Cohen was quick to point out that the Jewish Defense Leauge, contrary to recent media reports, is not banned in Israel or the US, but in fact, has active chapters across the world, including the US, Canada, the UK and France.
“We are active, the authorities are aware of us, and we maintain good relations with them,” he said.
Numerous examples of targeted attacks on pro-Palestinian entities, movements, and demonstrations across France by individuals associating with the JDL validate Cohen’s statements.
Nicolas Shahshahani, manager of La Librarie Resistances, a bookstore located in a quiet neighbourhood of Paris, has been the victim of such aggression. The first attack occurred in December 2006 soon after the store’s opening, when Shahshahani asked two Jewish authors, the late Tanya Reinhart and Aharon Shabtai to speak, both critics of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. Midway through the event, the bookstore was suddenly filled with tear gas, as a group of six masked people wearing helmets, and armed with iron bars entered and raided the store, shouting obscenities at the attendees. “They broke the windows, and I had to go to the hospital to get treatment for the teargas,” Shahshahani told Al Jazeera. “We launched a complaint against the police, but of course there was no investigation.”
In July 2009 the bookstore was targeted once again. Five people, who identified themselves as members of the JDL, poured litres of cooking oil all over the store and its books. “This is just as efficient as fire, if not more, if you want to damage a bookshop,” explained Shahshahani.
That time, however, the perpetrators were taken to court, where they admitted guilt, and were given suspended prison terms plus made to pay civil damages.
In another case, about 20 JDL members assaulted four students from Nanterre University. The attack, in which one student had his facial bones broken, took place within the compounds of the Administrative Court of Paris. Only Anthony Attal, reputed to be head of the group at the time, was charged.
The spokesperson for the Nanterre student association, AGEN, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal attacks, was present when the beating took place. Forced to do their own investigation into the matter, the students presented the police with their evidence. “We had video footage that identified Attal as the perpetrator,” he said, adding that as an association, AGEN - a Palestinian solidarity organisation - was regularly targeted by the JDL.
“When you spend many years attending these demonstrations, you start to recognise the faces of those who turn up and commit acts of aggression and intimidation, and then you see the same faces in court. It’s not difficult to point out who belongs to the JDL,” he said.
The court process to convict Attal was unusual, according to Dominique Cochain, the lawyer representing one of the victims. “The aggressor wasn’t present in the court, neither was his lawyer, and the judge therefore took it upon himself to interrogate the victim for two hours, trying to make the victim say it was a fight rather than an act of aggression,” essentially playing the role of the defence lawyer, she told Al Jazeera.
Since his conviction, Attal has been captured on video at several pro-Palestinian demonstrations, as recently as this summer.
“It gives the signal to others that there is a possibility to continue with this type of aggression, because it is not dealt with harshly,” said Cochain. “In my opinion, there is a certain level of tolerance between the French authorities and this group.”
Cochain, who has been defending victims of these aggressions since 2004, has also been a victim of intimidation. “I’ve been verbally abused and menaced because of the cases I do,” she said. “They’ve called me the ‘devil lawyer’ and taken my photo,” adding that she can identify them by the JDL logos they flash at her.