'Real Jews'

Peter Snowdon, Sunday 14 May 2023

How does Israel defend its interests abroad? In the first of an occasional series, Peter Snowdon in Paris calls round for a cup of coffee and a chat with the young Zionists of the Betar-Tagar

Jabotinsky and Begin
Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the Betar-Tagar Menachem Begin (right), former Betar commander and Israeli prime minister



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 7 May 1998







It wasn't difficult to get in touch with the Betar. I'd imagined that any organisation which went round Paris shouting racist slogans and issuing communiques claiming responsibility for beating up Arabs must be relatively low profile, if not completely underground. Of course, the Front National do that kind of thing, and they're in the phone book. But they do it on behalf of the French people. The Betar do it on behalf of Eretz Israel.


On 27 February, the Betar brought the Middle East "peace process" to the Ile de la Cité in central Paris. As supporters of Roger Garaudy left the court room opposite Notre Dame where sentence had just been handed down on the revisionist philosopher, a crowd of Betarim were waiting for them. Insults were traded, and amid cries of "Dirty Jews" and "Kill the Palestinians", a fight broke out. Several people were injured. Among the victims were two Egyptian journalists, who were attacked a little later as they were making their way to a nearby Metro station. 



According to Le Monde, it was the Betar who started it. Hardly the kind of people who are likely to advertise their services in the yellow pages. Yet, as it turned out, nothing could have been easier than to contact them and arrange a meeting. I rang the Consistory -- the governing body of French Judaism -- and explained my problem to Yitzhak in the Press Department. 



Of course, he cried, but of course he could put me in touch with the Betar. I wondered aloud if they were a marginal group. "Mais non, mais non!" he replied, as if shocked by the idea that a Jewish group could be marginal. "They have an office. I will give you their telephone number. You can go and see them. They will make you at home. You will see that they are very fine young people. It is an excellent idea for you to write something about them to correct all the misleading information in the press." I promised I would do my best. "You have heard of the Jewish Defense League?" asked Yitzhak. "Sometimes, my dear sir, it is necessary for Jews to organise and defend themselves, because nobody else will help them."



My Jewish friend, N, had told me something about the Betar approach to self-defence. In his youth, the Betar were famous because they travelled everywhere dressed as if for a golf match. "That way," he explained, "they could always have a few golf clubs with them, without anyone asking any questions." In the 1980s, they specialised in breaking up private parties among Front National supporters. 



Their actions rarely made it into the press, since their adversaries preferred direct reprisal to legal proceedings. Until I spoke to Yitzhak, I hadn't met a single French Jew who had a good word to say for the Betar. But N told me he remembered his younger brother saying, at the time when the FN was just beginning its rise to power, "At least, if things get really bad, there'll always be the guys from the Betar." Today, the FN has more than 15 per cent of the national vote and controls the balance of power in a number of French regions.



The Betar-Tagar have their Paris office on one of the city's less glamorous boulevards, lodged in between a cafe serving spécialités d'Alsace and an Afro-Caribbean hairdresser's. On the main door is a plaque advertising courses in Kinomichi. The Betar really like to be in the thick of it -- as if one diaspora wasn't enough for them, and they have to muscle in on everyone else's as well. The walls of the staircase leading to the first floor were daubed with violently anti-semitic slogans. I knocked on the heavily-armoured door and a young man showed me into a corridor festooned with wiring where the ceiling was in the process of being disemboweled.



I had come to meet Moti. I didn't know what Moti did exactly, and I never discovered his second name. He had been "delegated" by the Jewish Agency, he told me. His office was small, cramped, papers piled high on every available surface, walls covered with maps, postcards, pictures. When it had Moti in it, it was even more cramped. Moti wasn't fat, so much as he was bulky. He seemed constrained by all the papers, the tracts, the furniture, and yet at the same time, he wasn't in revolt against those constraints: he had accepted them. They were part of his bulk, his mass: part of what had to be dealt with.



"Coffee?" said Moti. While he went to fetch it himself from the vending machine in the hall, I looked round at the posters and slogans that filled the room: "Tremble anti-semites", one intoned, "the Tagar is watching you." A small postcard showed a group of Ancient Egyptians in Pharaonic dress whipping a group of slaves on a building site. Underneath were the words: "Ever since then, the Jew has only been free in Israel." A photograph of Netanyahu shaking hands with Arafat was completed by the legend: "Let's get him a portable phone -- just like Yehia Ayache!". I was beginning to feel at home already.



