The highest echelons of the French government -- led by President Jacques Chirac and Premier Dominique DeVillepin -- went out of their way Thursday night to express sympathy and solidarity with their country's Jews, following the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi. Their attendance of memorial services at Paris's Victoire Synagogue for the 23-year-old victim constituted the most unequivocal and authoritative admission that Halimi fell prey to a horrid hate crime.
The knee-jerk inclination of French officialdom, however, was refusal to categorize this as an anti-Semitic homicide. Initially there even was reluctance to note the Jewish identity of the victim.
The discovery of the dying Halimi near rail tracks in the Paris suburb of St. Genevieve on February 13 sent shock waves throughout France. The cell phone salesman was found handcuffed, gagged, battered, slashed and with burns over most of his naked body. He had obviously been tortured to death.
The interrogation of the since-apprehended gang, which abducted and then for three weeks held Halimi for ransom -- before, as French police report, dousing him with flammable liquid and setting him alight -- indicated that greed wasn't the sole motive.
A pretty young woman lured Halimi from the store in which he was employed. He was kept naked, bound and hooded, subjected throughout to gruesome torments. The kidnappers, who demanded ransom, were told that the family was far from wealthy. They replied that funds be elicited "from the synagogue," because "all Jews are rich." The French-Arab and African-Muslim ringleaders also recited verses from the Koran in their communications with the family.
French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that the perpetrators "were convinced that 'Jews have money'... That's called anti-Semitism by conflation." He added that four of six persons the same gang attempted to capture were also Jews.
Sarkozy revealed that some suspects possessed extreme Islamic and pro-Palestinian literature and documents. What they confessed to the police further confirmed the apprehension that Halimi was subjected to barbaric abuse because he was a Jew.
The grisly attack came at a time in which some French higher-ups boasted that they had beaten back the anti-Semitic tide that accompanied the 2000 intifada. Indeed the French government oversaw a dramatic drop in anti-Jewish incidents. Reportedly the number of anti-Semitic assaults in France for 2005 is 47% below that of 2004. In this respect the French approach and record is better than that of other European states.
But this clearly isn't the whole story. Physical attacks are only one expression of the distress experienced by French Jews, many of whom live in close proximity to Muslim immigrants (estimated at 12% of the population). Jewish children in public schools are frequently bullied by Arab classmates. It's almost impossible to teach the Holocaust in schools with large Arab/Muslim student bodies.
In certain urban French neighborhoods it's risky for Jews to wear skullcaps. Many French Muslims regard local Jews, their houses of worship and communal institutions fair game in their attempts to wreak vengeance on Israel. This indeed is something for Israelis to ponder. The Jewish state's enemies often consider all Jews legitimate targets, as the 1994 blast in Buenos Aires's AMIA Jewish Community Center (which claimed 86 lives) demonstrated on a tragic scale.
France was late in combating the "collective punishment" meted by some Muslims on their Jewish neighbors. It first turned a blind eye to numerous anti-Semitic outbreaks, insisting that "there is no anti-Semitism in France." Jews were essentially requested not to bother the authorities.
Official downplaying of rampant anti-Semitism between 2000-2003 left deep emotional scars in the Jewish community. The Halimi murder and the initial disinclination to treat it as a hate crime reopened many old wounds. DeVillepin promised "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" about the crime that alarmed France's Jews. He will have to convince them, but not only them.
Anti-Semitism in Paris isn't just an internal French matter. It should concern all of us in the Jewish state. We mustn't be wary of speaking up lest we offend French sensibilities. Ariel Sharon didn't shrink a few years back from calling on French Jews to make aliya. Our government's concern over the Halimi murder should be conveyed directly to the French government at the highest levels, and our solidarity more emphatically shown with the embattled French Jewish community.
Reprinted with permission from the Jerusalem Post.