Robert Friedman
Robert Friedman

Fellowship Title:

Kahane’s Commandos

Robert Friedman
November 3, 1987

Fellowship Year

On a fog-shrouded road between Jerusalem and Ramallah on the Israeli occupied West Bank, two young American supporters of Rabbi Meir Kahane put on their prayer shawls to daven (pray), then pulled ski masks over their faces, slipped into black leather gloves and loaded a U. S.-made, M-16 automatic rifle.

Around 5:30 a.m. on that chilly March morning in 1984, the men watched an Arab bus wind around a steep curve. As it approached, they jumped from a ditch that ran parallel to the road and one man opened fire on the driver’s window and the bus’ right side. The volley lasted three to four seconds. While nine Arabs lay wounded inside the blood-spattered vehicle, the Jews ran a quarter of a mile to a prearranged spot where a friend from New York waited in a Hertz rental car.

When the youths were later arrested by the Israeli police, Kahane told a press conference that his followers were “good Jewish boys,” and that the machine-gunning was “sanctified by God.”

The bus attack is part of a growing wave of violence committed by right-wing Jews against Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories. In the past several years, the Israeli authorities have broken up several Jewish, anti-Arab terrorist undergrounds affiliated with Kahane’s Kach Party and Gush Emunim, the mystical-messianic movement that has spearheaded Israel’s West Bank settlement drive. These militant organizations are committed to annexing the occupied territories and expelling Arabs who cannot live passively under Israeli rule. Many of their hard-line members are recent American Jewish immigrants to Israel.

Despite Israeli government attempts to de-legitimize Kahane, who has a seat in the Knesset, a recent poll published in the Hebrew language magazine, Monitin, revealed that 21 % of the Israeli public approves of his fiercely anti-Arab views.

Kach supporter Matt Liebowitz, a bearded, disarmingly soft-spoken 24-year-old, who served 26 months in an Israeli prison for the March 1984 bus attack, currently lives with his wife in Far Rockaway, Queens. A young man who values violence, Liebowitz still frequents at Jewish Defense League haunts in New York, even though recent events have shaken New York’s tight-knit, militant Jewish community. Last September, 24-year-old Jay Cohen committed suicide in a Catskill resort, just weeks before he was to be sentenced for his role in six JDL bombings between 1984 and 1986. Following Cohen’s suicide, several prominent JDL members left for Israel, reportedly fearing that Cohen left behind a suicide note that may have implicated them in an unrelated wave of terrorist bombings that are the subject of a current federal grand jury investigation.

Liebowitz and Cohen had much in common. They were both upper-middle-class kids from broken homes who pursued body building, Torah study and a single-minded devotion to the teachings of Rabbi Kahane. In fact, Liebowitz’s career in ‘Jewish activism’, which began in Chicago where he was raised, and led to New York and later to the West Bank of the River Jordan, is similar to the path taken by many young American Jews who get hooked on Kahane’s dark vision of ridding Israel of its Arabs. “Violence is a tool,” Liebowitz told me during an interview at a Yeshiva in Far Rockaway where he sometimes studies. “Kahane says violence is not a nice thing, but that it’s sometimes necessary. For me and for others there was a certain mystical attachment to blood and violence. This was the violence that drew us to the JDL and bonded us together in the Struggle…Kahane taught us that what we were doing was true and correct according to the Torah.”

Liebowitz was not always interested in the ‘Jewish Struggle.’ He was raised in an assimilated middle-class Jewish home where Judaism had more ritual than meaning. Like many future JDL members, he was embarrassed by his religion. “I had no connection to Judaism,” he told me. “When I was a kid I use to hang out in the inner city and saw old Jews harassed by black gangs. I had a very bad image of Jews–that they were weak.”

Liebowitz was 13 when his parents divorced. He moved in with his mother, then later with his father, a family therapist in Chicago. Eventually. he returned to his mother’s house because he didn’t get along with his stepmother. He became, according to his mother, who is in Germany seeking treatment for cancer, “a street child.” Uninterested in school, he began to hang out with white street gangs, she recalled, until he discovered the JDL and found religion. “He just looked for some authority, someone who would tell him how to live, who would tell him what to do, someone who would decide for him what was good and what was bad,” Mrs. Liebowitz told the Israeli publication Koteret Rashit, when she was in Jerusalem for her son’s trial. “He was very restless.”