Moti came back with my drink. "I'm sorry," he said, "I just have to send a fax." He leaned back in his chair, and his girth loomed proudly towards the edge of the table, as if daring it to try and push him back within his negotiated limits. I was just wondering what this urgent message might be --instructions to an active unit to mount a raid or spring a trap? -- when Moti turned to me and asked: "Do you know the Musée André Jacquemart?" I had to admit I'd never been. "You really ought to go," said Moti, reproachfully. Running a bomb-detector deftly over an envelope, he ripped it open, removed a handful of brochures, and handed me one. "They've just reopened after restoration," he explained. "One of the finest collections of decorative art in Europe. I'm trying to fix up a guided tour for next Tuesday."



I wasn't sure if this was an invitation or not. But as our interview wore on, and Moti repeatedly broke off explaining his movement's ideology or his view of the peace process to haggle over the price of an air ticket or discuss the arrangements for a dance class, it slowly dawned on me that that's the funny thing about the Betar-Tagar. It isn't a front, an elaborate cover -- a gang of thugs masquerading as an art appreciation association. It's an organisation run by and for people who genuinely believe that a passion for Empire-style furniture and the willingness to give those whom they perceive to be their enemies a good beating are not merely morally compatible, but are, in some sense, equally important social functions.



Doubtless that's how they come to be an official association, part of the Jewish Agency's Education Department and affiliated in France to the Ministry for Youth and Sports. Betar is an acronym which stands for brith Joseph Trumpeldor -- the Joseph Trumpeldor alliance. 



They were founded in 1923 as the youth wing of the Revisionist movement within the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) by Trumpeldor's friend Vladimir Jabotinsky, with whom he had organised the Zion Mule Corp to fight alongside the British at Gallipoli. Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky have quasi-mythic status in Revisionist circles: Trumpeldor, as the First Jew to die for the homeland (he was killed defending the colony of Tel Hai in 1920), Jabotinsky as the man who created the first Jewish army sincethe fall of Massada in 135 -- the Jewish Legion, formed in 1916 to fight with the British against the Turks in Palestine.



The Revisionists sought to "revise" the policies of the WZO, in the sense that they were more clear-sighted than their mainstream rivals about the need for force if the Zionist project was to succeed. They could see that the conventional strategies -- secret diplomacy and large-scale financial facilitation (bribery) -- were unlikely to achieve their ends, since none of the great powers had at that time any real interest in seeing a Jewish state established in Palestine. 



The Zionists would only get their state if they fought for it. Jabotinsky said as much in 1923: "Zionism is a colonising adventure, and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important to speak Hebrew, but unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot."



Whether Jabotinsky really felt the need for guns was unfortunate is unclear. Some time later he told an American journalist: "Revisionism is naive, brutal and primitive. It is savage. You go out into the street and pick any man -- a Chinaman -- and ask him what he wants and he will say one hundred per cent of everything. That's us. We want a Jewish Empire. Just like there is the Italian or French on the Mediterranean, we want a Jewish Empire."



I guess Moti knew all this, but he wasn't volunteering any of it when we met. He was very strong on all the mythic stuff, though. He quoted Jabotinsky to me at some length on the importance of keeping Zionism 'pure'. I'm not sure quite what 'pure' means in this context, though for Moti it seemed to imply the nobility of what he was doing. 



Speaking of Jabotinsky (or of Trumpeldor -- it wasn't always clear who exactly he had in mind), he told me: "He was a new kind of Jew -- not a ghetto Jew, a Jew attachd to his immediate community, but a proud Jew, who learned how to use a gun, and once he had learned, put this skill at the service of his country. He was a descendent of King David -- a poet and a fighter, an officer and a gentleman". But in fact this aristocractic vision of his mission was Jabotinsky's problem, as much as his solution. He saw himself as a Jewish Garibaldi, but he collaborated with Petliura, Mussolini and the Polish Colonels. About the only good thing one can say about him is that he drew the line at Hitler -- which is more than can be said for many of his lieutenants. It was Mussolini's naval academy at Civitavecchia which turned the Betar from just one more impetuous brownshirt gang into the disciplined organisation which would become, in turn, the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang. As one Jewish historian has put it: "He was the liberal-imperialist head on a totalitarian body."



