When I lived upstairs from the Jewish Defense Organization, Hitler was a presence on the Lower East Side
They had the wrong guy. It was a case of mistaken identity. That’s what I told the dudes on the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force that morning when I was coming home to my strange new abode from a peaceful breakfast and these two big guys in trench coats flashed their badges, threw me up against the brick wall, and frisked me for weapons. Aside from the take-out bagel, which on some mornings could be considered a weapon of sorts, they didn’t find any, but they weren’t through with me. They said they were looking for a certain fugitive and they thought I might be he. I had to prove who I wasn’t. Which meant, afterwards, I had to think about who I was.
I didn’t know the whereabouts of the fugitive they were seeking, although I did know who he was. I’d seen him on the floor below me in the red brick tenement building on Bleecker near Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The floor that served as the headquarters of what was invariably called “the extremist Jewish Defense Organization.” Extremist? I’d heard vague rumors of a connection with the attempted murder of an aging Nazi war criminal on Long Island, although I never knew if there was a real connection and still don’t know if that was why one of them became a fugitive.
But they were, in one way or another, extreme. Some might say extreme moralists, in a slightly Dostoevskian Underground Man way. Others might call them single-minded Jewish fanatics because the cause that gave them birth was the bitter struggle of millions of Soviet Jews to survive and escape vicious repression by openly anti-Semitic Russian authorities. A struggle given more emotional intensity by the fact that Americans, and particularly the human-rights wing of American liberalism, composed in great part by Jews, seemed detached if not disdainful of the plight of their co-religionists, content to follow the lead of the Nixon-Kissinger policy: Don’t make noise about Soviet Jews because it threatened the delicate preservation of detente between nuclear powers.
And so it was left to outsider Jews, to “fanatics,” to “extremists,” like Meir Kahane, to make noise about what was happening behind prison bars in the Soviet Union, the prison bars of the Soviet Union: the murders, the imprisonments, psychiatric lock-ups for dissidents, the deprivation of even the few rights of non-Jewish citizens of the Soviet police state.
The more one reads—as in Gal Beckerman’s forthcoming book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone—on the struggle to save Soviet Jews, the more one understands the frustration with official Jewish organizations that gave rise to the impulse to extremism.
Now, the “extremist JDO” is often confused with the original “extremist JDL,” the Jewish Defense League, founded by an extremist, Kahane, which earned its extremist label by being accused of bomb plots against Carnegie Hall and other venues for touring Soviet orchestras and ballet groups that were used as the window dressing for detente.
It should have been considered a universal human-rights cause, but it was often dismissed as a right-wing—because anti-Communist—cause. I must admit to my own guilt here.
In any case I’ve lost track of the details, but there’s extremist and there’s extremist and it’s my understanding that the JDO, my downstairs neighbors, broke off from the JDL because the JDL wasn’t extremist enough. It wouldn’t go the extra mile. And the JDO under its founder, Mordechai Levy, began to focus its attention on other American anti-Semitic manifestations, including neo-Nazi, white supremacist, Klan, and Holocaust-denier groups. And the alleged Nazi war criminals the Justice department was not pursuing vigorously enough for their notion of “justice.”
Perhaps for this reason, “the enemy of my enemy,” etc., the JDO found a haven in the various New and Old Left enclaves of the Lower East Side, long home to Jewish fanatics, now haven for the remains of the counterculture, including such figures as A.J. Weberman, the well-known “Dylanologist” who was a patron of the JDO and someone I became familiar with during my first reporting job, the perilous post of counterculture reporter for The Village Voice. It was a job in which one met all sorts of exotic characters. Indeed I recall when Weberman lived in the JDO building, I had occasion to meet a figure known as “One-Legged Terry,” an American-born Israeli who was said to be responsible for Bob Dylan’s pre-born-again engagement with Judaism.
But I was not seeking a cause, just a refuge, a place to lay my head after a divorce. And it sounded like a good deal, two floors in a solidly built brick tenement building. On the other hand, I didn’t realize the unwanted attention it would entail. I was not seeking to find myself frisked by the Joint Terrorism Squad, however mistakenly.
It was a strange arrangement and a strange episode in my life but, looking back on it, the mistaken-identity episode and my conversations and arguments with the JDO guys did cause me to think about my real identity and its lack of definition. And, eventually, through one Killer Question, gave me the impetus to write Explaining Hitler.
Mistaken identity? What distinguished my Jewishness from the vigilante Jewishness of the JDO?
Well, I was not an observant Jew, not even much of a believer, though not an atheist. Just not a monotheist. So, sue me.
But I loved Jews and Jewish culture and living for the first time in a Jewish city. (I’d grown up in non-Jewish small-town suburb and gone to school in New Haven and had not experienced much anti-Semitism in either locale; now I was drowning in philo-Semitism, and I liked it.) I will admit that what made me identify as Jewish more than anything else was the Holocaust, rage at it and its perpetrators. Even though I had no direct ancestors die in it, I knew they could have. And shortly before he died my father told me about a second cousin of his who lived in Paris and probably died in the camps. I came to feel Hitler’s victims were all part of my extended family.
I know I also had the vague idea for a novel that would attempt to exorcise this, an alternate history in which a group of Jews took on Hitler and the Nazis before they came to power—and won. I think it was derived from a legendary, probably apocryphal, story that back in the 1930s the Lower East Side’s own Jewish mobster king, Meyer Lansky, came to Fifth Avenue to ask august spokesman for the Jewish Establishment, Rabbi Stephen Wise, do you want me to put a contract out on Hitler? And the dignified civilized rabbi said no, it was not the right thing to do, it might backfire, be bad for his image, bad for the image of Jews, something. Too extremist. Lansky left, although there are stories that he didn’t entirely drop the idea right away. I haven’t either.
Still, from day to day it wasn’t visceral, my sense of Jewish identity and rage. I preferred the Simon Wiesenthal approach: hunting down ex-Nazis, bringing them to justice, and trying them (like Eichmann) for their crimes against humanity, not shooting them through Long Island screen doors. But could I utterly condemn the “wild justice” (as revenge is sometimes called) the fugitive I’d been mistaken for had been suspected of? What’s the morality of killing an 80-year-old Nazi war criminal?