Counter-protests led by the ultra-right wing Jewish Defense League turned violent Sunday outside the AIPAC conference in downtown Washington, resulting in two arrests.
Tensions began when close to 1,000 protestors from the leftist group IfNotNow arrived at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. There, 20 or so people carrying Israeli flags and yellow flags with the fist logo of the Jewish Defense League yelled at the IfNotNow protestors, calling them anti-Semites and kapos. A few shoving matches broke out.
Meanwhile, a dozen or so members of IfNotNow chained themselves together in front of the main entrance to the convention center. IfNotNow, a group composed mostly of Jews in their mid-twenties began in 2014 to oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, has become more active since the election of President Donald Trump, organizing protests against Trump’s counselor Steve Bannon and its ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Since its founding in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Jewish Defense League has been linked to terrorist attacks, including a plot to assassinate Congressman Darrel Issa (R-Calf.) in 2001. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the group as an “extremist organization.”
Eventually, police separated the IfNotNow group from the Jewish Defense League group, but hostilities escalated again a few hours later when a few hundred pro-Palestinian protestors arrived and activist and professor Cornel West addressed the crowd with a megaphone.
The Washington Police Department identified the two people who were arrested as Yosef Steynovitz of Vaughan, Canada and Rami Lubranicki of Howell, NJ. One was arrested for assault with significant bodily injury and the other was arrested for assault with a dangerous weapon, although it wasn’t clear which person was arrested for which crime.
An article on the conservative news website Politichicks describes Lubranicki as an “Israeli-born Jewish American and a proud American patriot” and the creator of the group American Bikers United Against Jihad.
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, said the two would be charged in D.C. Superior Court Monday afternoon.
According to a police report released to WJW, a complaining witness alleged that he or she was punched in the face by one of the two suspects, the witness fell to the sidewalk was struck in the eye by a pole and then kicked by another suspect.
Video posted on Twitter by a French TV station shows a scuffle in which a man is on the ground, another man hits him with a flag pole and two men in black Jewish Defense League sweatshirts with yellow writing kick the man on the ground. Since multiple scuffles broke out over the hours that protestors and counter-protestors were in the area, WJW could not confirm that this video was of the incident that led to the arrests.
— FranceNews24 (@FranceNews24) March 26, 2017
Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she wasn’t surprised by the Jewish Defense League’s counter protest.
“The JDL’s position and activities have always been violent counter protests,” she said. “Their altitude is to take it to the streets and do in your face protest actions.”
Meir Weinstein, who described himself as the coordinator of the Jewish Defense League, told WJW before most of the violence occurred that his organization was “primarily here to counter the anti-Israel mobs that are going to show up” and to protect Jews attending the conference, who he said were in danger of being attacked.
Earlier in the day, Weinstein posted a video to his Facebook page of himself sitting on a flight from Toronto en route to Washington in which he said that “we operate 100 percent within the law, but we prevent people from being harmed.” He told WJW that members of his group had traveled to Washington from Canada, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Yonah Lieberman, a leader of IfNotNow, was blunt in his assessment of the Jewish Defense League.
“They’re violent. They represent the worst of humanity,” he said. “I don’t think they have any power. I think that they use violence because they have no power. And they’re holding onto a worldview that promotes nationalism and violence while we are furthering a worldview that supports freedom and dignity for all.”
Earlier in the morning, Lieberman described the IfNotNow protest as “the largest event IfNotNow has ever had.”
AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann declined to comment for this story.
This story is developing and will be updated.