Founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City in 1968, JDL's self-described purpose was to protect Hasidic Jews from harassment in Brooklyn, and to protest against local manifestations of antisemitism. When it was founded, hundreds of Orthodox Jews, from Brooklyn signed up almost immediately for the vigilante organization, and by 1972, the organization had over 15,000 members. The group organized demonstrations outside of Arab embassies and protested against the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union.
In its report Terrorism 2000/2001, the FBI referred to the organization as a "violent extremist Jewish organization" and stated that the FBI was responsible for thwarting at least one of its terrorist acts. The Terrorism Knowledge Base states that during the JDL's first two decades of activity, it was an "active terrorist organization;" even so, the JDL was specifically referenced by the FBI's Executive Assistant Director Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence, John S. Pistole, in his formal report before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. While the MIPT writes that the JDL does not currently engage in terrorist actions, according to The Washington Post both active and former JDL leaders currently serve as primary fundraisers for the outlawed Israeli terrorist group Kahane Chai. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs has compiled a long list of mainstream sources it says show a thirty year history of JDL terrorism on U.S. soil, as well as its association with the proscribed Israeli terrorist group Kahane Chai.
More mainstream Jewish groups have been hostile to the group, and the 1984 National Survey of American Jews survey showed that 24% of respondents viewed the JDL generally favorably, compared to 44% who viewed them generally unfavorably. A poll taken by the American Jewish Committee in 1986 showed that 14% of American Jews "professed strong sympathy towards Kahane."
It is stated on the main page of the JDL website in bold red letters: «The Jewish Defense League unconditionally condemns terrorism of all forms. Terrorism is never a legitimate means to the furtherance of political goals.»
On 29 November 1970, a bomb exploded outside the Manhattan offices of the Soviet airline Aeroflot. An anonymous caller to the Associated Press claimed responsibility and used the JDL slogan Never again!. Another bomb attack, on 8 January 1971 outside of the Soviet cultural center in Washington, D.C., was followed by a similar phone call including the JDL slogan. A JDL spokesperson denied JDL involvement in the bombing, but refused to condemn it.
In 1971, a JDL member allegedly fired a rifle into the Soviet Union's mission office at the United Nations. In 1972, two JDL members were arrested and charged with bomb possession and burglary in a conspiracy to blow up the Long Island residence of the Soviet Mission to the UN. The two JDL members pled guilty and were sentenced to serve three years in prison for one, and a year and a day for the other. In 1975, JDL leader Meir Kahane was accused of conspiring to kidnap a Soviet diplomat, to bomb the Iraqi embassy in Washington, and to ship arms abroad from Israel. A hearing was held to revoke Kahane's probation for a 1971 firebomb-making incident. He was found guilty of violating probation and served a one year prison sentence. Later that year, Soviet agents planned similar attacks in African-American neighborhoods as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the JDL.
JDL activities were condemned by Moscow refuseniks who felt that the group's actions were making it less likely that the Soviet Union would relax restrictions on Jewish emigration. On April 6, 1976, six prominent refuseniks — Vladimir Slepak, Alexander Lerner, Anatoly Shcharansky, and Iosif Begun — condemned the JDL's activities as terrorist acts, stating, "Such actions constitute a danger for Soviet Jews... as they might be used by the authorities as a pretext for new repressions and for instigating anti-Semitic hostilities."
During the 1980s, then-JDL chairman and current Jewish Task Force chairman Victor Vancier led a campaign of bombing Soviet targets. He credits this as the reason for the complete removal of the ban of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, as well as the reason for the fall of the Soviet Union. He has said that the bombings brought strains in US-Soviet relations, which he says helped the cause. In a 1984 interview with Washington Post correspondent Carla Hall, Meir Kahane admitted that the JDL "bombed the Russian mission in New York, the Russian cultural mission here [Washington] in 1971, the Soviet trade offices.
Four weeks after Odeh's death, FBI spokesperson Lane Bonner stated the FBI attributed the bombing and two others to the JDL. Rubin criticized the FBI for implying his organization's guilt without evidence, saying the FBI "could take their possible link and shove it." In February 1986, the FBI classified the bombing that killed Alex Odeh as a terrorist act. In July they eased away from their original position, saying the JDL was "probably" responsible for this attack and four others, but that final attribution to the JDL or any other group "must await further investigation." Rubin again denied the JDL's involvement. "What the FBI is doing is simple," he stated, "Some character calls up a news agency or whatever and uses the phrase Never Again, ... and on that assumption they can go and slander a whole group. That's tragic."
In 1987 it was revealed that Israel was hindering the FBI investigation. Floyd Clarke, then assistant director of the FBI, claimed in an internal memo that key suspects had fled to Israel and were living in the West Bank town of Kiryat Arba. In 1988, the FBI arrested Rochelle Manning as a suspect in a mail bombing, and also charged her husband, Robert Manning, who they considered a prime suspect in the Odeh bombing. Both were members of the JDL. Rochelle's jury deadlocked, and after the mistrial she left for Israel to join her husband. Robert Manning was extradited from Israel to the U.S. in 1993.
