November 14, 2002
The Lure of Extremism
As these words are written, Irv Rubin, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) lies in a coma, the apparent victim of self-inflicted wounds.
Having known Irv and the activities of the local JDL for over a quarter-century, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what animated someone like Irv to expend his prodigious energies in what were often pointless and counterproductive activities. For a man who was rational, and with whom one could discuss cause and effect and the logic of doing things one way (the non-inflammatory way) as opposed to another, it always amazed me how he would invariably choose the wrong path.
Whether choosing to picket the home of Tom Metzger in rural Fallbrook, when Metzger was a candidate for Congress in the early 1980s or choosing to defy the desires of the local community (Jews and non-Jews) by physically confronting a march of the pathetic remnant of the Aryan Nations in northern Idaho in the mid-90s, Irv was usually less concerned about the effect of what he did than the act of doing it and the publicity that ensued.
In following that modus operandi, Irv betrayed an attitude and world view that could only be described as extremist. Irv felt good picketing in front of Metzger's home and got attention; Metzger was, after all, a bigot and head of the California Ku Klux Klan. But, as I remember asking Irv at the time, in trying to dissuade him from demonstrating, how many votes did he think that his presence would generate for Metzger? A 6-foot-plus Jewish militant coming down from Los Angeles and harassing a neighbor was hardly a political adviser's recommendation on how to defeat Metzger's bid in rural north San Diego County.
Irv understood -- but he went and did his thing anyway. He had a different agenda than actually impacting the vote in the Metzger election. That same conflicted set of priorities played itself out time and time again.
In the days after Buford Furrow's attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center and his murder of Joseph Ileto, there was an unprecedented rally against hate attended by thousands of Angelenos. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno, Gov. Gray Davis, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and representatives of virtually every ethnic, racial and religious community were there. The only disruptive voice was Irv's. He screamed and yelled while the governor and attorney general spoke, complaining about gun control legislation. How ironic that in a setting of unity and harmony -- and in the wake of profound tragedy -- his would be the lone voice of disharmony.
A review of Irv's public life reflects his inability to free himself from the lure of extremism and the attention that it generates. Other than a brief period two decades ago when he ran for the Republican nomination for the Assembly and thought that, with some moderation, he might actually get elected, his career was one that had a disturbing symbiosis with extremism.
In every group, perhaps minority groups more than others because of the legitimate grievances that they often have, there is a constituency for a leader that brooks no compromise and offers "in your face" rhetoric to the rest of the world.
Whether Louis Farrakhan for the African American community, Meir Kahane and Irv for the Jews or the leaders of the hate-filled Nation of Aztlan in the Latino community, there is a small-but-solid core of folks who relish a militant leader who tells them, "I'm standing up for you and I don't give a damn what they think." The "they" changes, but the tone, intensity and message don't.
Irv played to that constituency in the Jewish community with occasional success. To the extent that other organizations in the Jewish community were seen as vocal -- even militant -- and effective, it cut into his audience. No wonder that he spent a significant amount of his energy attacking Jewish defense organizations -- he had to discredit his perceived competition.
As Irv's constituency got smaller, his need to act out and demonstrate his continued vitality and usefulness became even greater. No wonder that the crime of which he recently stood accused happened at the end of his career when his following was, literally, microscopic. He desperately needed to prove his relevance, no matter the manner.
The tragedy of Irv's career is that his energy could have been put to useful purpose. The hours of picketing and harassing and the thought given to one enterprise after another might have borne fruit had they been directed toward positive ends. Perhaps a lesson for us all.
The Friends of Irv Rubin are organizing a prayer vigil for him at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17, at County-USC Medical Center, 1200 N. State St., Los Angeles. Those coming should bring a candle.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a newly formed human relations organization in Los Angeles with former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan as its chairman and Joe R. Hicks as its vice president.