Inmate Wants New Label to Avoid Hate

A Jewish prisoner in San Quentin is demanding that Californiareclassify him from “white” to “non-white,” giving a curious twist to America’slong-shifting attitudes toward Jewish ethnicity and race.

The petitioner is Stephen Liebb, 47, an Orthodox Jew andone-time lawyer, who is serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder.

In a phone call from the maximum-security state prison,Liebb explained the background of his lawsuit against the California Departmentof Corrections, now pending before a federal judge in San Francisco.

When new convicts arrive at the prison receiving center,they are classified by race — white (including Jews), black or Hispanic. Afourth category is “others,” which includes Asians, Pacific Islanders andNative Americans.

“As a ‘white,’ I am assigned to a two-man cell, where mywhite cellie often has a tattooed swastika or SS lightning bolts on his bodyand belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood or Nazi Lowriders,” Liebb said.

He has not been physically attacked, Liebb said, but he hasbeen subject to slurs and insults by inmates, as well as prison guards, and helives in a general environment of intimidation.

Dr. Corey Weinstein, who has been working for 32 years withprisoners as a volunteer physician and for 14 years as a human rights activistwith the California Prison Focus in San Francisco, believes that “you find themost racialized environment in the United States in prisons, and California isone of the worst.”

Under such conditions, “Many Jewish inmates won’t come outas Jews and won’t participate in Jewish services or activities, even thoughthey would like to,” he said.

It is therefore difficult to pinpoint how many among California’s162,000 state prisoners are Jewish, with estimates running from 300 to 1,000.

Contrary to common assumptions, Jews don’t commit justwhite-collar felonies, such as fraud or embezzlement.

“Their crimes run the whole gamut,” Weinstein said.

Liebb’s case is an example. He was raised in an Orthodoxfamily, educated in New York yeshivas, then graduated from Syracuse Universitywith highest honor.

He moved to Los Angeles to study at  UCLA Law School,graduating in 1980, according to UCLA records. He passed the bar examination,started to practice law and then the unthinkable happened.

“I had on ongoing dispute with a friend,” Liebb said. “I wasconfused, I had an emotional outburst, I stabbed him once and he died. Thathappened 22 years ago and I have been in different prisons since. I have beenturned down for parole three times.”

For the past 10 years, Liebb has petitioned throughadministrative channels to be reclassified from “white” to “others” withoutsuccess, and is now pursuing his quest through the courts.

His present attorney is Ephraim Margolin, a one-time lawclerk with the Israel Supreme Court, who expects to contest Liebb’s demandagainst the state attorney general’s office within three months before afederal judge.

Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the state Department ofCorrections, which runs the prison system, declined to comment on the Liebbcase specifically. However, she said that on arrival, prisoners have the optionof asking not to be put in the same cell with a potentially hostile cellmate,such as a neo-Nazi, and that authorities would honor such a request.

The case has attracted the attention of David Biale,professor of Jewish history at UC Davis, who served as an expert witness in asimilar, though unsuccessful, case last year.

Before World War II, Biale said, America’s predominantlyAnglo-Saxon and Northern European society considered Jews as nonwhite,alongside Italians and other immigrants from Southern Europe; it’s an attitudestill prevalent among many white prison inmates today.

With the help of Liebb’s family, which sends him prayerbooks, and the Aleph Institute, which aids Jewish prisoners, he is trying hardto maintain his heritage.

“In prison, it is easy for many Jews to become ashamed oftheir Jewishness,” he said. “I appeal to the Jewish community not to be ashamedof us.”

He closed a recent letter by saying, “The Nazis set us apartwith yellow Stars of David with ‘Jude’ written on them. We knew we weredespised, but at least were given our identity. Here [in prison] we are despised,but denied our identity.”  

The Man Behind the JDL

In the FBI’s dossier he is listed as Irving David Rubin, 56, a self-described conservative Republican, Air Force veteran, married for 21 years and the father of two children.

To everyone else he is Irv Rubin, chairman of the Jewish Defense League, an acute embarrassment to most mainstream Jewish organizations, whose “contemptible activities,” in the words of the Anti-Defamation League, have cumulated in “a long track record of intimidation and bullying tactics.”

By his own count, Rubin has been arrested 40 times, and he and his associate, Earl Krugel, are now sitting in a federal detention center in downtown Los Angeles. They are charged with conspiracy to blow up a mosque, the building housing a Muslim organization and the offices of a congressman of Lebanese descent.

The roots of Rubin’s aggressive stance and militant outlook can perhaps be traced to his Montreal childhood, where, he says, his mother told him to get out and fight a kid who had called him a dirty Jew.

At age 16, he and his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, and five years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Discharged, he proudly served as a page at the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco, which nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater as its presidential standard bearer.