In a 1986 study of domestic terrorism, the Department of Energy concluded: "For more than a decade, the Jewish Defense League (JDL) has been one of the most active terrorist groups in the United States....Since 1968, JDL operations have killed 7 persons and wounded at least 22. Thirty-nine percent of the targets were connected with the Soviet Union; 9 percent were Palestinian; 8 percent were Lebanese; 6 percent, Egyptian; 4 percent, French, Iranian, and Iraqi; 1 percent, Polish and German; and 23 percent were not connected with any states. Sixty-two percent of all JDL actions are directed against property; 30 percent against businesses; 4 percent against academics and academic institutions; and 2 percent against religious targets." (Department of Energy, Terrorism in the United States and the Potential Threat to Nuclear Facilities, R-3351-DOE, January 1986, pp. 11-16)The National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism's database of identified terrorist organizations compiled by official contractors and consultants to the United States government identifies the JDL as a former terrorist organization.
The JDL's website states: "The Jewish Defense League unconditionally condemns terrorism of all forms. Terrorism is never a legitimate means to the furtherance of political goals. However, the JDL has often expressed support for acts of vengeance in reprisal to Arab terrorist attacks on Jews. On October 26, 1981 after two firebombs damaged the Egyptian Tourist Office at Rockefeller Center, JDL Chairman Meir Kahane said at a press conference: "I'm not going to say that the JDL bombed that office. There are laws against that in this country. But I'm not going to say I mourn for it either." The next day, an anonymous caller claimed responsibility on behalf of the JDL. A JDL spokesman later denied his group's involvement, but said "We support the act."
On 25 February 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a charter member of the JDL, opened fire on Palestinian Muslims kneeling in prayer at mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron, killing 29. On its website, the JDL writes "we are not ashamed to say that Goldstein was a charter member of the Jewish Defense League.
The FBI launched a money laundering investigation, assuming the JDL was extorting money from Ruthless Records. This led to JDL spokesperson Irv Rubin to issue a press release stating "there was nothing but a close, tight relationship" between Eazy-E and the League.
Jerry Heller explained JDL’s involvement with Ruthless Records as involving reasons additional to those the FBI investigated. Heller stated that Eazy E received death threats, and it was discovered that he was on hit list by some white power skinheads. Heller has speculated that the FBI did not investigate these threats because of the song "Fuck Tha Police". Heller said "It was no secret that in the aftermath of the Suge Knight shake down incident where Eazy was forced to sign over Dr. Dre, Michele and DOC, that Ruthless was protected by Israeli trained/ connected security forces. Heller maintains that Eazy E admired the group for their slogan Never Again, and that he had plans to do a movie about the group.
In April 2006, news of a settlement was announced in which signatories agreed to not object to "Shelley Rubin's titles of permanent chairman and CEO of JDL. The agreement also confirmed that "the name 'Jewish Defense League,' the acronym 'JDL,' and the 'Fist and Star' logo are the exclusive intellectual property of JDL." (Opponents of both groups claim that these symbols are Kahanist symbols and not the exclusive property of JDL. Others point out that the logo is no longer in general use by the Kahanist groups.) The agreement also states: "Domain names registered on behalf of JDL, including but not limited to jdl.org and jewishdefenseleague.org, are owned and operated by JDL." Meanwhile, the opposing group formed B'nai Elim. B'nai Elim is the latest of many JDL splinter groups to have formed over the years, a list which also includes Victor Vancier's Jewish Task Force.
The JDL encourages, per its principle of the "Love of Jewry", that "...[I]n the end...the Jew can look to no one but another Jew for help and that the true solution to the Jewish problem is the liquidation of the Exile and the return of all Jews to Eretz Yisroel -- the land of Israel." The JDL elaborates on this fundamental principle by insisting upon an "immediate need to place Judaism over any other 'ism' and ideology and...use of the yardstick: 'Is it good for Jews?'" The JDL considers Evangelical Christian attempts to convert Jews as "perhaps the most dangerous form of anti-Semitism present in the United States today".
The JDL espouses the official doctrine that outside of Jews there is historically no people corresponding to the Palestinian ethnicity. Writing on its official website, the JDL claims: "[T]he first mention of a "Palestinian people" dates from the aftermath of the 1967 war, when the local Arabic-speaking communities...were retrospectively endowed with a contrived "nationhood"...taken from Jewish history..." and that "Clearly, since Roman times "Palestinian" had meant Jews until the Arab's recent adoption of this identity in order to claim it as their land." On this basis, the JDL argues that "Zionism [should be] under no obligation to accommodate a separate "Palestinian" claim, there being no historical evidence or witness for any such Arab category," and considers Palestinian claims to be "Arab usurpation" of proper Jewish title. These official positions of the JDL run contrary to widely accepted historical evidence which shows that the usage of "Filasteeni" (Arabic pronunciation of Palestini, derived from Herodous' usage Palaestina, or Παλαιστινη) goes back to at least c. C.E. 700 and was still a widely used term for the people in the greater Jerusalem area as of 1911.
The JDL is officially against intermarriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. However, the JDL states it is not a racist organization. As evidence, it mentions the aid it has given Arab immigrants to the United States. The group has stated, "It has always been a JDL priority to encourage as many Arabs as possible to leave Israel to make new homes in America or wherever they wish to live."