French Prosecutors Now Suspect Antisemitism in Elderly Jew’s Death

The police introduced antisemitism as a possible motive after seeing social media posts by a neighbor of Rene Hadjaj, who was found dead after falling from the 17th floor of his apartment building last month

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A man wearing a kippa outside Lyon's synagogue. (illustrative)
A man wearing a kippa outside Lyon's synagogue. (illustrative)Credit: AFP

Prosecutors in France said they are considering antisemitism as a possible factor in the death of an elderly Jewish man in Lyon, who police initially said had died in a dispute unconnected to his religion.

The Tribune Juive Jewish paper on Friday reported on the development in the investigation of the May 17 death of Rene Hadjaj, who was found dead after falling from the 17th floor of his apartment building. He was 89.

Police arrested a 51-year-one neighbor, Rachid Kheniche, in connection with the incident. Kheniche and Hadjaj knew each other and had an altercation that ended with Hadjaj’s death, prosecutors told the Le Progres daily.

The police introduced antisemitism as a possible motive after seeing social media posts by Kheniche. Kheniche had made multiple derogatory references to “sayanim,” the transcription in French of the Arab-language word for Zionists, on social media in recent years.

“Elements that were collected on social networks became known to the prosecutors, who have decided to broaden the scope of the examining magistrates to the aggravating circumstances of a crime committed due to an ethnic, national, racial or religious affiliation,” Nicolas Jacquet, the Lyon regional prosecutor, told the AFP news agency Friday.

A coalition of French Jewish groups known as CRIF said it welcomed the development but questioned why the press, not the police, first identified the social media posts.

The case echoes that of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman who was murdered and thrown from her apartment by her neighbor in 2017. In that case, French courts concluded that the neighbor, a 27-year-old man named Kobili Traore was motivated to kill Halimi because she was Jewish. But Traore, who is Muslim, was not tried because multiple courts ruled that he was psychotic at the time of the killing, in part because he was high on marijuana.

The Le Point newspaper reported that Kheniche’s neighbors described him as “crazy.” The paper was not able to obtain the reaction of Kheniche or his lawyers to the allegations.

His social media posts, made across dozens of accounts each with very few followers, are disjointed and unclear.

In one tweet from 2020, a disjointed rant that he addressed to Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party, known in France by its acronym RN, he accused Mrs Le Pen to be on the cover of an Israeli magazine, and make French Jews believe they are safe with her party.

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