Liebowitz says he discovered Kahane and the JDL when he read Kahane’s Jewish militant manifesto, “NEVER AGAIN.” The book’s title, which became the JDL’s rallying cry, was a warning that Jews will never again be led like lambs to the slaughter. The message was meant as much for passive, liberal-minded Jews as it was for gentiles. “I read ‘NEVER AGAIN’ and it hit me right in the heart,” said Liebowitz. “I found what I was looking for.” His first illegal act that was inspired by Kahane’s philosophy, he said, was to place a home-made bomb under the car of Arthur Butz, an engineering professor at Northwestern University. Butz had written a book in 1978 claiming the Holocaust was the hoax of the 20th century. “The bomb never went off,” recalls Liebowitz. “I learned how to make it from a book by Abbie Hoffman.”

He was soon studying in a Yeshiva and working out with the small but violent JDL chapter in Chicago. “I started training with sticks, knives, hand-to-hand combat. We were trained by a guy who was a Navy Seal…It was cool for a 14-year-old high school freshman to see Jews do this stuff. Even though most of the JDL members weren’t religious, they put on kippos whenever they fought anti-Semites. I hung out in neighborhoods where everyone was fighting, so it took a lot to impress me. The JDL really impressed me!”

But Kahane impressed Liebowitz even more than street fighting. The pied piper of confused Jewish youth, Kahane has a knack for convincing youngsters that violence in the name of greater Israel or Soviet Jewry is heroic in the tradition of the Bible. “I got to know Kahane when he came to Chicago in 1979. I thought he was it. He had unbelievable charisma. I came to him for advice and guidance and depending on his answer I would have switched schools or made major changes in my life.”

Shortly after meeting Kahane, Liebowitz moved to Israel to be with the fiery Rabbi. At the time, Kahane was a political pariah in Israel with no more than a few dozen young followers from the United States. Like many American Jews who arrive in Israel for the first time, Liebowitz was shocked that Israeli Jews bore such little cultural resemblance to the Jews he left behind. This fast-paced, chaotic and intense new world on the Mediterranean was both strange and a little frightening. “I am at an Ulpan (an intensive, Hebrew language training institute),” he wrote his mother soon after arriving in Israel. “We sing Chanukah songs…I had to leave the room because the songs reminded me of you and I long for you so much…I did not realize it would be so difficult.”

There was little time, however, for reflection when one’s days and nights were devoted to Kahane. There were almost daily vigilante attacks against Arabs, Christian missionaries, Black Hebrews, Israeli Communists and other leftists Kahane viewed as his enemies. Liebowitz gained a reputation inside the JDL as one of Kahane’s most dedicated followers. “Kahane was asked by a reporter why he had so many crazies around him,” Liebowitz recalled. “He replied that he needed crazies because they were the first to cross the barricades. Everybody in the JDL joked that I was the crazy Kahane was talking about.”

In 1980, burned out from the frantic militant activity, Liebowitz borrowed money from his mother and returned to Chicago. He jumped from Yeshiva to Yeshiva before he moved to New York, where the JDL had its national headquarters. The JDL, which had claimed as many as 10,000 members in 1970, was by the early ’80s, a shell of its former self. Without Kahane’s charismatic presence, it foundered, breaking into small competing factions. Kahane milked the organization for publicity and money for his affiliated Kach Party in Israel. By the time Liebowitz arrived in New York, the JDL had just a few dozen hard-core activists in New York and Los Angeles.

During a brief revival in 1981, however, the JDL began a training camp in the Catskills, similar to the one it ran during its heyday a decade earlier. Liebowitz was one of some 50 youths who spent the summer training with automatic weapons and martial arts. “Liebowitz was a sweet, good-hearted kid,” recalled Gary Moskowitz, a New York City cop who was the JDL camp karate instructor. “He loved training. He used to run 10 miles a day. But he was easily manipulated and extremely prone to violence.”

Liebowitz rose to the head of JDL security during a period when the organization was implicated in a number of terrorist attacks. including the bombings of Soviet and Arab diplomatic missions in New York, and the firebombing of an-Arab owned restaurant in Brooklyn, in which a woman was killed. During the summer of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, armed JDL militants raided the Manhattan offices of the November 29th Coalition, a pro-PLO group. A week later, the JDL training loft on West 34th Street and Broadway in Manhattan was bombed. A JDL security guard asleep inside narrowly avoided injury. “It was a crazy summer,” Liebowitz recalled. “The camp produced 50 good, dedicated JDL people who would prowl the streets of New York at night in search of Arab or Russian victims. That summer there were 12 to 15 bombings. We had an underground bomb lab in a house in Borough Park crammed with explosives, Tommy guns, uzzis…We knew a grand jury was investigating us and that federal indictments were coming down. Then one of our people was arrested in Israel for shooting a West Bank Arab and was convicted and went to prison. We were very bummed out by that.”

