In optics, the interaction of atoms with the magnetic field of light is almost always ignored since its strength is many orders of magnitude weaker compared to the interaction with the electric field. By using a magnetic-dipole transition within the 4f shell of europium ions, we show a strong interaction between a green laser and an ensemble of atomic ions. The electrons move coherently between the ground and excited ionic levels (Rabi flopping) by interacting with the magnetic field of the laser. By measuring the Rabi flopping frequency as the laser intensity is varied, we report the first direct measurement of a magnetic-dipole matrix element in the optical region of the spectrum. Using density-matrix simulations of the ensemble, we infer the generation of coherent magnetization with magnitude 5.5 x 10^-3 A/m, which is capable of generating left-handed electromagnetic waves of intensity 1 nW/cm^2. These results open up the prospect of constructing left-handed materials using sharp transitions of atoms.