Did France's Need for a Hero Lead to Lionizing Kosher Store's Muslim Employee?

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French police stand guard outside the shuttered Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, January 10, 2015
The Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, January 10, 2015.Credit: AP
Brett Kline

Shortly after an Islamist gunman stormed a kosher supermarket in Paris last January, killing four people, the story of an unlikely hero began to emerge.

Lassana Bathily, a 25-year-old Malian immigrant who worked at Hyper Cacher, had saved some of the hostages by hiding them in a basement walk-in freezer and switching it off before sneaking out to seek help. Initially mistaken for an attacker by the police, he provided officers with the key they needed to open the supermarket’s metal blinds and mount an assault in which the terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, was shot and killed.

Now, though, at least some of those details are being called into question in a book cowritten by one of the hostages who hid in the freezer and who claims that while Bathily behaved decently, he did not save lives that day.

In “Hyper Caché” (“Super Hidden”), Yohann Dorai says Bathily was turned into a hero by French authorities and a media eager for a positive story: a young Muslim saving the lives of Jews, amid the tensions caused by the January 7, 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and the supermarket attack two days later.

Dorai says he does not recall Bathily playing any role in helping the hostages hide, and claims he himself cut the wires to the freezer so that he and his fellow hostages would not freeze to death.

In fact, he says, he had never heard of Bathily until the media coverage began about the attack.

“He is a good young man, he did give the police important information; he did his best. But he is no more a hero than I am. We are just human beings who reacted quickly,” Dorai tells Haaretz.

Hostage Yohann Dorai on the Hyper Cacher siege (in French)Credit: YouTube

His book, coauthored with French journalist Michel Taubmann and published on the anniversary of the attacks, recounts the four hours the hostages spent hiding in the freezer, sure they would be discovered and killed. They prayed; Dorai gave his jacket to a child to keep him warm; and they talked and tried to stay calm. He also communicated on his cell phone with a friend, who then relayed information to the police.

The book is dedicated to another hostage, Yoav Hattab – the 21-year-old son of the chief rabbi of Tunis – who went upstairs into the store and grabbed one of Coulibaly’s weapons. The gun did not fire and Coulibaly shot Hattab dead.

“Hattab was the hero of the siege,” Dorai recalls. “I still ask myself what I could have done to convince him not to go upstairs. I still see his body on the floor of the store, like when I saw it when we finally left with the police. He risked his life to save others, and he was killed.”

Dorai, 39, says he has nothing against Bathily. “He is a good human being, and I discovered that everyone in the store liked him very much,” he says, “but the French needed a hero and found him – the young Muslim African at home with Jews.”

Doing the right thing

Bathily has also just published a book about events, titled “Je ne suis pas un héros”(“I Am Not a Hero”).

“I told them time and time again, I did nothing to be a hero,” Bathily says, speaking to Haaretz in a south Paris café. “Maybe they didn’t believe me,” he adds. “My parents in Mali always taught me to try to do the right thing, so that is what I did.”

Bathily insists that he switched off the freezer before making his escape through a back door.

“I’m sure Yohann cut the wires. For me, there is no contradiction,” he says. “And I never imagined that the French would make me a hero for all this. For me, I just acted normally.”

Lassana Bathily lights candles near the Hyper Cacher store on January 9, 2016, during a ceremony organized by the Council of French Jewish Institutions.Credit: AFP

For his behavior during the siege, the French government granted Bathily citizenship and the media showered him with attention.

Bathily, who now has a job teaching children to play soccer, was honored across the world. He was feted in New York by Mayor Bill de Blasio, honored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and hosted by Muslims in Cleveland.

Dorai, the son of Jewish immigrants from Algeria, says he and other former hostages feel the French government has forgotten them, while showering Bathily with honors.

At the ceremony last week to mark the anniversary of the attack, Bathily was asked to represent the hostages and light a candle in memory of the victims.

“The brother of Yoav Hattab was here from Tunisia and he was ignored,” says Dorai. “Myself, I didn’t even have a chair to sit on. Only the great symbol Bathily was called to light a candle. I have nothing against him. Really. It was not his decision. At first, I thought he should have said something, anything, but then I realized, ‘Hey, they just made him a citizen.’ What was he going to say?”

Taubmann believes the French government played up Bathily’s role for political reasons.

“They are so afraid of a civil war here – Muslims against everyone else,” he says. “They still do not know how to deal with radical Islam in France.”

Whatever his role during the attack, Bathily – an observant Muslim – appears genuinely horrified by Islamist terrorism and particularly the latest wave of attacks on French Jews.

“I don’t understand why the French government is not shutting down the radical Islamic websites,” he says. “So many young Muslims born in France get radicalized on the sites. Almost all the attacks here are by guys born in France. And yet they have so many advantages as citizens here, compared to those of us born in Africa.”

He adds that he hopes French Jews will not move to Israel. “If the Jews here all go to Israel, we Africans and Arabs won’t make it in France.”

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