Steve Rambam, the ex-JDL militant who exposed Canada's Nazis, says his critics try to use his politics to discredit his work

By Robert Sarner, The Jerusalem Report, March 20, 1997

As Salvatore Romano, he was a visiting professor who invited himself into the homes of Nazi war criminals in Canada to compile evidence. As Simon Matout, he was a Lebanese Christian who infiltrated a radical pro-Palestinian group in the U.S. to gather information. As Donald W. Gabriel, he was a gullible American businessman in a sting operation with the U.S. Secret Service to nab a fraud artist. As Steve Rambam, he has been praised as an innovative private eye and Jewish activist, and vilified as an unorthodox detective and former Jewish Defense League militant.

A list of Rambam's undercover operations (at least those which can be revealed) reads like a resume of roles played by a particularly versatile Hollywood actor. But Rambam is for real. And two of his investigations - into the harboring of hundreds of alleged war criminals in Canada, and into the U.S. social security records of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - have made headlines in North America and Israel, and thrown Rambam's own personal story into the spotlight as well.

Just turned 40, tall, athletic and physically imposing, the Brooklyn-raised Ramban was a teenage activist in the Likud-linked Betar youth movement and Meir Kahane's militant 1970s JDL. Though reticent about much of his upbringing - he acknowledges nothing more than that his parents are still alive, and refuses to elaborate on the "military training" he says he once received - he insists that he is "not even remotely embarrassed that I was a leading member of the JDL," speaking of activities to draw world attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry, of organizing aid for Jewish poor and elderly, and of participating in "security patrols" in Jewish neighborhoods. His Jewish activism and Zionism today, he says, stem from "the values I was exposed to in the JDL and Betar."

That wholesome picture, though, is somewhat undermined by his conviction for transporting explosives over state lines in 1975. Rambam and another JDL member were arrested when driving across the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York. He says he was delivering the explosives to other JDL members, who were planning to cause "property damage" to Soviet installations in the area - to further the cause of Soviet Jewry - and that there was never any intention to endanger lives. Rambam served a two-year jail term, saying he spurned an FBI offer to turn JDL informer and "walk."

When Larry Cohler, a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week who wrote his master's thesis on the JDL, was introduced to Rambam in the early 1980s, he found a man with "an absolute commitment to Meir Kahane's ideology." But although he remained friends with Kahane until a few years before the rabbi's 1990 murder, Rambam says he had long stopped backing Kahane's racist policies and had broken with the JDL.

"I left them when they became a group of misanthropic criminals," he says. "Those who joined the JDL for ideological reasons did a lot of good. Unfortunately, as they began to drift away, a gang of lunatics and weasels remained."

Rambam had got into undercover work while with the JDL, playing a lead role in a "security division" responsible for intelligence gathering on neo-Nazi and anti-Israel groups. He decided to make a career of it, obtained a detective's license in 1982, established a reputation for tracking down missing persons and solving financial fraud cases, and soon had offices in Texas, New York and, later, in Toronto.

He first made media ripples in 1984, when he showed how easy it was to sneak guns and grenades past security at airports in New York, San Antonio and Orlando. Initially, he'd offered airport security staff his services to help plug the holes. Rebuffed, he called the press and gave demonstrations - earning widespread publicity and forcing red-faced airport managers to beef up security measures.

That level of attention, though, pales in comparison to the deluge of publicity unleashed by Rambam's revelations last fall of Canada's record as a haven for war criminals. Following up on lists compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Yad Vashem and survivors' groups, Rambam tracked down 162 alleged Nazis through driver registration lists, property ownership files, and even the phone book. Then, posing as Salvatore Romano, a professor from the fictitious St. Paul's University of the Americas, he met with 62 of them, assuring his subjects he fully sympathized with the "difficult conditions" under which they had operated during the war.

Rambam taped these encounters, recording many suspects, confirming membership in units notorious for the mass killing of Jews in Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine; some admitted to participating in murders themselves.

Rambam presented his findings last December to the Canadian police's War Crimes Unit at the Montreal offices of the Canadian Jewish Congress, which represents the country's 360,000 Jews. He then appeared at a press conference with CJC leaders and Ephraim Zuroff, head of the Israeli office of the Wiesenthal Center, who had supplied him with basic information on the suspects.

