In Paris on Sept. 28, two-dozen men armed with clubs and wearing motorcycle helmets stormed the Pays de Cocagne bookshop on the Rue Vieille du Temple to the cries of Israel vaincra! (Israel will be victorious.) Six people were slightly injured.
The men disrupted the book-signing event of Alain Soral, the self-proclaimed agitator, anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-Palestinian philosopher and boxer. The men broke windows, knocked over bookshelves and sent fans of the writer running out the back door of the bookshop into a courtyard, some of them bleeding. Neither Soral nor his bodyguard were hurt in the incident.
Witnesses claimed the attackers had tear-gas bombs and that they got away within minutes before the police arrived. A video of the attack is posted on the French Islamic Web site www.oumma.com.
Soral, who is well known for his anti-Zionist opinions, said he had received death threats after a recent controversial appearance on the television station France 2. In that interview, he said that "certain Jews never autocriticize," hinting that Jews always blame others for their woes.
Soral said Sept. 20, "If you tell a Frenchman, a Zionist Jew, that maybe some of your problems come from you, that maybe you've made some mistakes, it's not systematically everybody else's fault if no one can stand you anywhere you go, because really, that's their history [the Jews'] for the last 2,500 years. Everywhere they put their feet in, they get kicked out after 50 years -- you have to admit it's bizarre; everybody's always wrong except for them."
For his appearance at the book store signing, he had asked for police protection and it was denied.
The reaction of French Jews to the attack is mixed. French Jews are grappling with a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes committed by young Arab men to cries of "Allah akbar." The attack committed by young Jewish men to cries of "Israel vaincra!" has disturbed some but thrilled others.
Paris Mayor Bernard Delano sensibly condemned the assault, saying, "Violence never moves anything forward." Leaders of the Jewish community were also quick to condemn the assault and called for calm and dialogue over violence.
In contrast, the talk on the Internet in Islamic chat rooms is heated and predictably paranoid. Participants are blaming the attack on an "extreme black-shirt Zionist organization." They also see the attack as part of a pattern of violence against anyone who speaks out against the "Nazi occupation of Palestine." The chat room visitors (whose user profiles all place them in their 20s) write in French cyber slang about their outrage at how "the French government is always protecting the Jews, and how the Jews are the biggest threat to world peace."
"I was there," posted one participant. "I saw the whole thing. I saw them [the Jews] getting ready minutes before it happened. One guy said to not only go after the men, but to go after the women, too. I called the police, but they took their time. What do you think that means? They're in on it."
To these people, Soral is just articulating what they believe: That you can't say you are against Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite. In other words, it's getting harder to wear your Jew hatred on your sleeve, like the Nazis did -- literally.
I entered a French Islamic Web site using a male Arab name and chatted with JMENfou (slang for I don't give a s--t) who wrote, "These [Jewish] militias are beating people up all the time, and the police don't do anything about it. It's Betar, and they are very good at breaking heads open. They train in Israel. They're Likud, extreme right wing."
"Sharon is a murdering piece of filth," wrote zazoo.
Ahmed332 wrote, "I wish I had been there. I would have remade their skin. They're always hanging around the universities, looking for a fight. Next time I see one, I'm going to give him a new face."
On more than a dozen French Islamic Web sites, the chat rooms were abuzz with the same word: Betar. It's Betar, Betar, Betar, those Zionist extremists who are poisoning all of France.
The unanimous blaming of Betar by the anti-Israel set made me curious. The Web site www.betarfrance.org looks harmless enough, with music and pictures of Begin, Jewish calendar information, Hebrew lessons and organized trips to Israel. There is a fund drive, and there are self-defense lessons indicated by a cartoon character in a judo outfit -- a flash animation of a comical little guy swatting at the air.
Deeper reading of the site reveals a Zionist bent, but there is no call for violence, only self-defense. The Betar mission statement is about knowledge of Israel and about how to become a responsible Jew, aimed primarily at boys ages 8 to 18. The site encourages a trip to Israel to express solidarity and pride in the Jewish state.
I found it hard to imagine a group of cute little French boys in kippahs going on a field trip to the Third Arrondissement to beat up people in a bookstore.
I called Betar in Paris to find out what their response was to the sacking of the bookstore. Within minutes, I was given a cellphone number for Arnaud Sayegh, the director of Betar de France.
When I reached Sayegh, he was in Israel. He was a bit defensive at first but no more so than the little cartoon guy on the Betar Web site.
When asked about the violence that took place at the bookstore, he said, "They are always blaming us. We're used to it. We don't have a militia. We had nothing to do with this."
"I always encourage dialogue, but you can see how the way things are right now, that sometimes people think you have to put dialogue on the side," he continued. "It gets to be too much after a while. Have you heard the way people are talking lately? It's out of control."
