Michael Oren misrepresents 1971 synagogue bombing that changed his life

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

The blast… was touched off the night that JDL national chairman Rabbi Meir Kahane had been scheduled to address a meeting at the building. According to the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Harold Mozeson, several placards had been pasted in the town announcing the JDL leader’s appearance on the night of the explosion. The date however, Rabbi Mozeson stated, had been changed to May 2 and the posters were not corrected. Although Rabbi Mozeson declined to link the blast with Rabbi Kahane’s appearance, he did note that it was a “strange coincidence.” He disclosed that he and his congregants had agreed at a meeting yesterday afternoon that “Rabbi Kahane’s invitation for May 2 still stands,” and that the congregants weren’t “going to make our decision subject to this kind of hooliganism.” He dismissed the possibility that members of the Ku Klux Klan, who have stirred up trouble in Highstown, N.J., were involved in the bombing. Rabbi Mozeson told the JTA that Rabbi Kahane’s appearance would be the first in this North Jersey town, although he had addressed a meeting in a neighboring community, Livingston, without incident.

Newspapers differ on an important detail: Was Kahane’s appearance canceled before or after the bombing? The Daily News said the speech was canceled after the bombing:

While police were trying to determine a motive for the blast, it was learned that Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the Jewish Defense League in New York, was scheduled to address the men’s club at 8 o’clock last night [April 18]. Because of the blast, the speech was canceled.
It was reported that there was a large demand for tickets for Kahane’s talk and that emotions were running high over his appearance.
But the Newark Evening News reported that the speech was canceled before the bombing.
The bombing occurred the night before Rabbi Meir Kahane… was scheduled to speak. Kahane, however, had canceled the engagement more than a week ago. Police said no bomb threats had been called in.
“We aren’t going to make our decision subject to this kind of hooliganism,” Rabbi Harold Mozeson, leader of the center, said. “We decided that Rabbi Kahane’s new invitation for May 2 still stands.”
Kahane– who was killed 19 years later in New York, allegedly by an Egyptian-American– himself describes the bombing in his 1975 book The Story of the Jewish Defense League, in a chapter describing his burgeoning popularity in 1971, taking on the “Jewish Establishment:”

[T]o the dismay of the Jewish Establishment, every appearance of mine or of another JDL speaker produced astoundingly positive results as Jews were able to hear for themselves the JDL philosophy and were astonished to see a totally different picture than the one they had been given by their Jewish groups and the news media.

Invitations for me to speak came from all over the country, and everywhere I spoke to packed halls. On my first trip to California [in early April 1971] the reaction was truly incredible. The rush to hear JDL speak was so great that not even the bombing of the Jewish Center of West Orange, New Jersey, could stop my speaking. On the night of April 18, 1971, a bomb blast ripped the synagogue where I was due to speak the following night… The talk was rescheduled and I spoke to a packed synagogue….

Former synagogue president Arthur Maron says that Kahane’s speech took place at the synagogue’s cultural hall and was a rousing success. “He was outstanding. He started the first Jewish Defense League after centuries. Remember this was a time when Jews were supposed to keep quiet, don’t make waves. That was the tradition. Kahane said, Oh no, we’re not going to stay still for this.”

Michael Oren never mentions Meir Kahane in his book. On other occasions Oren has blamed the Ku Klux Klan for the bombing.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Mondoweiss today.

In February 2013, then-ambassador Oren gave a speech at his old high school. TAPinto.net, a website serving North Jersey covered his return to West Orange High School, and Cynthia Cumming reported:

The second life changing event he described [in addition to meeting Yitzhak Rabin that year] was the bombing of the Jewish Center of West Orange (now B’Nai Shalom) by the Klu Klux Klan in March of 1972.  He said he would never forget the image of a rabbi, priest, and Protestant minister walking hand in hand along Pleasant Valley Way and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

A month later, Oren told the story of the bombing to Jenna Portnoy of the Star Ledger in Washington, and again implicated the Ku Klux Klan:

On April 18, 1971, a bomb ripped through the Jewish Center of West Orange, known today as B’Nai Shalom, and it was initially blamed on the Ku Klux Klan. Firefighters, though not likely Jewish, leaped into the flames to rescue the Torah scrolls, he said.

“I can close my eyes and see that today,” he said. The next day, a priest, a rabbi and a minister held hands and walked from the high school to the synagogue, singing, “If We Only Had Love.”

“Can you imagine what this was for a 15-year-old kid? I get very choked up when I think about it,” he said, his eyes reddening.

“No fire was seen after the explosion,” the Newark Evening News reported that day. As for the KKK, Arthur Maron says:

“I would not say the KKK. That never occurred to us. I don’t know of anyone who would link them. Anti-Semitism? Of course. What else would I think. We all assumed it was anti-Semitism.”

I wrote to Random House publicity seeking to ask Oren about the bombing incident. I did not get a response. When Ron Kampeas raised another factual issue with the book, he approached the publisher and Oren’s “aides,” and: “I got a one-sentence reply from the publisher: ‘Penguin Random House does not comment on its editorial and vetting processes.’”

The larger issue here is not about Meir Kahane or a synagogue bombing 44 years ago. It is about whether America was the kind of place where a 15-year-old Jew could imagine his life unfolding back in 1971. For me and so many others, the answer was Yes. Michael Oren reached a different conclusion. Now he is misrepresenting history to try to convince a reader, or himself, of the wisdom of that choice.

Thanks to James North, Adam Horowitz and Peter Feld.

 

481 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Hm, I always passed that place on the way to my dentist. I had no idea about this. Anyhow, the saddest thing about this story, other than Oren’s lies, is that there used to be something called the Newark Evening News. I lament for Newark, and for journalism.

Not many politicians yearn for the truth, the whole truth, at any cost. It’s not part of their mentality.

I’m going to assume it was most likely anti- Semites who bombed the synagogue– if Oren is telling the truth about his childhood fist fights with anti- Semites ( and with Oren assuming truthfulness is a big assumption) I could see why he had a distorted view of the U.S. Maybe he really did grow up in a nasty area, like the Pine Bush school district that is in the NYT today. Where I grew… Read more »

this is an important article, for history’s sake. thanks to phil, james, adam, and peter.

In 1971, very few American Jews decided to trade in their American future for an Israeli future. Many more were like Phil Weiss with little thought about moving to Israel and very few were like Michael Oren. Oren seems to skimp on the details that would slow the paragraph or the story down. He is writing the fiction version of his life rather than the historical version. Many places received threats when Kahane came to… Read more »