A strange true tale of a Jewish NYPD cadet recruited into the department’s elite intelligence unit to spy on the Jewish Defense League, offering vivid portraits of a politically incendiary era and revealing secrets of intrusive police tactics.
Rosenthal (Chief of Police/Wellfleet, Mass.) was assigned in 1969 to infiltrate the JDL after being secretly sworn in as a member of the Bureau of Special Service and Investigation (a confidential unit previously known as the Red squad and the neutrality squad). Following the FBI’s lead, the NYPD had reacted to the era’s turmoil by placing undercovers within such radical groups as SDS and the Black Panthers, and they viewed Rabbi Meir Kahane’s JDL as “a black cloud on the horizon.” Rosenthal’s undercover adventures somewhat confirm this: he portrays the JDL inner circle (to which he connected with alacrity, despite their suspicions) as a driven, paranoid group who combined profound incompetence with bomb-making. There is a surprisingly nuanced portrait of the late Kahane, who was unconcerned about alienating assimilated Jewish organizations because “simply being a respectable Jew was no protection in the face of serious threats to the group.” As a secular Jew, Rosenthal understood Kahane’s anger toward those threats (including the Soviet Union and local African-American organizations engaged in anti-Semitic brinkmanship); as a cop, he was soon exposed to a variety of criminal action (including their protracted, amateurish bombing attempts and illegal acquisition of firearms). This is a well-tuned portrait of the stress and acrimony that permeates such radical cliques, and of the lonely, paranoid personalities at their centers—and it offers insights into the racially charged violence of the early 1970s.
Though the prose is workmanlike and the narrative sometimes repetitive, Rosenthal has a fine eye for human detail and a cop’s mordant sensibility altogether, an exciting tale of unusual police practices, and a solid portrait of a quintessential fringe radical group inhabiting insecure, volatile times.