Was French Jew’s torture, murder a hate crime?

BY BRETT KLINE, JTA

PARIS, March 7 (JTA) — While Jews here are agonizing over the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, some French remain convinced that the barbaric crime was not anti-Semitic. The kidnapping and murder has been declared an anti-Semitic act by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, but also a violent crime whose motive was money.

CRIF, the Jewish representative council, led efforts to encourage the government to declare the case an anti-Semitic one, with CRIF President Roger Cukierman meeting with police and ministers regularly.

“People do not know what to do with such violence,” said Dr. Bernard Kanovitch, a cardiologist and CRIF official. “This is an unheard of situation in post-World War II France, and the country is destabilized.”

He said that Jewish community officials had said and done everything they had to.

“We have nothing more to add to this case,” Kanovitch said. “I think we have to let justice run its course now.”

Sarkozy increased security measures in the community following three more anti-Semitic attacks in a Parisian suburb over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, a local rabbi’s 17-year-old son was attacked by two men near the synagogue, and suffered a broken nose. Also on Friday afternoon, an 18-year-old man was attacked by a group of five men, who insulted him and stole his cell phone.

On Saturday night, a 28-year-old man wearing a kipah was verbally and physically abused by four men and suffered a dislocated shoulder, according to police sources. The culprits were found and placed in police custody.

But those incidents haven’t received as much national media focus as the grisly murder of Halimi.

Since Halimi, 23, was found agonizing in a suburban train station Feb. 13 and died on the way to the hospital, the affair has been the talk of France, often in very critical terms.

Suspects reportedly told police they tried to kidnap Jews because “all Jews are rich,” and they put cigarettes out on Halimi’s face because “he was Jewish and we don’t like Jews.”

“The fact that the suspects said that all Jews are rich does not mean a thing,” said Sylvain Francois, a video editor at French television. “According to what we know now, I don’t think it was anti-Semitic. It was cheap, violent crime.”

“This was more an idiotic act than an anti-Semitic one,” commented Gerard LeMoelle, a French television journalist. “This is not classic anti-Semitism of the extreme right or the extreme left as we know it here in France, so it can’t be anti-Semitic.”

“This crime is so over the top that the French are unable to see it as anti-Semitic,” said Terence Kenny, a champagne export director originally from New York, who lives in a small town about two hours east of Paris. “Nobody wants to believe that this can be going on here, but I really don’t think you can call the French anti-Semitic for being in denial.”

Kenny said that Jews and anti-Semitism are not a usual subject of conversation in small-town France, but “once you begin explaining this, people agree that it is anti-Semitic.”

Halimi was lured on a date with a girl who came to the cell phone store where he worked, and was then kidnapped and tortured for three weeks by a gang of young people called the “Barbarians” by the French press.

The alleged leader of the gang, Youssouf Fofana, has been extradited from the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where his parents were born. Most but not all of the suspects arrested by police are of Arab North African or black African Muslim origin.

Many Arabs born in France agree that the crime is anti-Semitic.

Saida Elidrissi, an assistant bank manager of Muslim Moroccan origin, said the notion that all Jews are rich is false and is racist.

“If you replace the word Jewish with the word Arab, for me it would be clearly anti-Arab, so this is clearly anti-Semitic,” she said.

“When the alleged leader was interviewed in Ivory Coast, it struck me how calm and relaxed he was,” Elidrissi said. “He must be a real monster, so this is also a sick crime.”

Others used much stronger words.

“The French are cowards,” said Yacine Dahmani, a technician of Muslim Algerian origin, born in the heavily North African Jewish and Arab district of Belleville in Paris. “These guys are anti-Semitic animals. The reactions of some French have disgusted me.”

He said the crime clearly was anti-Semitic.

“The young people of North African and African origins born in the suburban housing projects live in cliches,” he said. “They really believe that Jews are all rich. Many of those young people are ignorant and live literally outside of society, but the French don’t want to deal with any of this.”

The case has brought out anger and frustration in some French people, heightening the sense of racial divide between some Gaullic French and French Muslims.

“These people are sick, and we French simply don’t want to deal with this,” said Chiapardelli Berengere, a city housing employee. “Our society is changing. These people are not French like I am French. The situation makes me angry.”

“There is little that Jews can do to deal with this French attitude,” of anger and indifference, said Meir Waintrater, editor in chief of L’Arche, a widely read French-language Jewish monthly. “People cannot feel that the official response is coming from pressure from the organized Jewish community,” he said. “So for now, we have to sit back and let justice run its course.”

Others in the Jewish community are fed up.

“You can turn this around anyway you want, but the bottom line is that most French people do not give a damn,” said Michael Sebban, an author and high school philosophy teacher in a tough northern suburb of Paris.

“I know first-hand how ignorant some of the North African suburban kids are and how much they hate Jews,” Sebban said, “but I also know that my educated Arab friends know exactly what is going on. They know that most French people just don’t give a damn about Jews or Arabs.”

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