Murder Trial Puts Focus on French Anti-Semitism

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Niko / Hadj / SIPA

People gather at the entrance of an audience room in a French court to yell at relatives of Youssouf Fofana, who was accused of killing Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man

The murder of Ilan Halimi was an anti-Semitic crime. That fact, with which virtually everyone in France now concurs, was established at the opening of the trial this week in Paris of the self-styled "Gang of Barbarians" charged with kidnapping, torturing and then killing the young Jewish man. And although acknowledging Halimi's death as a hate crime may seem like stating the obvious, it's a far from insignificant detail in a country that has tended to minimize the bias aspect of past violence against Jews.

From the opening moments in the trial of 27 youths accused of involvement in the February 2006 abduction, persecution and murder of Halimi, the anti-Semitic attitude and motivations of alleged gang leader Youssouf Fofana became quite clear. Previously, Fofana had told police he and his cohorts had chosen to kidnap Halimi for ransom because the victim and his family were Jews and therefore, Fofana believed, had to be rich. But once in court, Fofana sought to frame his behavior in jihadist language: after shouting "Allahu akbar" at the court, for example, Fofana gave his name as "Arabs, African, Revolt, Armed, Barbarian, Salafist [the literalist Muslim puritanism whose more violent incarnation is usually associated with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups]." Later, Fofana, 28, appeared to taunt the victim's family by, among other things, giving his date of birth as Feb. 13, 2006, the date of Halimi's death. (See photographs of Nazi Germany's Kristallnacht pogrom.)

None of his 26 co-defendants echoed Fofana's tirades; most have minimized their participation in the kidnapping and torture by telling police investigators that they reluctantly participated for fear of defying the intimidating Fofana. Some also admitted to investigators that Fofana's depictions of Jews as rich exploiters had jibed with the anti-Semitic comments often heard in the racially diverse, economically depressed housing project from which they hailed. Despite the rich-Jew stereotype embraced by many of the accused, the same impoverished milieu from which they came is also home to several large Jewish communities, often founded by Sephardic Jews forced out of France's former North African colonies after independence. These communities have reported mounting tension with their black and Arab neighbors in recent years.

At the time of Halimi's death, many commentators — and, initially, even the French police — declined to see Halimi's abduction and murder as an anti-Semitic crime. Instead, they explained it as a naive ransom attempt by plotters whose motivation was financial gain, even if their social milieu and limited education had led them to accept grotesque racist stereotypes of Jews. No one is offering such rationalizations any longer.

"Ilan Halimi was targeted because he was a Jew and because his tormentors believed he had to be rich and deserved what was coming to him," says Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of France's Jewish Institutions. "This gang attempted kidnapping two people before Ilan Halimi — both Jews. They were not dissuaded upon realizing Ilan worked in a mobile-phone store, didn't earn much and came from a modest family that couldn't be rich. To them, he was a Jew, so he was victimized."

"If this crime wasn't anti-Semitic, what crime is?" agreed Laurent Joffrin in his editorial for the daily Libération as the trial opened. Joffrin warned that anti-Semitic thinking that has long been present among France's extreme right- and left-wing political groups is gaining traction in France's blighted suburbs. "In the exclusion of the projects, in the racism that strikes minorities, and in their social despair," Joffrin wrote, "the old plague has found favorable terrain."

The "old plague," of course, is also boosted by a tendency to hold France's Jews responsible for Israel's actions: anti-Semitic attacks here tend to spike during outbreaks of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Prasquier noted the "disturbing surge of [anti-Semitic] acts in January, due to the war in Gaza." Previous outbreaks of Mideast violence in recent years have produced a similar effect in France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities — populations of around 6 million and 350,000, respectively. The 936 anti-Semitic acts reported in 2002 and the 974 two years later coincided with flare-ups between Israel and Palestine. Those peaks — and perception among many Jews in France and abroad that French authorities had displayed insufficient concern or reaction — led Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 to denounce the "spread of the wildest anti-Semitism" in France. The only answer for French Jews, Sharon said, was immediate emigration to Israel for their own safety.

Even at that time, however, French Jewish leaders denounced Sharon's comments as unfounded, deeming them a misguided swipe at the pro-Arab policies of France's then President Jacques Chirac. Current President Nicolas Sarkozy has made priorities of cultivating strong relations with Israel and fighting anti-Semitism at home — factors that have partially contributed to a slowing of French emigration to Israel. Last year, the number of French Jews moving to Israel was 1,562 — a 33% decline from the 2007 figure, which itself had been down from 2006.

The number of anti-Semitic attacks in France in 2008 dropped for the third straight year, to 397 — even as racist acts directed at other minorities exploded 45% higher. Though the recent violence in Gaza fueled a spate of anti-Jewish aggression in France during December and January, Prasquier is careful to note that "France wasn't unique in this way, because we saw the same kind of action against Jews elsewhere in Europe — notably in England and Belgium."

And as it has done recently in facing up to its darker history under Nazi occupation, France is showing clear intent to confront rather than deny anti-Semitism — as much of the commentary regarding Halimi's murder indicates. French Jews are not ready to claim that anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, but Prasquier says most now do feel that things are moving in the right direction.

"If there ever were any existential fear felt, it is gone today," he says. "There is concern at each new act of anti-Semitism and keen attention paid to how French society reacts to them. Often, we feel reaction in the rest of France is largely in phase with ours."