Jewish Activist Known for Tough Stance

Profile: Irv Rubin, volatile chairman of the Jewish Defense League has dozens of arrests for activities against anti-Semitism.

Los Angeles Times/December 13, 2001
By Eric Malnic and Richard Winton

Irv Rubin says he has never forgotten that day in 1971 when he was a student at Cal State Northridge and Rabbi Meir Kahane, who had founded the militant Jewish Defense League three years before, stopped by to speak.

"He told us, 'If you see a Nazi, don't try to convince him you're a nice guy,' " Rubin recalled a few years later. "He told us to smash him."

Rubin has done a fair amount of smashing in the years since then--he has been arrested, by his own estimate, more than 40 times. So he said it came as no surprise that when Kahane announced that he was stepping down in 1985, the rabbi named Rubin as the new chief of the JDL. "Who would be more qualified than me?" Rubin asked a few days later without a trace of false modesty. "Next to him, I'm the world's best-known Jewish activist. Now, it's my show."

Rubin, who had served as West Coast coordinator for the JDL before his selection as Kahane's successor, said at the time of his promotion that he would press forward with the organization's original mandate "to eliminate any threat to Jewish people" with a forceful, two-pronged attack on anti-Semitism.

"Priority 1 will be to teach every Jew or sympathetic Gentile self-defense," Rubin said. "Priority No. 2 is that wherever the neo-Nazis rear their heads, we will be there to confront them, eyeball to eyeball. The day of the submissive Jew must be eliminated."

Rubin has taken a similarly tough line against Arabs and Muslims.

Born in Montreal in 1945, Rubin moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1960 and later served four years in the Air Force.

He said he was "a nice Jewish boy who obeyed every law" until he heard Kahane speak at Northridge. But when he heard Kahane talk of meeting violent anti-Semitism with force, "it struck a sympathetic chord," Rubin said. "Afterward, I went up and introduced myself."

Rubin promptly joined the JDL and was soon named a regional coordinator. About a month later, Rubin said, he joined a JDL action at a department store in the Fairfax district, protesting the store's sale of goods made in the Soviet Union.

"We had several nice, orderly demonstrations--you know, people screaming, 'Let my people go!' Things like that," he said. "But it didn't seem to faze them. We decided a more dramatic approach was needed.

"Myself and about a dozen others went up to the executive offices and had a sit-in. The security guards came in to kick us out. The desks went over, the chairs started flying, the lamps started hitting the wall. It was a good, vibrant sit-in."

In 1972, Rubin was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after someone fired three shots at an American Nazi Party leader in El Monte. The charges against the JDL activist were dismissed.

More incidents followed, including arrests during demonstrations against Arabs, the Soviet Union and the French Consulate.

One of the most controversial incidents involved the bounty Rubin announced at a Los Angeles news conference on March 16, 1978. "We are offering $500, that I have in my hand, to any member of the community . . . who kills, maims or seriously injures a member of the American Nazi Party," Rubin said. "We are deadly serious."

The case made Rubin a familiar name, enough so that he sought, but failed to win, a Republican Assembly nomination on the Westside in 1982. For several years, his hulking figure was a familiar one on the evening news, throwing fists at neo-Nazis, threatening Arab activists and being dragged off to jail.

In October 1985, a few months after Rubin was named leader of the JDL, a powerful pipe bomb exploded at the West Coast headquarters of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Santa Ana, killing its Palestinian American regional director, Alex Odeh, and injuring seven others.

Rubin declared: "I have no tears for Mr. Odeh. He got exactly what he deserves."

No arrests were made, but the FBI questioned several people connected with the JDL. Rubin has said his group had nothing to do with the explosion and later said he regretted his comment about Odeh.

As leader of the JDL, Rubin eventually tried to strike a more moderate pose, donning three-piece suits and offering his services as a security consultant to local businesses, including an Arab-owned Middle Eastern restaurant.

He said that some of his earlier stances--applauding violent acts and teaching children to use guns--had been a mistake and a public relations disaster.

"Not only did it give Gentiles the idea that we were violent, it turned off many Jews and closed tens of thousands of doors to us," he said. "We became the black sheep of the family. . . . Militancy, in people's minds, is one step removed from terrorism."

But his carefully crafted image of moderation eroded in 1992, when he was arrested again, this time on conspiracy to commit murder for hire.

According to prosecutors, Rubin had been moonlighting as a private detective, applying his trademark in-your-face political tactics to a far less ideological task: collecting money for creditors.

Police said he hired an associate to terrorize an unidentified man who owed money to one of Rubin's business clients. Detectives said the associate fired bullets through the man's windows and threatened to kill him.

Four days later, the charges against Rubin were dropped when police admitted they lacked the evidence to hold him. Rubin's attorney, Steve Goldberg, said his client had been vindicated. Prosecutors said they just didn't have enough evidence to put Rubin on trial. For the next several years, Rubin kept a relatively low profile, last making news in 1998, when his plans to stage a concurrent protest march prompted the Aryan Nations to cancel its parade in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Jewish leaders have long worked hard to distance themselves from both Rubin and the JDL.

David Lehrer, Western regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, described JDL's members Wednesday as "thugs and hooligans."

"Everyone has their crazies, including us Jews," Rabbi Jacob Izakson of Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane said in 1998.

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