Rubin’s life took another turn — permanently — when he heard a speech by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1971 and was enthralled when the rabbi declared, “Don’t sit down and have a cup of coffee with a Nazi. Don’t try to be a nice guy. Smash him.”

Kahane also perceived the United States as the likely site of a future Holocaust.

The tall, husky Rubin loved the message. He joined Kahane’s Jewish Defense League and soon participated in protests on behalf of Soviet Jews, duked it out with neo-Nazis and, just as quickly, was arrested on an attempted murder charge in the case of a Nazi he had confronted in a Hollywood television studio.

In 1978, he got his first national exposure at a news conference protesting a neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Ill. In a typically flamboyant gesture, Rubin held up five $100 bills as the proffered reward to anyone who maimed or killed a Nazi party member.

With a keen ear for the effective soundbite, Rubin offered to raise the reward to $1,000 “if they bring us [a Nazi’s] ears. This is not said in jest, we are deadly serious.”

Kahane, Rubin’s role model, resigned as head of the JDL in 1974, after moving to Israel, where he formed the Kach Party. He was elected to the Knesset in 1984 on a platform that included the incendiary plan of transferring or expelling all Arabs from Israel.

Kahane was designated a racist by Israeli authorities and forbidden to run in the 1988 elections. In November, 1990, Kahane was assassinated in New York by Egyptian-born extremist El Sayyid Nosair.

(In an odd twist, a 1998 Associated Press report has surfaced, linking tapes and books on military techniques found in Nosair’s apartment to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. The AP story noted that “the killing of Kahane was at first viewed as an isolated attack, but now is seen as the kickoff of a U.S. terrorism campaign by militant Islamic fundamentalists.”)

The slain rabbi’s son, Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane, took over leadership of the Kach Party and formed another organization, Kahane Chai.

Both organizations were labeled “terrorist” by the Israeli government and outlawed. The younger Kahane and his wife were killed Dec. 31, 2000, in a West Bank ambush.

Back in the United States, Rubin stepped into the JDL power vacuum and became its “national chairman” in 1985. The title was a bit grandiose, because the JDL, with modest membership in the best of times, had split into two groups.

The New York wing, renamed the Jewish Defense Organization, was led by Mordechai Levy. Rubin and Levy have become bitter enemies, exchanging accusations and subpoenas over the years.

In 1989, Levy was convicted of firing an AR-25 aimed at Rubin in Manhattan.

Currently, Rubin goes by the title “chairman” of the JDL. In his first year as JDL leader, the organization came under investigation in the Oct. 11, 1985, murder of Alex Odeh, an Arab American activist killed in a bomb blast at his Santa Ana office.

Rubin denied responsibility but said that Odeh “got exactly what he deserved.” The JDL leader has since said repeatedly that he regretted making the statement, because it alienated would-be supporters and lessened his credibility.

When Rubin’s arrest was initially announced last week without the charges being specified, there was widespread speculation that it was connected with the Odeh case. The belief was shared by Sammy Odeh, the victim’s brother, who told The Journal that the killers of his brother would finally be brought to justice.

Over the past decades, the JDL has struck out against perceived softness in the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations, as much as against Nazis and other anti-Semites.

For instance, the JDL Web site marked the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist by stating, “We feel Yigal Amir wasted his precious life. Taking the life of Rabin was not worth Amir spending the rest of his life in an Israeli prison … The Israeli people would have taken Rabin out of office.”

In the same vein, the JDL hailed Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Arabs praying in a Hebron mosque in 1994, as one of its charter members.

One of the closest observers of Kahane and Rubin has been the ADL, which compiled a report of 21 densely packed pages listing the JDL’s violent acts in Israel and the United States between 1969 and 1995. Rubin, in return, has frequently attacked the ADL in JDL leaflets and at public meetings.

Whether it’s middle age or a change in tactics, in the last few years, Rubin seems to have become less publicly aggressive and has appeared in three-piece suits at public forums hosted by such institutions as the liberal University Synagogue.

One who got to know both Kahane and Rubin in the 1960s and ’70s was Si Frumkin. All three were involved in protests and demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jews.

“You can approach a problem with a rapier or a club,” Frumkin observed. The National Council for Soviet Jews “used the rapier; JDL used a club. I can’t say which method was more effective.”

Comparing the two JDL leaders, Frumkin said that Kahane “was a PR genius. Rubin had the same fire in the belly as Kahane but is not as charismatic,”

With the name recognition created by Kahane, “the JDL should have become a well-known, large and well-financed organization, but now it seems to have trouble even attracting young people,” Frumkin said.

Although the charges currently leveled at Rubin and Krugel can carry a 35-year prison sentence, few knowledgeable lawyers expect their conviction.

While the JDL has been investigated on murder and attempted murder charges a number of times, Rubin has never been convicted of a felony.

