France’s Fighting Jews

Jul 23, 2014 at 11:48 AM ET

The recent conflict between Israel and Palestine incited a slew of global protests, many of them condemning Israel for its attacks on the Gaza Strip. Violent demonstrations in and outside Paris caught the world’s attention. Pro-Palestinian protesters turned from peacefully chanting, to hurling stones and bottles at riot police and throwing smoke bombs in the streets. People shouting “Death to Jews” targeted Jewish-owned shops and places of worship, attacking one synagogue and setting a kosher grocery store ablaze.

These acts of aggression against Jews in France appear to be part of a growing trend—rather than something sparked specifically by Israel’s ecent incursion. According to the French Interior Ministry, anti-Semitic incidents have increased 40 percent during the first three months of 2014. And in a country where a whopping 37 percent of the population harbors anti-Semitic attitudes, one Jewish youth group, Betar France, has started to fight back.

At its core, the 90-year-old youth Zionist movement called Betar aims at empowering and promoting leadership within young Jewish communities. But with an increased number of Jews falling victim to anti-Semitic assaults on the streets of France, the Parisian sect of Betar resumed training five months ago in Krav Maga—a martial art used by the Israeli Defense Forces.

In a hardwood-floored attic, leader Yair teaches Betar France members proper Krav Magna techniques. Upwards of 20 young Jewish men crowd the room. Israeli flags and skeleton-printed ski masks conceal the mens’ faces as they perfect their punches in preparation for any anti-Jewish aggression that may occur. During practice, Yair also plays the role of a motivational speaker, encouraging his men to fight the “Nazi-Islamists.”

Vocativ went to Betar France’s training facility to meet these men who militantly defend their people from anti-Semitic assaults. “Our goal is to stop this image of the puny Jew who lowers his head. It is all over. Today we raise our heads, we are defiant, we fight, we break, it is over, we are done,” Yair tells Vocativ.

According to Yakov, a 16-year-old member of the group, Betar serves to avenge those who cannot fight back. “When young Jews get attacked, you have to reply with violence,” he says. “That’s why we are here. It is Jewish Justice.”

But it is not only young Jews who are being attacked. David Krawczyk, an older Jewish man, was leaving a restaurant in Paris when he was bludgeoned by an anti-Semite. “I left the restaurant and took the metro,” he says. “I felt someone following me. They shoved me against this wall. They hit my face, my nose [was] broken. Then someone took something out of his pocket. I thought it was a knife; it was a marker. He drew a Nazi cross on my chest and screamed, ‘Filthy Jew!’”

As the situation in Gaza continues to escalate, Betar France joins the protests in support of Israel. At a recent demonstration, they chanted “Islamists! Assasins!” as they went to break into the Palestinian Mission. Riot police prevented them from doing so.

Despite Betar France’s best efforts to eradicate the country’s growing anti-Semitic issue, about 5,000 French Jews are expected to immigrate to Israel this year. It is the largest exodus of French Jews in 44 years.