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French Jews Asking Again — Are We Safe?
Gabrielle Birkner
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
March 3, 2006

New York’s French Consul General Francois Delattre attempted to reassure American Jewish leaders Tuesday that France was committed to eradicating the “black shadow of anti-Semitism,” in the wake of the shocking murder of a young French Jew who was abducted for ransom.

“You can trust my government, you can trust my authorities, you can trust my country” to aggressively combat anti-Semitism, Delattre told Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders, who met in New York to show solidarity with their French counterparts.

Despite such assurances, the kidnapping and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi has jolted France’s already uneasy Jewish community — still reeling from the wave of anti-Semitic attacks that coincided with the second intifada — and reignited the debate over whether or not France is a safe place for its 600,000 Jews.

Halimi, a cell phone salesman, had very modest means but his kidnappers assumed he was wealthy because he was Jewish, according to French police.

“Whenever there is an anti-Semitic act, we ask the same questions: Are we secure in France? Is the government protecting us? Are the police protecting us?” Benjamin Abtan, president of France’s powerful Jewish student union, UEJF, told The Jewish Week by phone from Paris.

“Over the next few weeks we’ll be asking those questions again, but for now we just can’t believe what happened,” Abtan said. “The cruelty is so huge that people are just paralyzed by it.”

Halimi, apparently lured by a young woman, was abducted on Jan. 21, and held and tortured for three weeks in the Paris suburb of Bagneux. He was found naked, handcuffed and covered with burns and stab wounds on Feb. 13, and died en route to the hospital.

His murder marks the first time since World War II that a person in France was killed for being Jewish, according to France’s Jewish umbrella group, CRIF.

“This could have happened to anyone,” said Isaac Barchichat, a native of the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, and a senior at Yeshiva University. “It makes me think, ‘How should I behave when I go home?’”

He added: “We cannot afford to have such horrible things happen in France. It’s not Iran or Iraq, and it’s not Morocco. It’s not supposed to be somewhere people are afraid to go. France is a nice country, a beautiful country, but for Jews, life is getting more complicated.”

In the days following Halimi’s death, French police contended that the kidnapping was predicated on greed, not anti-Semitism, but prosecutors last week said the Halimi case would be regarded as a hate crime. Under France’s Lellouche Act, passed in 2002, perpetrators of crimes deemed racist or anti-Semitic face stiffer sentencing guidelines.

“The truth is that these hoodlums, first of all, acted for villainous and sordid reasons, money, but they had the belief, and I quote, ‘that Jews have money’ and that even if those they kidnapped did not, the community would rally round” said Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking before the National Assembly.

Sarkozy also said that since December, the gang suspected of abducting Halimi tried to kidnap six other people, four of them Jewish.

Still some Jewish leaders insist that the murder had more to do with stereotyping than with Jew hatred.

“It’s not clear that this was an anti-Semitic incident,” said Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress. “There are anti-Semitic components, but the intention was money, and they identified [Halimi] as a target because they assumed Jews had money. I think one ought to differentiate this from killing a Jew just because he is a Jew.”

On Tuesday, Delattre said that there should be no distinction because anti-Semitism has “no tiers.”

He cited the passage of the Lellouche Act; the 47 percent drop in the number of anti-Semitic incidents between 2004 and 2005; and the government’s “expedient, proactive, and unanimous” response to Halimi’s murder, as proof that France is serious about stamping out anti-Semitism.

The ambassador, who is scheduled to speak Thursday at an Anti-Defamation League-sponsored memorial gathering for Halimi, also said that 11 of the 13 suspected Halimi case are in police custody, and that France has requested the extradition of the alleged ringleader, Youssouf Fofana, who fled to the Ivory Coast.

In addition, the French education ministry advanced plans for a high school anti-bias curriculum, according to the Israeli daily, Haaretz. As part of the project, 400,000 students in and around Paris will study 30 words and phrases related to anti-Semitism, racism, democracy, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The curriculum, called “30 words for mutual understanding” — Jewish, Muslim, immigrant, and political youth groups helped compile the words — was initiated by Hachomer Hatzair France, a Labor Zionist youth movement, and the Jewish Agency Education Department, Haaretz reported.

Many Jewish leaders who derided the government for what they saw as an inadequate response to the intifada-related crimes said they were satisfied with the administration’s actions in the wake of the Halimi murder.

When tens of thousands of Parisians took to the streets Sunday to protest the murder, some Jewish demonstrators sang the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise” and waved the republic’s tricolor flag. Many rally-goers chanted “France united against barbarism” and “Today Ilan, tomorrow what?” stopping briefly to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in front of the store where Halimi worked.

American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris, who traveled to Paris last week, called the Halimi murder a “watershed event in terms of consciousness raising,” and hailed the French government’s strong reaction.

“This time the French government should be seen not as part of the problem but as part of the solution,” Harris said. “Today a growing number of French citizens — not just French Jews — understand that this poses a threat to French society and not just to French Jews. It poses a threat to fundamental French values, and this is a major difference from 2000 and 2001. It was seen then as localized and as a result of Arab-Israeli issues spilling over.”

Still, CRIF President Roger Cukierman, speaking via telephone with the Jewish leaders who gathered Tuesday, said that while government ministers, political party chairmen, union chiefs and religious leaders were well represented at the Paris rally, he would have liked to see more non-Jewish citizens at the event.

“We want every French citizen to know that this kind of prejudice may bring about tragedy,” he said. “I hope all teachers, parents and judges … will now understand that being anti-Semitic is not an opinion — it’s a crime. It’s a crime against humanity.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations sponsored Tuesday’s gathering. Conference Chairman Harold Tanner and Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman attended the meeting, as did executives and lay leaders from other groups including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“When a Jew dies in France, it’s one of our brothers,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chair of the Conference of Presidents. “It’s our loss too.”

Hoenlein said that following last fall’s riots by poor and disenfranchised French youth, and the violent uprisings throughout Europe over cartoon depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Halimi’s murder “definitely adds fuel to the discussion” about whether Europe in general, and France in particular, is safe for Jews long-term.