This is a translation of an article by Emmanuel Debono on the subject of France's Jewish Defence League and the French tradition of Jewish self-defence. Emmanuel Debono is an historian (ENS, Lyon). His research encompasses racism and anti-racism in contemporary France. Doctor of contemporary history (IEP, Paris), he is the author of the work "Aux origines de l'antiracisme. La LICA, 1927-1940" (CNRS Editions, 2012). Translated by Maurice Lanselle.
Spurred on by current events, the Ligue de défense juive (LDJ) has raised its level of activity recently to a point where it finds itself in the middle of controversy over its actions. While voices are raised calling for prohibition of an organisation which intends to hold its ground and does not mitigate its support for Israël, it sees --on the contrary--its reputation burnished among those showing worry about the current growth of anti-Jewish sentiment. Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau of Vigilence Against Anti-Semitism (BNVCA, "Bureau national de vigilance contre l'antisémitisme") has observed that it has "acquired these days the sympathy of the communitarian base."
The Ancient Tradition of "Self-defence Leagues"
We have been reminded of its link with the Jewish Defense League (JDL) of rabbi Meir Kahane, created in 1968 in the United States. The militants of the JDL, active in the United States but also in Europe, received tough physical training and conducted actions which did not exclude bombings and assassinations. Zionists, anti-Arab, they were then principally oriented toward the defense of Jews in the USSR, discriminated against by the Soviet regime, and Israël. On the American territory, skirmishes with Blacks were frequent, due to important inter-communitarian tensions born in the early 1960s. The JDL at the time could be called an "ultra-chauvinist", "racist" or even "fascist" organisation by a French anti-racist organisation close to the Communist Party such as the Movement against racism, anti-Semitism and for peace ("Mouvement contre le racisme, l'antisémitisme et pour la paix", source "Droit & Liberté", juillet-août 1971).
French branch of a JDL which no longer exists on American soil, the Ligue de défense juive/intends to act against Judeophobia, permitting itself recourse to violence to do so. Since its appearance on national soil in the early 2000s, it has drawn attention on multiple occasions, often during pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
Well before the LDJ, and even before the Betar -- a Jewish nationalist youth organisation present in France beginning in the 1960s (but created in Riga in the 1920s by the Revisionist Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky)--, there had been other initiatives of this type. One could thus go back to the Dreyfus Affaire -- but we will just return to the 1930s. They reveal a "tradition" and a messy problem which has been around a long time.
Protect, chastise and clean up
In the early 1930s, in France, the young "Ligue internationale contre l'antisémitisme" (LICA, International League Against Anti-Semitism) spawned groups of young militants destined to play a key role during the decade. Their inspiration? The Jewish self-defence militias of the ex-Czarist empire but also of Palestine, whose purpose was to protect populations regularly victims of pogroms. Their justification? The flaws in, or limits to the republican (civil) order, observation that one finds in the following argument published in 1931:
"At the time of the incidents which led to our fights with the "camelots du Roy" [nationalist militants of the Action française, a royalist movement] we have noticed that, during three hours of clock time, an army of police agents stood by as hundreds of loud-mouths yelled curses against the Jews mixed with calls for death. (...) nor do we think that the préfet de police should have to wait for us to file complaints before ordering his men to clamp down on the commotion of which our people would have already been victims. We must be our police force ourselves. "
The philosophy of these groups is summarized in the messages of a cadre of the League: "This struggle is the only true exercise of emancipation for it liberates the victim not only from oppression by others but even more so from his own inferiority complex, from a more spiritual degradation." Their activity? In theory, protect the Jewish population threatened by extremist anti-Jewish groups that were flourishing in the 1930s.
In reality, it was to seek out the anti-Jewish militants wherever they were, to clear Paris of them and chastise those who persisted in public professions of anti-Semitism. The members of groups of self-defence (the expression was then used in English) were subdivided into groups and provided with gyms. They quickly acquired a reputation as formidable boxers. They marshaled for meetings and marches and proposed their services to their allies on the Left, often lacking their own effective marshals; they attacked vendors of far right papers, sabotaged their meetings, such as May 4, 1938, at the hall (salle des) Centraux, in Paris.
That evening, assorted anti-Semite speakers such as Louis Darquier de Pellepoix (future General Commissioner of Jewish Affairs under the Occupation) denounce from the podium the "Jewish invasion" and the alleged "will to dominate" of those he execrated. The intrusion into the hall of a dozen members of self-defence groups was extremely violent, according to witnesses: chairs flew, glass doors were shattered and the brawl which followed left many injured.
Their enemies labeled them "assault troops," "aspiring terrorist Jews," "hooligans" or even "terrorists." But they were the pride of the LICA, a veritable element of identity, even if they were not unanimously supported, notably among the Jews, due to the violence of their interventions. Never, however, did the government proceed toward suppression of these groups, not even in application of the law of January 1936 regarding combat groups and private militias: the men of the self-defence were recognised as a necessary order-keeping service, placed under the command of an organisation which otherwise called --vigorously--for respect of republican values. In a significant manner, the presence of members of the government on the board of honor of the LICA turned out to be compatible with this official tough action.
In 1938, the police prefecture prohibited numerous anti-Jewish meetings planned in Paris for the following unvarying rationale: "Possible incidents due to decisions taken by the direction of the LICA." This latter made it a point of honor to refuse any attempts to hold anti-Jewish demonstrations. Despite certain appearances, the republican authorities did not fold under pressure from occult "Jewish powers" but indeed because of the risk of severe outbreaks of public unrest. The leagues of the far Right demanded the suppression of the LICA, denouncing an intolerable infringement of freedom of expression. The association defended itself by highlighting its patriotism and pointing out the explosive potential danger racism poses for republican order.
Private Militias and Civil Peace
Jewish self-defence has a history in France. More generally, the question of self-defense is posed in a society when the State is shown to be, upon occasion or more persistently, powerless or hesitant to insure the security of its citizens, its democratic principles and its republican values. The current context of belligerence makes the situation particularly touchy when an action group like the LDJ aims both to protect a category of the population and to take sides vigorously in a conflict the import of which to the French soil has had the lamentable effects one knows. That a group of "defence" assures the protection of a place of worship can be healthy. It is more questionable when the same group comments via Twitter : "The worst is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims of France applaud the attack on the synagogue on Twitter. Do they want war?" (14 July 2014)
For, obviously, the overwhelming majority of Muslims does not want civil war in France, not any more than it wishes for anything other than the end of the war in the Middle East. It is imperative that the initiative to protect individuals not be accompanied by excesses which would be damaging for Jews but also for the whole of the national community. For the overwhelming majority of French, which includes the overwhelming majority of Muslims of France, certainly does not wish for the proliferation of private militias, a phenomenon which never indicates good health of a society and of its institutions.