. Rubin allegedly chose the final targets. Police swarmed in just after the informant unloaded explosive powder into Krugel‘s garage.
”They had all or most of the components for making an explosive device,“ said FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin. ”If we were to wait a couple of hours, they could have very easily made the bomb.“
Barry Krugel countered that neither his brother nor Rubin is dumb enough to concoct such a scheme: ”You don’t bomb a congressman‘s office unless you want a permanent passport to jail. I think this may be a setup based on the government trying to placate the Arabs by showing some evenhandedness, because they’ve been rounding up Arabs. Now, they‘re going to round up some Jewish people.“
Attorney Charles L. Kreindler, who briefly represented Earl Krugel, suggested that his former client may have been unfairly entrapped by overzealous investigators. ”Something like what happened on September 11 is a very monumental event in the life of a person“ with Krugel’s beliefs. ”I think Mr. Krugel became very vulnerable to the type of suggestions made by the government informant. Mr. Krugel is a full-time dental hygienist. And also a gem and mineral collector. This is a really normal, good American.“
In its heyday, the JDL relished fomenting and taking credit for violent acts that it characterized as ”self-defense“ — while also attempting to avoid legal culpability. Meir Kahane set up military-training and indoctrination camps, encouraged the purchase of guns, and spoke of a holocaust-to-come in America that would have to be resisted by an independent army of Jews.
”Here was a rabbi who went into the streets and fought with anti-Semites,“ recalled Barry Krugel. ”Someone who was proud to be Jewish. Don‘t turn the other cheek. This was a new idea. Beverly Hills Jews are worrying about ’What will they say?‘ if we get in the streets and kick butts. I liked those kind of ideas. Don’t sit back and write an article about Nazis marching through Skokie. Get out and do something about it. If Arabs were at a meeting and they said, ‘We love Yasir Arafat,’ we said, ‘Go to hell.’“
Barry Krugel recounted how he was once arrested for jumping Nazis who showed up outside an Academy Awards ceremony, and also for harassing Jewish industrialist Armand Hammer by picketing his house. The JDL accused Hammer of courting the Soviets for personal financial gain, while doing nothing for fellow Jews who faced persecution in the USSR. In part because it embraced the cause of Soviet Jewry, the JDL enjoyed a burst of nationwide support. Kahane‘s charisma and writings also won converts.
But the dissolution of the Soviet Union removed a centerpiece issue, and Kahane went to Israel. At his urging, many followers joined him. Kahane turned over the JDL to Rubin, but the organization rapidly became a shell of its former self, splintering into bitter factions that spent much of their time battling each other, especially after an assassin killed Kahane during a trip to New York in 1990.
The court record is replete with colorful charges and countercharges between JDL heirs apparent. A court document in a 1989 suit alleges of a JDL leader that ”while dressed only in underwear, combat boots, and a military helmet, [he] carried a rifle on [his] shoulder and marched back and forth in front of a full-length mirror while listening to Sousa marching music,“ a display that occurred ”on at least one occasion.“ Elsewhere, one JDL-er accused another of harassing him by ”personating [sic] an attorney“ and ”accusing me in a letter of having a sexual relationship with my former butler . . . and of committing bestiality with a Neapolitan mastiff.“
But it’s comedy only when no one gets hurt. A bystander was wounded in New York when a JDL rival fired shots in Rubin‘s direction. And extremists were responsible for two of Israel’s most devastating tragedies.
In 1994, onetime JDL member Baruch Goldstein killed 29 worshippers in a Jerusalem mosque, prompting Israel to ban Kahane-inspired groups as illegal terrorist organizations. Extremists fell into further disrepute for their role in the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Rubin‘s JDL, based in Los Angeles, seemed little more than a historical footnote, except when his crew made news by scuffling with skinheads, picketing Jesse Jackson or heckling mainstream Jewish organizations. Or, most notably, when the JDL fell under suspicion in 1985 after a bomb killed Alex Odeh, a Palestinian-American who was west coast director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The murder remains unsolved. In an unrelated case, a jury convicted JDL member Robert Manning in 1994 of complicity in the letter-bombing death of a secretary in Manhattan Beach. The attack was contracted by a fellow JDL supporter over a business dispute with the owner of the firm where the secretary worked. The killing had no connection to JDL causes, but was a potent reminder of a violent strain in the group.
Until the December arrests, JDL’s latter-day coin has mainly been rhetoric, and even that had been toned down. The JDL still opposes relinquishing any territory gained by Israel during past wars, but Krugel talks of expelling only those Arabs who oppose the Israeli government — a moderation to be sure, though hardly enough to win over Palestinians. The JDL also lobbies t the Burbank City Council from opening its gatherings with a sectarian prayer.
Outside the core of rabble-rousers, there are at least several hundred dues-paying, non-activist members nationwide, according to both the JDL and law enforcement. Some members have reportedly talked of leaving the organization over its alleged resumption of violence, but others perceive a welcome resurgence in the U.S. of an unapologetically combative and confrontational Jewish right wing.
”More Jews were killed in the World Trade Center than in a whole year of fighting in Israel. So Jews aren‘t safe here either,“ said Avi Rosenberg, a Kahane follower who splits time between Israel and Florida. ”God has his ways of waking people up. Israel was burning for a year, and suddenly there is more sympathy for Israel. Everyone in Israel says Kahane was right now. Arabs have to be sent to their own 22 countries. The movement is bigger than ever.“
The Anti-Defamation League argues that the number of Jewish extremists remains minuscule, and that the Israeli government’s crackdown on them has been effective. But critics of Israeli policy say the government itself — with its policy of assassinating suspected terrorists rather than bringing them to trial, for example — has adopted a form of state-sponsored intimidation and lawlessness that is difficult to separate from what used to be considered right-wing extremism.
”The idea that Jewish extremism has gone away is an optical illusion, because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an architect of the occupation of the West Bank, is the government,“ said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles. ”In Israel, you no longer have to be outside the government to be an extremist.“ Moreover, added Beliak, ”The right wing controls the streets in Israel. It takes tremendous courage for the left, or for anyone who would mount a political protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, even to express themselves.“
Half a world away, local Jewish leaders prefer to view the alleged bomb plot as disturbing, reprehensible and isolated. ”This is not a vast international conspiracy,“ said David Lehrer, a longtime L.A. Jewish community leader who is well familiar with the JDL road show. ”These are a handful of guys who need a therapist more than anything else. There‘s not much there there. But they’re not to be taken lightly either. Buford Furrow made it very clear that you don‘t need a huge cohort of individuals to wreak havoc.“
Dennis Dockstader contributed to this story.