I asked Sayegh what he thought of Soral.
"He's a virulent anti-Semite, and things he has said have wounded some people very much," he responded.
Talking to Sayegh gave me the feeling of talking to a Boy Scout leader, not the leader of a paramilitary Zionist army ready to take arms against anti-Semitism in France. But maybe I was being naive.
Someone e-mailed me a picture of a Betar demonstration. I saw some very big, beefy guys standing around, wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a big, black fist rising out of a Star of David. It didn't look to me like it was an incipient Hebrew lesson or tree planting.
I asked some Jewish friends who live in Paris about Betar, and I was told that there is also an older boy's unit of Betar called Tagar.
"It's a militia," said Michael H., a Paris lawyer, "and none of our friends would ever send their kids there. Can you imagine sending your boys for paramilitary training in the middle of Paris?"
In July, when tensions in France between Jews and Muslims were at a boiling point, I interviewed an angry young Jewish man, whom I'll call David, in the back of his shop in Paris. He told me of the militias and his words were tough.
"We can't take it anymore," David said. "The government does nothing. I swear, we are ready. If I see something -- if something happens in front of my eyes -- I'm going to lose it. I'm going to do something. You see what's going on? Jews are getting stabbed and they do nothing. It's going to explode here soon."
Clearly, the buzz on the street was that a Jewish militia was forming, yet today, all the leaders of the French Jewish community deny the existence of a militia.
In Jewish chat rooms like www.Feujworld.com (Feuj means Jew backwards in Verlan, the argot of the under-30 generation), the bookstore incident is the only topic of conversation.
"What a bunch of dumbasses -- taking it out on books! These guys should be given to the courts to deal with" said one chat room participant.
Another warned everybody to "watch out for these guys. They're face breakers." But he added, "Soral got what he deserved."
And still another participant was feeling cocky behind his keyboard in cyberspace: "If I had been there, I would have killed that Soral for what he did. I wouldn't have just smashed windows."
What is Feujworld, I asked.
"The center of the world ;) " was the reply. "LOL" (laugh out loud).
Kalthoum S., a Muslim who has rejected her faith for feminist reasons, told me that she thinks it is understandable that there are Jewish militias in France.
"It's fact. There are militias," she said. "Don't you know that? So what? Everyone has a right to defend their own apples. It's all-out war now."
I have conflicting feelings about "l'affaire du bookstore. First, that Soral is a first-class jerk who is himself a bully and deserved to get punched in the nose. Second, that Soral, despite being intellectually repulsive to me, is a jerk who has every right to express his opinions. And lastly, whoever these tough guys were who raided the bookstore, they had no right to beat up people and destroy property.
I'd like to be thrilled about a Jewish militia breaking up the book-signing of an anti-Semite and breaking heads, but I know it's wrong, and the Jewish community knows it's wrong. They're uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish militia. And that's because Jews are people of the Book -- people of the law. And a militia is by definition extralegal.
Militias are really just vigilantes. The problem is that it's only when Jews become vigilantes and stand up for themselves and fight back that anti-Semites suddenly develop a distaste for vigilantism. How many of these aggrieved anti-Semites would be just as enraged if the situation were a little different?
Imagine the incident in another way. Imagine a white racist writer signing books for his followers at a Barnes and Noble in Los Angeles. Imagine him saying the same things about African Americans that Soral said about Jews -- that their history, black history, for hundreds of years was to always blame others for their problems; that blacks are not capable of autocriticism. Just take Soral's own words and replace the word "Jew" with the word "black":
"If you tell a black man, a militant black, that maybe some of your problems come from you, that maybe you've made some mistakes, it's not systematically everybody else's fault if no one can stand you anywhere you go, because really, that's their history [the blacks] for the last 2,500 years. Everywhere they put their feet in, they get kicked out after 50 years -- you have to admit, it's bizarre; everybody's always wrong except for them."
You have to admit it sounds ugly. And what would you make of his racist fans, who line up for his autographed book?
I wouldn't be surprised if there were a riot. And if there were a riot, who would feel sorry for a bunch of racists who got smacked around a bit? Who would be defending this guy's right to his opinions? I'll tell you who: the Ku Klux Klan and maybe a lawyer from the ACLU -- probably a Jew.
I can understand why some people are gladdened by rumors of a Jewish militia in Paris. After years of government inaction in response to stabbings, synagogues being destroyed, tombs desecrated and Jewish women and children being beaten up, Jews are fighting back.
I just wish that they would use their muscle to protect a synagogue or an elementary school, not to break the law and storm a bookstore. Israel Vaincra is a good idea, but this is not the way to achieve it.
Carole Raphaelle Davis lives in Los Angeles and Nice, France. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.