Against anti-Semitism, self-defense is no offense

Click photo to download. Caption: The Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in central Paris, which was recently attacked by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

The debate about whether Jews have a future in Europe has once again surfaced, as Israel’s Operation Protective Edge gained momentum in response to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.

The two issues are connected for a simple reason: on July 13, a large number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Paris decided to attack a synagogue in the French capital, thereby demonstrating that these days, aspiring pogromists are more likely to wear a Palestinian keffiyeh than a swastika armband.

I had originally intended to write about whether Europe’s Jews should stay where they are, or make aliyah to Israel. But while I was sifting through the various news articles concerning the attack in Paris, I came across an alternative version of that episode that changed my focus. 

In this tendentious narrative—embraced by both the left-wing anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss and the right-wing British Daily Mail tabloid—the violence was in fact provoked by Jewish extremists on the scene. According to Mondoweiss, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League and its allies initiated the clashes “in support of Israel’s ongoing bombing campaign that has thus far claimed the lives of almost 200 Palestinians.” The Daily Mail, meanwhile, harrumphed at the spectacle of “a group of 150 Jewish men… brandishing iron bars and cans of pepper spray as they clashed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Paris.”

What isn’t in doubt is that a mob of violent anti-Semites tried to storm the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in central Paris. Equally, there is no doubt that a group of brave young Jews associated with Betar, the Jewish Defense League, and the SPCJ, the official defense arm of the French Jewish community, repelled the attempted pogrom through a show of physical force. Writing in Commentary magazine, my friend Michel Gurfinkiel noted that “older Jewish men and women, some in their late 40s or early 50s, fought back as well.”

Hence, there is a question that is more pressing than whether Jews should leave Europe, and it’s this one: Should we take more responsibility for the physical defense of our community and its property, even if that means we land on the wrong side of the law?

There are many reasons why we should avoid such an outcome, some of them credible, others less so. Groups like the SPCJ in France and the Community Security Trust in Britain have done a tremendous job of enhancing security at Jewish institutions, working closely with local authorities in the process. Why, then, take actions that risk those relationships? Surely, in democratic societies, we resolve our differences through politics, and we let the police take care of law and order?

Then there’s the fact that Jewish communities, and particularly their leaders, tend to take a conservative approach. Especially in America, Jewish advocacy revolves around gala fundraising dinners, conferences, and photo opportunities with foreign leaders. Throwing tables, chairs, kicks, and punches at anti-Semitic thugs isn’t quite our style.

Now, all those considerations are sound ones. But what happens when you have  demonstrators chanting in Arabic, as they did in Paris, “Itbah al Yahud!” (“Death to the Jews!”)? How do we respond when some politicians, as was the case in France, claim that we should expect such attacks if we turn our synagogues into adjuncts of the state of Israel?

In those circumstances, I think, we have to fight back. We shouldn’t provoke violence, but we should be ready to defend ourselves against attacks, particularly when the police fail to do their job.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t the first time Jews have faced this sort of dilemma. In the late 1940s, in London’s East End, the British Union of Fascists returned to the streets, harassing Jewish businesses and beating up Jews, frequently citing the conflict between the authorities in the British Mandate of Palestine and the Zionist Yishuv as justification. 

Ben Cohen

At a meeting of 43 Jews in the area, who later became known as the “43 Group,” it was decided that enough was enough. The result wasn’t pretty. “In October 1947, the 43 Group was attacking an average of 15 outdoor fascist meetings a week, and by whatever means, causing more than half to close down prematurely,” wrote Morris Beckman in his memoir of the 43 Group’s exploits. Those “means” included knives, knuckledusters and bricks. And it worked. By the end of 1949, the fascists had been driven out of east London.

In these dark days, the experience of the 43 Group reminds us that in the not-so-distant past, Jews have refused to accept their lot as passive victims. The challenge now is balancing our respect for the law of the land with our resolve not to allow our synagogues to be burned or ransacked, as they were less than a century ago in Europe.

Used sparingly and when necessary, self-defense is no offense. And if it contributes to the authorities’ taking pre-emptive action against anti-Semitic demonstrations—as has occurred in France, where the police have banned another anti-Semitic rally scheduled for this past weekend in Paris—then so much the better.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.  

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Posted on July 21, 2014 and filed under Opinion, World, Israel.