Against anti-Semitism, self-defense is no offense

080114_cohen_benThe debate about whether Jews have a future in Europe has once again surfaced, as Israel’s Operation Protective Edge has gained momentum and the deadly fighting with Hamas rages on.

The two issues are connected for a simple reason: In mid-July, 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 add my own views on 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 persuaded me to change my focus.

In this tendentious narrative — embraced by the left-wing anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss and the right-wing British Daily Mail tabloid alike — 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.”

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 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. 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.

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.

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, 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

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