"Rambam is a maverick, a real character in both the positive and negative sense of the word," says Zuroff. "But he deserves a lot of credit. He obtained incriminating evidence against known Nazis by using very imaginative techniques."

Because of his JDL past, the CJC had wavered about being publicly associated with Rambam. And soon after the Nazi story was publicized, sparking unprecedented debate in Canada, the CJC received a torrent of defamatory stories about Rambam.

"It was one of the worst cases of gossip mongering I'd ever seen," says the CJC's Bernie Farber, "all kinds of wild stories and terrible accusations. Everything from Rambam being a CIA spy to having murdered people - all of which proved false."

Rambam denounces Canada for a post-war immigration policy that favored war criminals over survivors, castigates Ottawa for "a gross dereliction of duty" in not prosecuting the 3,000 alleged Nazi murderers and collaborators who were admitted, and slams the courts for a "lethargic approach and questionable rulings" in the handful of cases brought before them. (Canada has deported one man to Holland, extradited another to Germany, acquitted a third of war-crimes charges, and is following a deportation proceedings against a further nine.) He criticizes Canada's Jews, too, for not having been more assertive, especially on this issue.

Perhaps the gravest case Rambam uncovered was that of former Lithuanian police chief Antanas Kenstavicius, whom he interviewed in his British Columbia home. Rambam taped Kenstavicius recounting, in chilling detail, the 1941 slaughter in Svencionys, Lithuania, of thousands of Jewish men, women and children.

In January, Canadian Justice Department officials accepted one of Rambam's tapes for use as evidence in deportation proceedings against Kenstavicius. A few hours after the formal hearing began, Kenstavicius died of a heart attack

Rambam's other media splash came last summer, when he investigated allegations widely published in the Hebrew press, and brought up in the Knesset, that, while Prime Minister Netanyahu was working in Boston in the late 1970s, his name had appeared on the social security file of one John J. Sullivan, Jr., and that Netanyahu had possibly been working for the CIA.

The story broke amid a host of other post-election allegations against the new prime minister - including confusion about him changing his name for a time to Benjamin Neitay, controversy over when he gave up his dual U.S. citizenship, and disputes over the conversion to Judaism undergone by his second wife, Fleur.

Rambam, who makes no secret of his admiration for Netanyahu, had first met him in the mid-1980s when the prime minister was ambassador to the U.N.; Rambam was hired to provide security for him at Jewish events. To get to the bottom of the social security story, Rambam traced the real John J. Sullivan, Jr. to San Francisco, photographed him and his social security card, and thus claims to have spiked the talk of Netanyahu's supposed nefarious past.

"In the U.S., only the National Enquirer would print such allegations," Rambam says. "Can you imagine some serious paper suggesting Bill Clinton is a KGB agent?"

But Einat Berkovitz, who broke the Sullivan story in the weekly Kol Ha'ir and insists that the matter is far from resolved, notes that Sullivan turned out to be a federal agent and that no-one has yet explained how Netanyahu's name came to be linked with his, and says Rambam was investigating "on Netanyahu's behalf." Reporter Steve Leibowitz says it was he who hired Rambam for a story for Israel TV and The Jerusalem Post.

Following a philosophy of not benefiting financially from projects "for the good of the Jewish people," Rambam claims he worked for "less than expenses" on the Netanyahu and Nazi cases. His other work, though, is lucrative, commanding up to $200 an hour.

He is aware that his style and direct manner - one reporter wrote of his "toxic candor" - are not to everyone's liking. "I'm not exactly a shy, retiring fellow who keeps his political opinions to himself," he says wryly. "Certain people who disagree with my politics tend to personalize it. They try to make me look like someone who should not be listened to, in the hope of discrediting the information I bring forward."

Outspoken in advancing the findings of his investigations, Rambam is guarded about his own private matters - his background, his military training, even the reason why he calls his detective agency Pallorium. And, within the year he plans to bring that mix of in-your-face revelations and personal intrigue to Israel, to study and practice law, and tackle new adventures.

If so, he'll be providing new material for his friend Kinky Friedman, ex of the Texas Jewboys country-and-western band and now author of nine novels based in no small part on episodes from Rambam's career. In each book, an enigmatic, world-weary detective serves as a foil to the Kinky protagonist. His name: Steve Rambam.

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