Some French remain convinced that the barbaric torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jew, was not an anti-Semitic hate crime.
The kidnap murder has been declared an anti-Semitic act by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy but also a violent crime whose motive was money. Since Halimi was found abandoned in a suburban train station Feb. 13 and died on the way to the hospital, the affair has been the talk of France.
The 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 French television video editor. "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."
Terence Kenny, a champagne export director originally from New York, who lives in a small town about two hours east of Paris, said the French public is in denial but not itself anti-Semitic for being so.
"This crime is so over the top that the French are unable to see it as anti-Semitic," Kenny said. "Nobody wants to believe that this can be going on here."
He added 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 cellphone store where he worked and was then kidnapped and tortured for three weeks by a gang of young people called "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 indeed anti-Semitic. Saida Elidrissi, an assistant bank manager of Muslim Moroccan origin, said the notion that all Jews are rich is false and 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."
There also was criticism for French attitudes.
"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 actions of some French have disgusted me."
He also shook his head at the conditions in which the perpetrators of the crime were nurtured.
"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."
Like the recent Muslim riots in France, this case has underscored 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."
Some in the Jewish community say they are fed up with their non-Jewish countrymen.
"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."
A French Jewish journalist counseled patience.
"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. So for now, we have to sit back and let justice run its course."
|Rites Commemorate Death of Halimi
by Peter L. Rothholz
"Today is a day of mourning for us all" said Philippe Larrieu, the consul-general of France, at UCLA's Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center last month. He was addressing about 60 members of the L.A. Jewish community who had come to memorialize Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old French Jew who was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered in Paris in February.
Larrieu told the gathering that France is "fully committed" to eradicating anti-Semitism, which he characterized as a "negation" of the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, reminded the gathering of the infamous 19th century French Dreyfus case, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was framed and imprisoned on an island as a result of anti-Semitism. Myers cautioned that "we must remain vigilant" and acknowledge that the death of Halimi is a result of anti-Semitism, which continues to be "a French problem."
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel, conducted the traditional Jewish memorial service. He challenged the leaders of all religions to raise their voices so that we can "transcend our differences and come together" in the cause of humanity.
Diana Tehrani, a third-year biology major spoke on behalf of the UCLA student body, expressing kinship with Halimi because of their similar ages. She said that she was "upset that it has taken so long for his death to be recognized as an act of anti-Semitism."
Among those in attendance were several people originally from France. Ghislaine Afshani of Westwood, a native of Rheims and whose family still lives there, said that "a lot of people are in denial, but there is a lot of anti-Semitism in France." She added, however, that she was "really happy" that the French government cares and that its top officials have spoken out about the Halimi case.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Evelyne Fodor, formerly from Lyons and now living in Hollywood, who commented that "these things make people feel uncomfortable, but we want to show that we are concerned, for this could have happened to anyone."
Regardless of their origin, virtually all participants agreed with Tovah Dershowitz, wife of the former rabbi of Sinai Temple, who stressed the importance of being aware and speaking out against anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it exists.
Joshua Brumbach, a fourth-year UCLA student majoring in ancient Near-Eastern civilizations, said he was "very sad" that there were not more students present for the memorial. Doris Montrose of Woodland Hills, whose father was an Auschwitz survivor, compared the relatively small turnout to "the pre-Holocaust era, when people stuck their head in the ground and their butt in the air."
The service was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA and the consulate-general of France in Los Angeles.