Jewish Defence League eyes setting up Montreal chapter

An ultra-nationalist and controversial Jewish-rights organization wants to establish a new chapter in Montreal, citing an increase in physical attacks against Jews.

Controversial group known for organizing militant counter-protests

Members of the Jewish Defence League protest against anti-Israel statements made by former Huntingdon, Que., mayor Stéphane Gendron on his French-language talk show in 2012. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

An ultra-nationalist and controversial Jewish-rights organization wants to establish a new chapter in Montreal, citing an increase in physical attacks against Jews.

The national director of the Jewish Defence League (JDL), an international organization “committed to the restoration of pride and integrity to the Jewish People," says he has been contacted by Montrealers who would like to see a chapter set up in the city.

Meir Weinstein told CBC News he’ll be in town next week to meet Montrealers interested in establishing a new chapter of the organization, which already has a Canadian presence in Toronto.

The JDL’s tactics, including militant counter-protests and confrontations at anti-Israel demonstrations, have earned the league both attention and strong criticism.

The FBI identified the organization as a “right-wing terrorist group,” in a report on terrorism in 2000 and 2001, citing a thwarted bomb plot in 2001 against a California mosque that involved members of the JDL.

Members of the group have also been linked to incidents spanning several decades involving vandalism, assault, explosive devices and firebombs. The group has claimed that all of its activities are acts of self-defence or retaliation for anti-Semitic incidents.

In Canada, the group has not been classified as a terrorist organization.

“We’re not on any list,” Weinstein said.

“We have a very serious history in Canada – fighting anti-Semitism, exposing Nazi war criminals and a variety of neo-Nazi groups in the city… We’ve worked very hard in this country against physical threats to the community, and I’m very proud of my history with the organization.”

Increase in anti-Jewish sentiment

David Ouellette, an associate director at Montreal's Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said for the first time in years, the armed conflict in the Middle East has led to an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment in Montreal, to the point that Jews are being harassed, threatened or assaulted while going about their daily lives.  

He said several of the incidents have been reported to Montreal police, and are being investigated.

“I would expect that JDL is making this calculation, knowing this is a time when many in the Jewish community are concerned with their safety, that the time is right to try and make inroads,” he said.

Ouellette said the JDL hasn’t had a presence in Quebec in years and has had a difficult time establishing itself in any significant way.

“They really stand on the fringes of our community,” he said.

“As an organization, they’re a very, very small, marginal group based in Toronto which makes little inroads in the mainstream Jewish community.”

One Israeli diplomat said a controversial Jewish group has no place handling anti-Semitic hate crimes in Montreal.

"We're hoping that the police will do everything in their capacity to assure the safety and the defence of the Jewish members of the community here. That's the role of the police, not the role of a vigilante group," said Joel Lion, consul general to Israel in Montreal.

Anti-Semitic acts rare, police say

Montreal police Cmdr. Ian Lafrenière told Radio-Canada that authorities are always on the alert for hate-related crime in times of international conflict, but he said it can be challenging to differentiate hate-motivated crime from a simple theft or assault. 

He said police have received fewer than half a dozen complaints related to anti-Semitism in the recent past. 

Weinstein said it is still to be determined if there will be an official presence of the JDL in Montreal.

“We have to see what kind of people come out and what kind of people we’ll be meeting,” he said.

“The second thing is, after establishing a chapter, we have to have serious lines of communication with the police to see to it that any information we give to the police regarding threats will be respected," Weinstein said. "That is a very important platform we have in the organization.”