“He [Rubin] has the uncanny ability to come right to the line and he doesn’t cross it.” Roger J. Diamond, one of Rubin’s previous lawyers, told The New York Times, “If he didn’t come close, he wouldn’t have been charged.”

The latest posting on the JDL Web site calls the current charges an “obvious act of governmental appeasement of the Muslim community. Please rest assured that Irv and Earl will be cleared of any wrongdoing when they have their day in court.”

Heartbreak Hotel?

Left, an anti-union poster evoking Nazism that upset labor andJewish communal leaders, such as Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels (above)who spoke at a pro-union press conference at the hotel. Also picturedis state Sen. Tom Hayden, just left of the podium.

The Miramar Sheraton Hotel is one of the jewels of Santa Monica.It sits astride a full block on Ocean Avenue and looks west, over thePalisades and the blue Pacific. Inside, there are lush gardens, aluxurious swimming pool and tanned guests who look as if they areemblems of Southern California.

The hotel is where President Clinton has often stayed duringvisits to Los Angeles.

And the Miramar Sheraton is the only Santa Monica hotel that isunionized.

But, alas, Eden is beginning to falter: Hotel officials recentlyentered into conflict with Local 814 of the Hotel Employees andRestaurant Employees Union. According to some, they have attempted tointimidate workers, most of whom are Latino, into voting “no” for theunion in an upcoming decertification election.

One of the hotel’s tactics has set off alarm bells not only amongunion representatives but among leaders of the Jewish community.

Last week, according to critics, a 3-by-4-foot color posterdepicting a union organizer as a Nazi was posted beside the employeetime clock. The cartoon figure had military garb, a Hitlerianmustache, black riding boots, a union armband and pockets stuffedwith greenbacks. The character is pointing to a blackboard upon whichthere are slogans in Spanish, such as “Pay dues to the union.”

The hotel representatives, of course, see no connection betweenthe figure and the Nazis, let alone Hitler.

Not so, say several Jewish and Santa Monica civic leaders. Lastweek, a group of them angrily marched into the hotel and across theexpanse of marble floor, stood in front of the reception desk. Theydemanded to speak to someone in charge. Among the demonstrators wereRabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom; Rabbi Jeffrey Marx ofSha’arei Am: The Santa Monica Synagogue; Rick Chertoff of the JewishLabor Committee; Richard Bloom of Friends of Sunset Park; SantaMonica City Councilmember Michael Feinstein; peace activist JerryRubin; and a dozen others.

The somewhat befuddled young woman behind the reception desk onlysmiled nervously and said that she didn’t know anything about theissue. An impeccably coifed young man then sternly stated that thevisitors were impeding his guests and that they would have to move.Finally, two policemen arrived but were soon satisfied that thevisitors were peaceful.

The demonstrators then carried on a press conference in the humiddrizzle outside the hotel, making indignant statements to the media.

The confrontation didn’t seem to shake Comess-Daniels, who spokeof the biblical mandate to protect the worker.

Marx said that the poster trivialized the Holocaust and flew inthe face of the Jewish history of union organizing.

The poster “surpasses the normal sleaze we see associated withthese kinds of campaigns,” Feinstein said. “I am offended as a humanbeing and as a Jew.”

In a written statement, hotel officials denied the charges ofintimidation and refuted the claim that the cartoon figure was meantto resemble a Nazi. They called that allegation “ridiculous,offensive [and] untrue.”

“However, for anyone in the community who found this imageoffensive, we apologize,” the statement says.

The Journal was unable to reach hotel general manager BillWorcester, but he told the Los Angeles Times, “The real issue is, doour employees want to continue to be represented by Local 814?”

For Gail Escobar, who is Jewish and a waitress at the hotel’supscale Grille restaurant, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Escobar, 35, who grew up in Santa Monica, said that she was hiredby the hotel two years ago, when she needed more income to supporther 5-year-old son, Kevin. She was drawn to the Miramar Sheratonbecause the union ensured her full health benefits, which recentlyproved crucial when her husband required major eye surgery.

Escobar joined the union’s organizing committee this past springto help workers keep their benefits and a bargaining voice. But shesaid that she has been unnerved by the tense, mandatory anti-unionmeetings she has had to attend with the other employees. (Worcestertold the Times that the meetings were “informational only.”)

“If we lose the union, I’m almost 100 percent sure they’ll fireme,” the waitress said. “I’ve been way too vocal.”

But Escobar and the other employees at least enjoyed one coup lastweek. After the rabbis’ press conference, the hotel took down theegregious poster.

The union vote took place on Oct. 1, after The Journal went topress this week. Also as The Journal went to press, CongregationKehillat Ma’arav was planning to go ahead with its High Holidayservices at the Miramar Sheraton. There was not enough time to changevenues, a source said.