July 5, 2017 | Commentary Magazine
A Victim of the Hate That Won’t Be Named
Co-written by Ben Cohen.
Back in 2002, the serving president of France, Jacques Chirac, huffily told an interviewer from the New York Times, “To imagine that France, the very first country to recognize the rights of Jews, could be anti-Semitic is propaganda, not reality.”
Fifteen years later and after dozens of attacks on Jews ranging from street violence to kidnapping to a terrorist massacre at an elementary school, much of France, on the right and left, still clings to Chirac’s brazen denial that the country has a problem with anti-Semitism. That’s particularly true when it comes to the approximately 7 million Muslims living there.
That disdainful attitude—that refusal to recognize and name the violent anti-Semitism that is being actively cultivated in French Muslim communities—isn’t just confined to politics and media. It’s impacting law enforcement as well.
Case in point: the murder of Sarah Halimi, a 66-year-old orthodox Jewish widow who lived alone in an apartment in the gloomy Paris neighborhood of Belleville.
By all accounts, Halimi, a doctor and kindergarten teacher, was a much-loved figure in the Parisian Jewish community. Her children had left the modest family home, but Halimi chose to stay in Belleville. One day, Halimi’s daughter, on a visit to her mother, passed a neighbor who hissed at her, “Dirty Jewess!” Her mother confirmed that she knew the neighbor and was frightened of him.
That neighbor was Kobili Traore, a Malian immigrant in his late 20s. He was reputedly a drug dealer and drug user seeking some form of salvation in Islam.
In the early hours of April 4, Traore broke into Dr. Halimi’s apartment. Once inside, he proceeded to beat the elderly lady with sadistic ferocity. Hearing Dr. Halimi’s screams, neighbors alerted the police, who arrived to hear Traore bellowing “Allah!” and “Shaitan!” (Satan) on the other side of the door. Fearing an Islamist terror attack was in the works, the cops radioed for back-up.
By the time anti-terror units arrived, more than two hours after Dr. Halimi’s unspeakable ordeal began, she was dead. Her bloodied and fractured body was thrown from the window of her third-floor apartment.
Traore has no record of mental illness. He is known to have harassed Halimi and her relatives. His killing of Halimi bore all the fervor of a jihadi attack. And yet this monstrous attack is not being treated as a hate crime. As of now, if Traore goes on trial, it will be on a charge of voluntary manslaughter, mitigated by the mental health problems from which his lawyers claim he suffers.
There was no public outcry for many reasons, but perhaps the most important one is that Dr. Halimi was tortured and murdered at a rather inconvenient time: The climax of the French presidential elections and the widespread fear in much of the French media that Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front would emerge victorious.
With these political circumstances as cover, this shameful story was discreetly buried by French editors. They fretted that doing otherwise would boost Le Pen’s electoral prospects. The police carried on investigating an act of lunacy and not a savage crime motivated by the eternal Islamist hatred of the Jewish people.
Only after Le Pen’s defeat at the hands of Emmanuel Macron did Halimi’s murder—and the motive behind it—start receiving wider attention. Said William Attal, Halimi’s brother, “I have waited seven weeks before I said anything. The absolute silence about my sister’s murder has become intolerable.”
If Sarah Halimi is to receive justice, then her murder must be tried as a hate crime. Anything else would be a mockery.
But if France is to finally overcome its unsettling silence around anti-Semitism—broken occasionally by Chirac-esque denials that there is a meaningful problem in the first place—it has to first accept that many of its leaders and opinion-formers are responsible for maintaining it.
Last month, the publicly-funded Franco-German broadcaster Arte/WDR canned the screening of a major documentary on anti-Semitism, which carried endorsements from many of Germany’s leading experts on the same Islamist ideology that continues to explode in European cities. Bosses at Arte/WDR blamed the film’s producers for not conforming to an agreed mandate, but that was code for their evident discomfort at the film’s focus: the fusion of crude anti-Semitism with Islamist ideology that is creeping through Muslim neighborhoods across Europe. The scale of the problem was laid bare in a recent study showing that 40 percent of Germans hold anti-Semitic views about Israel’s right to exist
Following widespread protests in Germany against the cancellation, the documentary was eventually shown, but only in Germany. The French continue to refuse to screen the film.
Can one speak of censorship in a democracy? Perhaps it’s more comforting to describe Arte/WDR’s decision as reflecting a type of group-think about anti-Semitism in Europe which holds, in essence, that what you see right before you isn’t really there.
As a result, millions of Europeans remain genuinely flummoxed as to how their Muslim fellow-citizens can tolerate such deadly anti-Semitism in their midst even when they are often victims of racism and intolerance.
Meanwhile, the kindly Dr. Halimi lies dead. Most cruelly of all, no one will dare explain why.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal.