How a Violent Jewish Extremist Group Went From the Fringes to the Mainstream French Right-Wing

Responsible for several terror attacks and assassinations, the Jewish Defense League is finding influence across the Atlantic.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The French far-right has produced a strange confluence of xenophobic nationalism: old school antisemites on the one hand, and militant Zionists on the other, united in their fear and hatred of Islam. A state of emergency that began with the terrorist attacks of November 2015, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, is still in effect, resulting in targeted state harassment of French Muslims. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s July cargo truck attack in Nice, for which ISIL also claimed responsibility—though it probably had nothing to do with the perpetrator or his crime—fed the flames of Islamophobia, despite the fact that 30 out of the 84 victims were Muslim.

For militant right-wing groups in France, the atmosphere has been a boon for organizing. This is particularly true for the fanatical Zionists of the Jewish Defense League, who are making inroads in the mainstream French right while exploiting Jewish insecurity to great effect.

Born in Brooklyn, the JDL has become a ubiquitous presence at Palestinian solidarity rallies, with chapters around the world and a reputation for vicious street fighting. On August 10, 10 members of the group drove from Toronto to Montreal to interrupt a pro-BDS event. About 100 anti-fascist protesters showed up to block them, and the standoff ended in a brief outburst of violence.

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Fighting is what the JDL does, and the French chapter is the most violent of all. Earlier this year, legal action against its leader, Joseph Ayache, convinced him to leave Paris for a more hospitable climate. On March 31, he was convicted in absentia of a series of violent attacks against Palestinian rights activists in 2012. His three codefendants showed up to court, but Ayache had already fled for Israel.

Looking only at the case of Ayache, one might be left with the impression that his virulently Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian demagogy would make him a pariah in French society. But a closer look at the history of the JDL within the context of right-wing French nationalism shows that his organization has received the support—both implied and direct—of the French government and the approval of the far-right National Front.

In February, National Front Founder and French neo-fascist icon Jean-Marie Le Pen tweeted his feelings about the upcoming U.S. election: “If I were American, I would vote Donald Trump…but may God protect him!”

Following Trump’s proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the country, some observers have made an apt comparison to France’s far-right National Front party. Led by Marine Le Pen, who took over from her father in 2011, the rabidly xenophobic National Front swept the opening round of regional elections with six million votes in the wake of the 2015 attacks.

The climate in France has also provided space for the growth of the JDL, an organization known for its armed mobs of Zionist extremists that ironically finds itself in lockstep with the National Front, a notoriously antisemitic party that has provided safe haven for neo-Nazis since its inception in 1972.

Unlike in the U.S., where the FBI classifies the JDL as a terrorist group, or in Israel, where the group is banned from politics (despite governing parties like Jewish Home embracing its ideology and rhetoric), no such restrictions exist in France. In fact, some evidence points to the French government providing cover for the JDL’s activities, while left-wing activists describe open police collusion with JDL members.

The precedent of a right-wing hate group condoned by the state should be cause for alarm among Americans as well. Though race-baiting has been a favorite Republican pastime since at least Nixon, Trump stands out for his embrace of white supremacists and his habit of inciting violence at rallies. Militant groups with fascist tendencies like the JDL thrive under demagogues like Trump and Le Pen, and their popularity has emboldened reactionaries on both sides of the Atlantic.

'For Every Jew a .22'

The JDL was formed in New York City in 1968, the creation of an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn named Meir Kahane. Kahane’s doctrine of total violence as the only proper response to American antisemitism along with his belief that a second Holocaust was on the horizon, appealed to many young Jewish men in search of a heroic crusade and a sense of elan. Among his earliest admirers were, for a time, the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Yossi Klein Halevi, a former New Republic contributor who wrote a book on his exodus from the JDL. Dov Hikind, the New York State Assemblymember who recently protested Bernie Sanders’ visit to Brooklyn, is an unrepentant former JDL leader suspected of involvement in several terrorist firebombings.

Before long, the group had found its first battleground. The teachers’ union strikes erupting across New York in the 1970s had created tension between black residents and the mostly Jewish teachers union, and Kahane exploited the resulting racial animus. The patrols he organized in Jewish neighborhoods, ostensibly to maintain peace, exacerbated racial segregation in New York City.

This came as little surprise to those exposed to Kahane's beliefs. The rabbi wrote stories for the Jewish Weekly stoking fear of dangerous blacks and Puerto Ricans and the first of the JDL’s “Five Principles” proclaims that “the Jew can look to no one but another Jew for help and that the true solution to the Jewish problem is the liquidation of the Exile and the return of all Jews to Eretz Yisroel — the land of Israel.”

The JDL saw itself as a militant reaction to generations of Jewish complacency. A popular slogan was,“For every Jew a .22” and the JDL’s logo — a clenched fist over a Star of David — recalls the iconography of black nationalism.

In Richard Rosenthal’s book Rookie Cop, which covers his time undercover in the JDL, he describes how the group was galvanized against what was seen as an American Jewish establishment that avoided controversy at all costs. Many saw it as “the Jewish equivalent to Uncle Tom-ism.”

Photos of members wearing yarmulkes and carrying metal pipes appeared in newspaper ads with captions that read, “What’s a nice Jewish boy doing here?” According to Rosenthal, the JDL was “an insufferable embarrassment to the comfortably entrenched Jewish hierarchy,” who saw Kahane as a violent troublemaker.

He lived up to that reputation. Early on, as a statement against Russian antisemitism, JDL members set off smoke bombs and uncorked bottles of ammonia at Soviet ballet performances. The campaign against the USSR reached a head in 1970, with the takeover, on two separate occasions, of Manhattan’s East Park synagogue in order to protest the Soviet United Nations mission across the street.

On occasion, they attacked more worthy targets like Harold Covington, the American neo-Nazi leader, whom they brutalized with steel pipes outside of NBC studios. Other times, the organization operated like a Mafia family; a particularly bizarre episode involved the group allegedly extorting money from Tupac Shakur and other rap artists after being hired by Ruthless Records founder Jerry Heller to provide muscle in negotiations with Suge Knight.

The true horror of the JDL’s mission become undeniable in 1994, when American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Palestinian Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 before being beaten to death. Goldstein was a member of Kach, the party Kahane founded when he immigrated to Israel in 1971.

The JDL website posted the following statement in response: “We feel that Goldstein took a preventative measure against yet another Arab attack on Jews. We understand his motivation, his grief and his actions. And we are not ashamed to say that Goldstein was a charter member of the Jewish Defense League." Goldstein’s grave, located in a West Bank settlement, is now a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists.

A dirty secret of Israeli politics is that while Kahane's Kach party has been banned since 1994 due to racial incitement, it is a ban in name only — the guiding principles of the party are now mainstream. Israel Is our Home and Jewish Home — two similarly named far-right parties led by Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett respectively — gained popularity by stoking the flames of anti-Palestinian hatred with the fervor of true Kahanists. Together with Netanyahu’s Likud party, they claim 34 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Though rarely faced with the same scrutiny as Islamic radical groups, the JDL has been linked to numerous terrorist plots. In 2001, just months after 9/11, American JDL leader Irv Rubin and fellow member Earle Krugel were charged with plotting to bomb three targets in greater Los Angeles: the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the King Fahd Mosque, and the office of Congressman Darrell Issa (whom Rubin believed was a Hezbollah sympathizer, presumably because he is Arab-American). Before he could stand trial, Rubin committed suicide by slitting his throat with a razor and jumping out of a three-story window.

The FN and the JDL

Ligue de défense juive — the French chapter of the JDL — arose just one year before Rubin’s death with a slogan that showed a typical lack of self-awareness: "Freedom, Democracy, and Judaism." Several of its most prominent members have passed through Betar, the Revisionist Zionist organization founded by right-wing ideologue Ze'ev Jabotinsky (Jabotinsky is an idol of Kahanists and members of the ruling Likud Party alike). The JDL has been accused of numerous assaults over the years, including an attack on French-Algerian racial justice activist Houria Bouteldja. Last October, members beat up French Buzzfeed journalist David Perrotin.

The French JDL, whose leaders unconvincingly deny any association with the criminal organizations in other countries that share their name and logo, is distinct among Jewish Defense League branches. Unlike Kach in Israel, the group is not banned, and unlike the JDL in the United States, it has not been labeled a terrorist group by intelligence agencies.

Quick to see the enemy of her enemy as a friend, Marine Le Pen opened her arms to the community her father would have happily seen perish in the gas chambers. In a 2014 interview with the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles, she said:

"I will not stop repeating to French Jews, who are turning to us in increasing numbers, that not only is the National Front not your enemy, but it is without a doubt the best option to protect yourselves in the future… against the one true enemy, Islamist fundamentalists.”

Soon after, Le Pen lent her explicit stamp of approval to the Jewish Defense League, justifying its existence with the classically Zionist argument that “a large number of Jews feel threatened.” But perhaps this olive branch was unnecessary; after all, many French Jews had already shown their appreciation of her bigotry by awarding her party 13.5 percent of the Jewish vote in 2012.

The Islamophobia central to this strain of fascism overwhelms the common sense of Jews who vote for the National Front — an organization that could accurately be described as an heir to the Vichy government that served as quislings during the German occupation of France. It is likely that most of these Jewish FN supporters have heard Jean-Marie Le Pen's statements defending Philippe Pétain and dismissing Nazi gas chambers as "merely a detail" of World War II (a quip for which he was convicted of hate speech). But what's a little Holocaust denial among friends when creeping sharia is just around the corner?

Jean-Claude Nataf, a founder of the JDL, was caught on camera attending a Frontist march in 2013 and claimed that while “the FN does not have our sympathy,” he refuses to “divert people from a real danger.” This danger, of course, is the so-called “Islamization” of France, which provides a pretext for the fear-mongering that unites and enables these unlikely bedfellows.

A report broadcast on national TV station France 2 shows an JDL militant leading a journalist to a government building where members practiced krav maga under the protection of French police.

One shady figure who may provide a key link between the JDL and the cops is Sammy Ghozlan, former police commissioner and head of the ADL-esque Bureau Nationale de Vigilance contre l’Antisémitisme (BNVCA). After fleeing the Algerian war with his family, he became part of the North African community in France knows as pied-noirs (black feet)—an expression applied to member of the colonizer class rather than colonial subjects. The BNVCA functions as a sort of hate crime hotline; Ghozlan fields reports of incidents and then issues bulletins—sometimes twice a day—warning of the rising tide of antisemitism.

The popularity of comedian Dieudonne, who has described Jews as “slave masters” and appeared in public with Jean-Marie Le Pen, leaves no doubt as to the lasting legacy of French anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, due to the persistent conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism (BDS activists have often found themselves on the wrong end of France’s notoriously stringent hate speech laws), there is no way of knowing how many of the incidents reported to the BNVCA are genuine.

Ghozlan was kicked out of Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France (CRIF) after he sued concentration camp survivor and French Resistance fighter Stephane Hessel for incitation to racial hatred without consulting CRIF’s leadership. The alleged “racial hatred” came from Hessel’s popular book Indignez-vous ("you should be indignant"), in which he praised the Palestinian resistance and accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza. Ostensibly a watchdog for antisemitic hate crimes, Ghozlan has found that his militant Zionism aligns him with the fascism of the JDL, which dedicated a glowing profile of him on its website.

A JDL 'folk hero' in U.S. mainstream media

Another gushing depiction comes from Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, who wrote an embarrassingly misleading story about the protests at the Rue de la Roquette synagogue. Brenner dubiously claims the peaceful activists protesting Israel shouted “Hitler was right!” and “Jews get out of France!” Her main source for the article is none other than Ghozlan himself, whom she laughably describes as “folk hero of the banlieues” while neglecting to quote a single Muslim or Arab.

When the JDL provoked the fight outside of Synagogue de la Roquette in July, 2014, Ghozlan told Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner that the protesters were violent thugs trying to carry out a pogrom.

Such mainstream acceptance of the JDL’s narrative allows the group to, for example, provoke a street fight with Palestinian solidarity protestors outside the Rue de la Roquette synagogue and frame it as pogrom-esque attacks on Jews, a fabricated claim that was quickly published by mainstream press outlets.

Video footage and the statements of synagogue president Serge Benhaïm, who declared that “at no moment were [the synagogue’s congregants] ever physically in danger,” revealed the JDL to be the main instigators of the melee, and the French authorities and reporters like Brenner to have been easy dupes for the Jewish extremists. In the wake of the false reports, the French government banned all demonstrations against Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, prompting rioting and more ethnic tension.

According to Imen, a leading French Palestine solidarity activist who has been a frequent target of JDL intimidation, the “French police protect JDL” by essentially providing them with security while attacking peaceful Palestinian solidarity activists who protest Israel. Imen noted that the legal persecution by the French Ministry of Justice of Palestine solidarity activists, whom it has accused of “hate speech” for promoting a boycott of Israeli goods, reinforces the JDL’s sense of inviolability.

State of Emergency

The state of emergency following the attacks of Nov. 13, 2015 has led to a sharp increase in police brutality against Muslims; a report in Le Monde enumerates several such abuses, such as the injury of a six-year-old girl during a police raid on her home and the arrest and detention of well-known French-Lebanese trumpet player Ibrahim Malouuf at Gare du Nord station for “looking suspicious.”

A particularly cruel example involved police kicking down the doors of a mosque after someone had already offered them the keys. The crackdown was not limited to Muslims—a climate protest at the Place de la Republique (which had become somewhat of a gathering place for memorials after the Charlie Hebdo attacks) ended with the arrest of 300 environmental activists under a special emergency edict forbidding public meetings and protests.

Facing a political climate in which BDS supporters are routinely accused of antisemitism for their criticism of Israeli apartheid, Ghozlan’s unfounded accusations have a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian activists. This censorship shows no sign of abating in the wake of November’s attack, a period in which the declared state of emergency has authorized the indefinite detention of Muslims without trial.

As a haunting video report by French Muslim civil rights activist Yasser Louati made clear, the climate of anti-Muslim intimidation and official repression has escalated even further since the grisly attack in Nice this July. Much of the public’s attention has focused on the so-called "burkini ban" in Cannes, a sequel to 2010’s infamous nationwide burka ban. Laurence Rossignol, France’s Minister for Women’s Rights, compared women who wear burqas and hijabs to “American negroes who were in favor of slavery.”

The French military’s response to to the attack has been to escalate airstrikes as part of Opération Chammal in Syria and Iraq while continuing to deploy ground troops in Mali, almost guaranteeing that the ongoing cycle of violence will intensify.

The French presidential election will be held in April and May of next year, with the top two candidates from the first round progressing to the second. A survey published in Le Monde shows Marine Le Pen polling at 28%, making her twice as popular as the incumbent Hollande. Unlike Trump, who seems to be losing steam in the run-up to November, Le Pen is gaining momentum. If the JDL has managed to receive such favorable treatment under politicians who refuse to acknowledge them, it is not hard to imagine the free rein the group would be granted by a party that offers public support. After nearly half a century in the shadows, the JDL is poised to take center stage.

Rob Bryan is a journalist who has written for Jacobin and Mondoweiss among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @robbryan86