If revisionism is pure, it is in the sense that it is more or less entirely empty of any specifically "Jewish" content -- indeed, of any content at all. It is a complete break with tradition, as Jabotinsky's one-time disciple Arthur Koestler saw. It replaces the Torah and the Midrash with the Kalashnikov and the Smith and Wesson. Once you have your state you can fill it with whatever you like: old French armchairs, Habad rabbis, illegal settlements. 



It is against the diaspora, not because it is all over the place, but because it saps the moral character of "the Jew". Indeed, listening to Moti was like being transported back in time: in his conversation, nations are not inherently complex and self-divided collectivities, but types, to be summed up in a single capitalised figure: "the Jew", "the Arab", "the German". Moti told me: "We say: It isn't normal that an Israeli Jewish mother should send her children to protect a kibbutz in the north, and that a French Jewish mother shouldn't do the same. The Jew of the diaspora isn't and never has been capable of defending a Jewish child who calls out for help." He added, dismissively, as if it was just another example of this kind of generalised incompetence: "We saw that with the six million".



Once I'd got over my initial trepidation, I'd been quite genuinely prepared to like Moti, even if I wasn't prepared to believe everything he said or approve of everything he did. Can a man who devotes his life to introducing adolescents to the pleasures of ormolu and Meissen be all bad? But by the end of the interview, I wanted to pick him up and shake him -- metaphorically, at least. (Literally might have been quite risky.) 



In his hands, the Holocaust is no longer a human tragedy, just a statistic which shows both how seriously Israel ought to be taken, and how careless, how "negative", Jews who deny Israel can become. Just as Zionism has always agreed with other racialist ideologies that there really is a "Jewish problem", so Moti seemed all too happy to blame the diaspora for the Final Solution. But that's always been the Revisionists' problem: they can't wait to eliminate the Jews of the diaspora and replace them with that organic, self-assertive monad, "the Jew". As Jabotinsky himself put it: "Liquidate the diaspora, or the diaspora will liquidate you".



So Moti and his friends are doing their best to create a new race of "proud" Jews in France, and prepare them for emigration to Eretz Israel. They do this through providing low-cost informal education for the children of Jewish families who can't afford the private Jewish schools. Their aim is to develop in their charges "good behaviour, good citizenship and good 'Jewishness'". 



This education, Moti explained, covers a variety of different activities: current affairs and media analysis ("Often, the young person, he is stupid"), games, debates, dancing and singing (in Hebrew), help with homework, and sporting actitivies. I was tempted to ask at what age they began practising their golf. "All our monitors have a monitor's certificate from the French state. That's the great thing about informal education," said Moti, "you can use it to convey any kind of message you want".



I was intrigued by the games. What kind of games do you play, Moti? "We have board games where you have to progress around the map of Israel. Or we take a silhouette of a man, and we say: Write down five things about this man which make him Jewish." That sounded a little racist: wasn't he worried about that? This, it turned out, was Moti's favourite subject:



"What makes someone a Jew? Not wearing the kippa, not respecting kosher and the sabbath. There are many different ways of feeling Jewish. It's not up to me to tell people which is the right way. But to realise one's Judaism, there must be a national value. Here we have nothing to protect us against mixed marriages or anti-semitism, so the Jew has a problem of responsibility." He paused. "Have you heard of Entebbe?"



Yitzhak had asked me the same question the day before. In 1976 a cell of Bader-Meinhoff terrorists with support from a Palestinian splinter group hijacked an Air France flight from Ben Gurion to Paris and diverted it to Entebbe in Uganda. While the rest of the world hesitated, Israel sent a crack special services unit to storm the plane. The only Israeli soldier killed during the operation was Yoni Netanyahu -- the brother of Binyamin.



As Moti told me the story of Entebbe all over again, I began to realise how much for the Revisionists, Netanyahu's election isn't an aberration, but a homecoming -- how for them, even more perhaps than under Menachem Begin (himself a former Betar leader), Israel now finally has the government it deserves. Binyamin Netanyahu's father was Jabotinsky's first political secretary, and Yoni is a hero to the Betarim on a par with their founders -- a modern Jabotinsky, a second Trumpeldor. They've even named the programme they run in Israel to prepare new immigrants for military service after him.



