Inside French Jewry’s Israeli ‘Fight Club’ (VIDEO)
Over 30 young French Jews are in Israel to learn Krav Maga self-defense techniques, to be able to protect their embattled enclaves back home against antisemitic and anti-Israel attackers, Israel’s NRG News reported over the weekend.
At a sports hall in Ra’anana, instructor Avi Sidon, the director of “Israeli Krav Magen,” and among the most senior Krav Maga instructors in the country, shouts instructions in Hebrew to the group standing in a semicircle, fake knives in their hands.
The young men and women don’t necessarily understand the quickly snapped out words in a foreign language, but the tone is clear. “Stand in line,” “Attack!” “This is the moment to strike!” Sidon yells and the students immediately make their moves. They are here, specifically, to learn how to give more than they get from potential hostile attackers in France, and have no intention of returning home without leaning all they can in the crash course.
The class is part of a new program called “Shield,” founded and operated by the World Betar movement as part of the Jewish Agency’s “Masa” five-month study program. The goal is simple: to help the Jews of France defend themselves. In recent years, anti-Semitic harassment, incidents, attacks, and terrorist murders have skyrocketed, and the trainees want to be prepared.
“I came to Israel when I was young, but I came back to France,” says 30-year-old Jonathan Peres of Paris. The oldest in the group, Peres also has the greatest experience in combat and self-defense in France. He is muscular, tough, and looks the part: he has served as a fitness and Krav Maga trainer for Jewish Defense League (JDL) members, and now serves as a senior figure within the organization.
The JDL has a reputation for taking the fight – literally – to those it perceives as a threat to local Jewish communities, in France, elsewhere in Europe, and in the US.
“Anti-Semitism in France is increasing,” he says. “We have a lot of problems, and not only with the Arabs.”
Question: So the solution is to come to Israel to learn self-defense here?
Peres: “The Jews in France should, in my opinion, be strong and know how to protect the public in the synagogues and family and friends. Worshipers need to learn how to behave in the face of this threat, and, yes, to know how to respond. And sometimes the answer is to hit. There are many French people who want to come to Israel and learn Krav Maga. Some will return to France at the end of the process to protect their communities, while others remain in the country to train in the army or in private,” Peres said.
While Peres talks, behind him men and women practice defensive exercises against a terrorist attack on a synagogue. The men are dressed in sports clothes, some with shaved heads and beards, while the girls wear paramilitary uniforms.
Q: If the situation in France is so bad, why don’t the Jews just get up and make Aliyah (emigrate to Israel)?
Peres: “Because they live well there. There have good jobs and make a good living. In general, I think, there will always be Jews in France, even in 50 years, but there may be a lot less, they will be a kind of cloistered group. Unfortunately, it seems to me that in 50 years half of France will be completely Muslim.”
Q: You, personally, are a JDL member, ready to violently take on Muslims in order to protect the Jewish community. How popular are you in your community?
Peres: “I was the JDL trainer for three years, and appeared in a [tv] investigative feature on Channel 2 in Israel. Unfortunately we had to deal with many events, and anti-Semites such as Dieudonne (the French comedian who invented the “quenelle” salute, now banned in France for its Nazi connotations). There are scores of anti-Semitic incidents in France and they want to protect themselves, they want to live and walk with their heads held high with pride, they want to be ‘tough guys’ and not give in. I’m one of them, we do not want to allow anti-Semitism to overwhelm us. That’s why we’ve prepared training sessions for those who want to join us.”
Peres: “The problem is that there are so many types of views in the Jewish community. There are left-wingers, right-wingers, religious, as well as those who do not respect religion. The JDL came from members of right-wing groups in the Jewish community, people who want to practice and become stronger, and – what can you do – sometimes that includes giving someone a beating, but this is not the main goal, but rather to be strong and protect family and friends.”
Q: JDL members do illegal things.
Peres: “True, but if the police and the government don’t do their job properly, what can we do?”
Q: There were also cases in which you have physically attacked Muslims, who didn’t fight back. That’s not just defense.
Peres: “Yes. There were such incidents. There have always been and always will be. What can I say.”
In the last 12 months, roughly, immigration figures show the largest ever wave of immigration from France: more than 6,000 Jews. And that number may rise to as much as ten thousand new Israelis from France, annually.
According to the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) and based on French Interior Ministry data, the rise is due to the large increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France, which nearly doubled this year compared to last year. According to CRIF, by July of 2014, there were 529 incidents, including assaults, threats, arson and vandalism, compared to 276 such incidents in the previous year.
During this summer’s Operation “Protective Edge” to halt rocket fire and attack tunnels from Gaza, protests raged against Israel in numerous European countries, including France. Sometimes these demonstrations also spilled over into violence against Jews, destruction of Jewish businesses and the siege of a synagogue in Paris.
“Fortunately the situation is better at the [French] government and institutional level,” according to Ya’akov Hagoel.
Hagoel is the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency’s point-man responsible for combating anti-Semitism.
“Since the attack at the school in Toulouse a few years ago, the French government has taken the situation in hand on legislation and enforcement. They are taking very serious measures to eradicate anti-Semitism,” he said.
He cites the example of the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, who “received orders to halt performances. In the past this has not happened in France.” He added that, while “It does not mean that there is no anti-Semitism – it is very strong. But it’s what the government can do to mitigate the slippery slope in this context.”
Jonathan Lake, 21, of Paris, is one of the few in the group wearing a yarmulke during their training, which take place in the gymnasium of the absorption center in Ra’anana. Lake was raised and educated in the “Otzar Torah” school in Paris, one facet of a network of private Jewish religious schools.
In March 2012, at a school belonging to the network in Toulouse, Algerian-born Mohammed Merah murdered seven people, including three Jewish children at the school.
“I grew up in a very heterogeneous neighborhood, with Jews, Muslims, and Africans,” as neighbors, Lake said. “In recent years, the neighborhood has become less comfortable, because there are many anti-Semitic incidents.” He speaks French, and some Hebrew, but admits he feels more comfortable speaking in his mother tongue.
Q: Why are you here?
Lake: “I am a Zionist, and that’s why I came to Israel. I want to realize the Zionist dream.”
Q: Did you experience of anti-Semitism in France?
Lake: “I was never attacked personally, but at the school I attended, they threw stones at the windows. In parallel, when we go around in groups, they always curse us.”
Some of the group refuse to be photographed, and with good reason. Off the record, they say they would not want their photos to be recognized by Muslim activists in France. They reveal that they have fictitious Facebook profiles, designed to safely keep in touch with home and family.
“The Islamists are following us,” they say, and note some of their cover profiles on the popular social networking group. Sometimes the names are based on action films such as James Bond. Others take on the personae of underground leaders in the Zionist pre-state era.
One of those who wished not to be exposed is Sonny (19), who lives in a suburb of Paris. His head is shaved and he grew a beard, a bit reminiscent of Muslim ISIS members.
“The atmosphere is very tense in France,” Sonny said. “Not all of us have come under attack, but there are many anti-Semitic attacks. In my case, I’m the only Jew in my suburb. That’s why I’m here, to learn Krav Maga at a high level.”
Watch a clip of the training sessions: