LDJ Jewish Defence League France
France's Jewish Defence League is said to count on up to 400 members.liguedefensejuive.com

The turmoil caused in France by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza has thrown the spotlight on a militant Jewish movement that has been accused of provoking communal violence in several incidents.

The French government said it was considering outlawing the Jewish Defence League (LDJ), which rose to national attention in July when a pro-Palestinian protest turned violent in Paris.

On 13 July, clashes erupted near a synagogue in the central Rue de la Roquette on the side-lines of demonstration against Israel's military operation in Gaza.

A few hundred worshippers were reportedly trapped inside the religious site, which is located more than 500m away from Place de la Bastille - the pro-Palestinian rally's ending spot - as troublemakers tried to attack the premises and were confronted by police.

Video footage later uploaded online, however, showed that moments before the clashes erupted dozens of pro-Israel youths, armed with chairs and batons, moved towards the pro-Palestinians yelling slogans and allegedly luring them into a confrontation.

As the pro-Gaza protesters charged, anti-riot police intervened, stepping in between the two groups.

The Ligue Defence Juive

The "provocateurs" were said to be members of the LDJ, a self-defence group styled after the controversial US movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in the 1960s, with the purported goal of protecting Jews from anti-Semitism.

In the US the organisation was eventually deemed a right-wing terrorist group by the FBI in 2001, after two members were arrested over a plot to attack a mosque in California.

Its Israeli sister movements, the virulently racist Kach and Kahane Chai, were also banned.

After the clashes in Rue de la Roquette, the presence of LDJ members in France was also reported at other sites where communal tensions fuelled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted in violence.

In the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles a small group of vigilantes patrolled the local synagogue cordoning it off from an angry mob of anti-Israel demonstrators who threatened to storm the building after attacking several Jewish-owned stores in town.

The LDJ - which is believed to count on up to 400 members in France - has also been accused of carrying out what in Israel are known as price-tag attacks, retaliatory strikes against non-Jews or their property.

France's Collective against Islamophobia reported that a mosque in the southern city of Marseille was defaced by alleged LDJ members who sprayed the words: "Israel will live - LDJ watches" and a Star of David on the outside wall.

A photo was posted on Twitter by the collective's spokesperson Elsa Ray.

Opposition and support

French left-wing politicians and Muslim groups have thus called for the LDJ to be banned, saying it promotes violence and racism.

Lawmaker Jean-Jacques Candelier said the LDJ was a "criminal organisation" and described its members as "barbarians".

He was echoed by Abdallah Zekri, the chairman of France's Observatory against Islamophobia, who accused the LDJ of being an "extremist, racist group" and urged authorities to outlaw it.

On the other hand, the group surprisingly won the backing of France's mainstream far-right Front National party, whose members - and in particular its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen - have often been accused of anti-Semitism.

"If there is a Jewish Defence League it is because there is a large number of Jews who feel insecure," Le Pen's daughter Marine, the current leader of FN, told RTL radio. "They feel that a new anti-Semitism is mounting in France and that it has resulted in communal confrontations."

Le Pen's remark was arguably a political attack on the socialist government's security policy, which she claims is too relaxed.

Nevertheless her view seemed to be shared by many members of Jewish community, who justify the existence of the muscular vigilante group by citing a rise in anti-Semitism.

"They do well," Jeremy Timsit, a restaurant owner in Sarcelles, told IBTimes UK. "It is a group that protects people who are weak. Today [in France] we need to defend ourselves and take things in hand."

Security has become a primary concern for the French Jewish community, particularly after a 2012 shooting, in which four Jews - including three children - and three soldiers were killed by 23-year-old French Islamist Mohamed Merah in Toulouse.

"Those children were killed because they were Jewish," Elie Korchia, the vice-president of the Israelite Central Consistory of France, told IBTimes UK at a large rally in support of Israel in central Paris last week.

The demonstration itself was held under tight security. Hundreds of police officers were deployed and were assisted by young men with portable radios who were said to be part of the demonstration security service.

They checked documents and controlled who was getting into the restricted area in front of the Israeli embassy where the gathering was held.

They all denied being LDJ member and, although none wanted to say what group they were from - with one claiming it was a secret organisation - they were most likely members of the Protection Service of the Jewish Community, a security body affiliated to the French Jewish association umbrella group known as CRIF (Council of French Jewish Institutions).

Hours before the demonstration, France's Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve hinted that the government could take action against the LDJ, saying that all "groups that can be the cause of troubles" will be banned.

Korchia dismissed the controversy by saying the LDJ was a non-problem that was being used to attack the Jewish community, portraying all its members as extremists.

"It's a group of a few dozen people that do not represent the Jewish community," he said.

"Those who criticise the LDJ are trying to broadcast the idea that there are extremists on both sides. But the reality is that today, extremists who smash stores and attack police are not among the Jewish community."