As a federal grand jury weighed indictments against a number of JDL militants, about 40 suspects, including Liebowitz, suddenly moved to Israel in the winter of 1983. According to a federal law enforcement agent involved in the JDL probe, that effectively stymied the investigation. Weary of police investigations, Liebowitz tried to keep away from Kahane and his followers in Israel. He moved to a military base in the Negev to work as a volunteer. “It is wonderful to be in my country,” he wrote his mother. “There is some poetic justice in this scene of lighting the Chanukah candles in a military base in the Negev. It is a dramatic scene. The sun shines softly and religious soldiers light a large Menorah and say prayers. I am at home. I have never felt better in my whole life in any other place…”

A few weeks after writing his mother, a bomb planted by the PLO in the back of a bus in Jerusalem exploded, killing several passengers including two young Jewish girls. “I feel as if I had lost my own sisters,” Liebowitz wrote in another letter home. “I can’t stand this…I am very upset…Jews are dying here only because they want to live here…I must see Rabbi Kahane.”

But Liebowitz got mixed signals from Kahane. On one hand, he says Kahane told him not to do anything illegal and risk going to jail. However, he also said Kahane constantly preached that vengeance is holy. “The bombing of the [Jewish] bus was like a sign,” Liebowitz told me. “I knew what road I had to take. I swore I was going to avenge Jewish blood.”

Liebowitz says he met four other Kach members from the States who, like him, itched to strike back at the Arabs. Craig Leitner, whose father is a top official with the New York board of education, was responsible for co-planning the attack, according to his confession to the Israeli police. Liebowitz went to Kahane for money to finance the operation without telling him what they were planning. “I said, ‘We need money fast,’ ” he recalled. “Kahane took $600 from his pocket and gave it to me without asking any questions.”

Prior to the attack, Leitner wrote Rafi Medoff, a JDL official in New York, that when he received a collect phone call from a Mr. Gray, it would be a signal to phone the Israeli media with the news that a Jewish terrorist organization had machine-gunned an Arab bus.

The Kach youths were arrested minutes after Leitner placed the call to Medoff, Liebowitz claims he learned during police interrogation that Shin Bet had been watching them for 24 hours prior to the shooting.

Kahane hired an attorney for his young colleagues and visited them in prison. He appointed one of the youths imprisoned with Liebowitz, Yeuda Richter, from Beverly Hills, California, to be his chief deputy in Kach. Craig Leitner, who turned states witness, fled from Israeli custody and was later arrested by U.S. Federal marshals at the White Plains campus of Pace University Law School, where he was studying. He returned to Israel after lengthy legal maneuvering and served a year in prison.

Liebowitz now says the machine-gun attack was a cathartic experience, and that he is grateful that confinement in prison gave him the personal discipline he lacked. After spending more than two years in prison, he returned to the United States in 1986 to promote ‘aliya’ as an emissary of the Eretz Yisrael Movement, which is affiliated with Gush Emunim. He is currently working for a Manhattan-based security firm. He said he recently helped install a security system for the Albanian mission to the UN.

Next summer, Liebowitz plans to move to Israel permanently. His wife, Judy, a 23-year-old nurse, would prefer to live in a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood and raise a family. Liebowitz wants to move to the fiercely nationalist Palestinian Arab West Bank city of Hebron, where ultra-nationalist Jews have carved a small enclave in the heart of the city’s casbah. Violent clashes between settlers and Palestinians in Hebron are an almost daily occurrence.

Liebowitz says Kahane’s radical philosophy continues to guide him. “I think the Arabs should be moved out of Israel,” he says echoing Kahane. “My parents can’t believe that the bus attack had anything to do with ideology. They still think it happened because they got a divorce,” he said, laughing softly.

©1987 Robert I. Friedman


Robert I. Friedman is a free-lance writer reporting on the rise of the radical right in Israel.

Robert Friedman
Robert Friedman