Monday, December 06, 2010

Revisit: Rookie Cop: by Richard Rosenthal

Rookie Cop
by Richard Rosenthal

Rookie Cop is Richard Rosenthal's account of his time spent as an undercover police officer embedded in the Jewish Defense League in the early 1970s. Published in 2000 and chronicling the events of the group's early history, the book still serves as an outstanding insider's view of one of this country's most controversial fringe organizations as well as a snapshot of New York's political, cultural and racial climate during the Cold War. The JDL Rosenthal depicts could be both remarkably incompetent and dangerously motivated, with its key figures defiant in their defense of Jewish interests and advocating the types of provocative actions - confrontational sloganeering and protests, bombings, one attempted hijacking - that would eventually land the JDL a spot on the FBI's register of right-wing terrorist sects.

Rosenthal's back story is the stuff of Hollywood; indeed, it's hard to understand how Rookie Cop hasn't yet been adapted to the silver screen. After a four-year stint in the Air Force where he worked as a Russian language specialist followed by an aborted attempt at college, Rosenthal was accepted into the NYPD but didn't receive a single day of training before being recruited for his undercover assignment. Over the ensuing months Rosenthal would essentially play the role of weapons expert, with direct access to the JDL's leader - the "strong willed, determined, and...forceful" Rabbi Meir Kahane - as well as gain and dutifully report to his law enforcement superiors intimate, first-hand knowledge of the JDL's attempts to acquire and, ultimately, utilize, firearms and bomb-making materials.

Through Rosenthal's book we see individuals driven by a narrowly-defined but broadly applied ideology and the steps they would go to defend that ideology. Though the group may have had its fair share of "a bunch of people who were some combination of fools and neurotics," Rosenthal never discounts the JDL's desire to combat its perceived enemies and their policies, particularly the Soviet Union's refusal to allow Jews to emigrate from the Communist nation. While there are actually some humorous moments in which Rosenthal recalls some of the members' almost caricature-like amateurishness - "inept bomb-making attempts, long hours spent with heavily armed paranoids who hadn't a clue how to handle their firearms" - the JDL undeniably meant business.

Backed by a charismatic, media-savvy leader who once famously preached a policy of "every Jew a .22" and a core following of disaffected, financially struggling men, the JDL made its aims violently clear, attempting to hijack an airline as retribution for an earlier Arab hijacking and later bombing the offices of Sol Hurok, an entertainment mogul who earned the JDL's scorn by arranging for Soviet artists to perform in the United States. The explosion would injure scores of people and leave one person dead: a young Jewish woman.

To Rosenthal's credit, he never sensationalizes his gig as a spy; unlike other true crime memoirs that seem designed to stroke the author's ego and portray said author as a super-badass James Bond hopped up on righteousness and 'roids, Rosenthal's text is understated, humble and meticulously detailed. He harbors no illusions about how laborious and monotonous his job often was, albeit with a degree of risk most of us will never encounter in the workplace. In this way Rosenthal is likeable as both a writer and cop, and though he occasionally weakens his narrative by tangentially offering his views on gun control, wiretapping and various other hot-button topics, for the most part he presents his story without prejudice or judgment. Rookie Cop is never sexy or stylized; it is simply a reliable, informative and responsibly written snapshot of the JDL in its earliest incarnation, as well as an important document in understanding the collective mindset of a collection of zealots.

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