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When French Jews Are Threatened, Young Toughs Don’t Shrink from Fight

June 26, 2006
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The dozens of young men looked tough, some of them well- built and carrying motorcycle helmets under their arms. Standing among the tourists and falafel eaters on the rue des Rosiers, in the heart of Paris’ historic Jewish district, they were waiting for Tribu K, a gang of Africans who had marched down the narrow street the previous week, insulting Jews and yelling that they wanted to confront the Jewish Defense League.

Some of the men waiting for the Tribu K were members of the Jewish Defense League; others were just hangers-on looking for a fight.

The Tribu K never returned, but suddenly the spotlight was on the league, a group of right-wing Jews in their teens and early 20s. The group, which is not connected to the U.S.-based militant organization of the same name, is based in Paris and several suburbs where Jews and their synagogues and schools have been targets of violence in recent years.

It’s a legal group, but not one of the official youth groups here, such as Hashomer Hatzair on the left and Betar on the right, which have the backing of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“We are a movement to defend the Jewish community,” said Shimon, a journalist in his early 20s. “Violence is not a goal for us, it’s a means to an end. But we do not back down from a fight.”

The league has no headquarters and doesn’t carry arms, but practices Krav Maga, a form of close combat developed by the Israeli military. It has about 100 members and 200-300 sympathizers, according to Shimon.

The latest wave of notoriety came in 2000, the beginning of a period in which Jews and their cemeteries, synagogues and schools came under frequent attack, mostly by young Muslims of African or North African origin.

“The state powers did not react, and the community protested,” Shimon said. “We decided that was not enough, so we began striking back. People got hurt. We were defending the Jewish community here and the image of Israel and its right to do what it had to do to fight terrorism. For me, it’s the same fight.”

Shimon did not have kind words for Jewish student organizations, which he called leftist groups that don’t want to take direct action against the Muslims responsible for anti-Semitic violence.

“We are not racist. I am not racist,” Shimon said. “Not all Arab kids are involved in violence against Jews. I have Arab friends, probably more than French French friends. We respect each other. But simple words of protest are no answer against violent acts.”

Not all league members are as thoughtful as Shimon.

“Several years ago the Betar youth group, recognized and partly financed by the Jewish Agency, got rid of its most violent members,” explained Daniel Reinharc, head of Israel Magazine in France. “Some of them went over to the Defense League. At first it was like a classic self-defense group, but the outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in the suburbs made them more attractive to a lot of young people.”

Reinharc said the actor and comic Dieudonne, a French African who during the Palestinian intifada developed a flow of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli invective, is the focus of hatred of many young Jews. Dieudonne reportedly has links to Tribu K, a tiny group whose Web site recently was shut down by French police.

Dieudonne “speaks in all the black and Arab suburbs, and people come out of the meetings hating Jews,” Reinharc said. “He mentions the league regularly so that it becomes synonymous with all Jews, like a propaganda technique.”

Reinharc said members of the league patrol regularly in Jewish districts in Paris and in suburbs such as Creteil and Sarcelles, east and north of Paris.

“Believe me, Jewish storekeepers are happy to see them, regardless of any political differences,” he said.

“I really don’t know what league members look like,” said Solange, a store owner on the rue des Rosiers. “But a few times drunken bums have bothered us here in the store, and a couple of strong-looking guys suddenly came in and muscled them out of the store. It was reassuring.”

Still, Solange has her reservations about the group.

“Self-defense is good, but they can go too far,” such as occasionally forcing passers-by in headscarves to leave the rue des Rosiers, she said.

“I think many young men are attracted to the league because there are holes in the types of youth groups available to them in the community,” Solange continued. “When we came from North Africa, there were cultural and educational programs and we loved them. These kids are all born in France. Maybe they need something else.”

Gil Taieb, a vice president of the Consistoire, the umbrella group of religious French Jewish organizations, agreed that there may be deficiencies in community programs, but noted that the league still had attracted few youngsters.

“I think that as a self-defense group they’re not dangerous, but when they help demonstrations turn messy, that’s something else,” he said.

At one demonstration in support of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped and tortured to death in February, members of the defense league recognized two members of Tribu K and beat them up. That may have led Tribu K to march down the rue des Rosiers in a show of force.

Shimon, on the other hand, said the league offers a practical alternative to more recognized groups.

“I think community officials are afraid that young Jews today identify more with what we do than with all the talking in Hashomer, the University Jewish Student Union and other mixed groups like SOS Racism,” he said. “We have no anti-Arab indoctrination, but we are not hypocrites. All the leftist groups don’t like the Arab guys doing violence, but they still want to talk with them. We believe that you fight violence with violence.”

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