In late July, the French newspaper Libération revealed that the Ministry of the Interior is considering outlawing the Ligue de Défense Juive (the Jewish Defense League, known in French by the acronym LDJ). The ministry opened this dossier following the dismal ruckus outside the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue two weeks earlier in Paris. According to several observers, as well as footage of amateur videos, LDJ members replete with motorcycle helmets and metal bars provoked the hooligans who had hijacked the demonstration.
When one recalls that rabid anti-Semitism has fueled most of the ligues that lard French history, from Action Française to the Milice, we can now celebrate the discovery that French Jews can be as loutish, racist and violent as their anti-Semitic peers.
In a sense, the official dissolution of the LDJ borders on a tautology: As revealed by the frustrated efforts of a Le Monde journalist who tried to interview an LDJ representative, the organization appears anything but organized, while its actual size is as uncertain as the nature of its origins. But there are certain elements that are nevertheless clear. It was after the eruption of the second intifada, in 2000, and the so-called “Intifada Française” that subsequently swept France’s suburbs, that the LDJ took shape. Its existence has, ever since, been marginal: No more than a few dozen individuals form the movement’s hard core. But crucially, as events at the Bastille have shown, they have the ability to mobilize between 200 and 300 supporters through social media.
On its official website, adorned with a clenched fist framed by a Star of David, the LDJ presents itself as the “ideological extension” of Meir Kahane’s American operation. (One that, let us recall, the FBI placed on its list of terrorist organizations the same year it was franchised to France.) And while a spokesman for the LDJ rejected “any and all forms of racism and violence,” he neglected to explain the presence on the site earlier this year of a eulogy for Baruch Goldstein, author of the massacre of 29 Palestinians in 1994. (The site’s webmaster has since removed the eulogy.)
Moreover, the spokesman did not address the more than 100 charges of physical aggression and assault brought against the LDJ’s members since 2001. While most of these attacks have been aimed at French Muslims, the LDJ has also terrorized French Jews who disagree with its worldview. In July, two LDJ sympathizers were found guilty of throwing a bomb at the car of Jonathan Moadab, co-founder of a Jewish organization critical of Zionism. For good measure, Moadab testified that he had received anonymous phone calls warning him that he and his entire family would be killed.
Of course, all this might seem thin beer given the growing violence and the number of anti-Semitic activities in France. But the role played by the LDJ in the near-riots outside the two synagogues in July has disturbed not just the French authorities, but also many French Jews. While the events remain disputed, the initial version of those portraying the LDJ as heroic defenders of the synagogues no longer holds. A tweet sent by an LDJ member suggests there were plans to provoke the demonstrators — actions then corroborated by amateur videos and eyewitness accounts, including those of French Jews. Moreover, the president of the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue, Serge Benhaïm, emphasized during an interview that, thanks to the French police, the synagogue was never “besieged.”
In a article that received a great deal of comments, the journalist (and Zionist) Ezra Nathan emphasized the appalling actions and language of the violent fringe to the pro-Palestinian demonstration, but also denounced the LDJ’s members as pyromaniacs laboring under the delusion that they are firefighters. Roger Cukierman, leader of CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), underscored his organization’s rejection of the LDJ as well: “We don’t approve of their methods [and] do not wish to keep their company.”
Neither does the government, it seems. Among the several triggers the Interior Ministry uses when it considers the legal banning of an organization, the LDJ seems to have pulled at least two. One is the incitation to ethnic or racial hatred and violence, while the other is when groups ,“either in their form or military organization, manifest the characteristics of a private militia.” Even this description, however, gives too much credit to the organization. According to the sociologist Samuel Ghiles-Meilhac, the LDJ attracts unemployed youths who have little idea of the history and politics of the Middle East. Instead, the street confrontations and racist rhetoric “allow them to pretend to a sort of virility à l’Israeli without actually living there.”
Nevertheless, the anxiety and fear now gnawing at the French Jewish community has translated into a growing sympathy for, if not active support of, the LDJ. The reasoning — the LDJ may be imbeciles, but at least they are our imbeciles — is understandable, but also tragic (a tragedy, moreover, that last week threatened to turn to farce when the far-right’s Marine Le Pen publicly supported the LDJ). The Socialist deputy Olivier Faure, who recently demanded that the government explain why a group outlawed in the United States and Israel was allowed to exist in France, insists that France uphold its republican ideals. “There is no place in the Republic for militias [and] the idea that Christians defend Christians, Jews defend Jews and Muslims defend Palestinians.” One can only wonder if such declarations express nostalgia for a past that can never be revived.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University, 2013).