 "The French Jews," said Moti, employing a rare (derogatory) plural, "have never really said thank you to Yoni Netanyahu. He was the first to volunteer [for Entebbe]. As soon as he heard what had happened, he said: 'I don't care what anyone thinks, I have to go and help them.'" Moti looked me straight in the eyes and laughed: "I was almost going to say: That is a real Jew!"



Moti may have laughed, but I don't think he was joking. The real Jew, for the Betar, isn't the most pious or the most ethnically pure: he's the one who is most inhabited by the 'will to Jewishness', and most ready to translate that will into an act of physical force. You can tell a real Jew, not by his skullcap, his features or his diet, but by the notches on the butt of his rifle.



Yet for all their talk about making the aliyah, about emigrating to Israel and defending the kibbutzim of the north, most of the hard-core Betarim end up staying on in France, where at least they can pick on someone smaller than themselves. And when they do go to Israel, they don't like it: they can't stand being in a country that's "overrun" with Arabs (not to mention a large number of "ungrateful" Jews, who would like to make peace with them).



Yoni would have come in handy at the Garaudy trial, that's for sure. But was beating people up and shouting "Death to the Palestinians" really a demonstration of good behaviour, good citizenship, good Jewishness? "I don't have to answer false accusations," said Moti, feigning an Olympian indifference. "There are some young Jews who came. That's all." That's all? "I can't reply to and refute everything that has been said. There were so many people there. But I can tell you that I'm not worried about the people who got beaten up." Really? "I can condemn violence in general." Of course. "But those people were not pure and innocent. They were there to defend Garaudy. They are anti-Semites. If we shouldn't defend ourselves, then the Warsaw uprising was wrong too! I don't like the fact that antisemitism dares come out and appear in public. It should be ashamed, and if it is to be shamed, there has to be a Jewish youth that is proud of what it is, and which condemns all this verbal, intellectual and racist violence."



I began to get the feeling that Moti wasn't very concerned with conceptual nuance. Just as he seemed unwilling to differentiate between people of different races who hate each other and people of different races who fall in love with one another (mixed marriages/anti-Semitism), so he didn't seem to distinguish, other than at the pragmatic level of what might be an appropriate and effective response, between the might of the German army massed on the banks of the Oder and a couple of unarmed Arab journalists trying to catch the Metro back to their hotel.



I tried to steer the conversation back onto firmer ground. Didn't you issue a communique? "When we issue a communique, we say what happened there," Moti huffed: "No one says that it was a guy from the Betar, that it was a Jew who did this or that! All we say is that the negationists were 'corrected'. I suppose it was a Jew -- responding to a racist provocation," he added disingenuously.



So there you have it: the Betar weren't taking responsibility, they were just acting as a kind of volunteer news agency, keeping the world informed. Maybe all those classes in media analysis aren't so good for the Jewish character after all. Surely, if it wasn't the Betar who did this, you should issue a denial? Moti affected a certain world-weariness: "I don't have to react to defamatory statements and false information." He laughed again. "If I had to reply every time that people said the Betar smashed up such and such a place, I'd never leave the office!" I told him I quite understood how irritating that could become.



But what about Palestine and the Palestinians? Have they no place in the Betar's vision for Israel? This, in my opinion, is were things got really nasty. "If I had to answer as one human being to another human being who is called the Palestinian or the Arab," said Moti, weighing each word, "if the person opposite me has a humanist vision, then we can find a solution. But if," and here his voice rose, "if he doesn't have a humanist vision, if he isn't a human being, if he is an anti-Semite -- then I have to find another kind of solution."



Moti didn't tell me what that solution would be; but then, he didn't need to. You can see it unfolding every day, as "the Jewish revolution that is Israel" tightens its grip on Judea and Samaria, and the people who live there are driven out of their homes, stripped of their rights and herded into ghettos, just as surely as the Jews of Warsaw ever were. But that's what happens whenever a people becomes a 'problem' to be 'solved'. And that's the Palestinians' tragedy: to live in a country where a bunch of self-appointed 'humanists' get to decide who is and who isn't fully human.



I thanked Moti for his time, and left. I could have kept on asking questions, but what was the point? Walking slowly back along the boulevard, past the snack bars selling merguez frites, the Indian haberdashers and the Turkish newsstands, I tried to imagine what an Israel run by Moti and his friends would look like: walls of bronze against a hostile world, very cheap flights, very extensive golf courses, flashy European furniture to impress the visitors, the Arab 'servants' discreetly out of sight -- and the wiring hanging out everywhere.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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