Je Suis Yoav: Friend of Slain Tunisian Jew Recalls Remarkable Courage, Talent

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A candlelight rally in Tunis to remember Tunisian Yoav Hattab, who was killed in an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, January 17, 2015.Credit: Reuters

My friend Yoav Hattab, 21, was a fair and just person. He was struck down by a cruel and arbitrary act of injustice. Courageous, he was slain by a coward. Propelled by a powerful passion for life, he was assaulted by a man driven by a death impulse. Pious and sincere in his religious faith, he was felled by the bullets of someone who made an abject mockery of religious devotion. It is as though a battle of opposites had taken place and the outcome was the defeat of all I consider to be good. There is no lesson to be learned. The murder of Yoav remains incomprehensible, inexplicable, unthinkable. The same goes for the three other men murdered the same day in that grocery store, all targeted because they were assumed to have been Jewish.

My own pain is negligible next to that felt by Yoav’s parents and his brothers and sisters. I send them all my love and support. Avishay, you are my brother and I am at your side. Betsalel, I promised you guitar lessons and we will begin as soon as you return to Tunis. Your family is dignified and pious. They lived according to an enduring faith — emunah — that inspires me, and through which I know you will find the courage to continue living despite the infinite void in your lives. I also wish for Yoav’s father, Batou Hattab, never to lose the strength he has drawn on in order to invigorate the Jewish community of Tunis, as a rabbi and as a principal: the principal of a school that is both Jewish and French, recalling the solid bond that for a century has united the Jews of the Mediterranean Basin with France, its language and its values.

The fact that Yoav — a Tunisian who did not hold French citizenship and who encountered the same difficulties as other North Africans seeking a visa — died in France was not an accident. That is because France represents an ideal. An ideal that has certainly been marred, an ideal that at times has been maligned, but an ideal just the same.

My friend Yoav Hattab sang remarkably well. That was the first thing that struck me about him. His voice had a gentle, slightly hoarse quality. In another world he, who adored Arab music, could have become a star on “Arab Idol.” I recall once returning from a party, where, somewhat inebriated, we ended up singing “Akdeb Alik,” à la Farid al-Atrash. I was astonished to discover that he knew all the words by heart.

In this world, he should have become a cantor, masterfully using the techniques of ritual chanting of the Torah in the Tunisian tradition.

When he recited a prayer, in fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to borrow the melody of a Tunisian Arabic song and, in slowing its tempo, to recall the inseparable link between the Tunisian Jewish ethos and the surrounding culture.

For me, a French Jew of Tunisian descent who is in love with Arabic and who was raised in the bosom of the Jewish world and the Arab world, Yoav was a shining light.

His mother tongue was an Arabic dialect at once close to and distant from that of his Muslim compatriots. He taught me a few of the rudiments of it. Without intending, he helped me to understand that this Judeo-Arabic was above all a language of emotion, of family and of humor. An intimate language. Today this language is the focus of my university studies in linguistics. The career I hope to lead will always remind me of him.

Yoav was 21. Yet he somehow gave the impression of being slightly older, always elegantly dressed like a Sephardi model. But he was as affectionate and as innocent as a child. Our discussions often focused on things that usually interest bachelors, and despite myself I assumed the role of an older advisor. And he, like a younger brother, didn’t hesitate to confide in me. I think he would have married soon and would have been a devoted and attentive father.

Many of my friends shared with me their pain over the loss of Yoav, despite having met him only once. Yoav’s joy in life was instantly palpable. Quite simply, everyone loved him. That is the image I will keep of him. That image, as well as the memory of his final act, that of a brave and courageous man who risked his life to try to save others. A true mensch.

For me, “Je suis Yoav” is but one among a slew of slogans. If indeed “I am Yoav,” it is mainly because I myself could easily have been in that grocery that day. I and all the people who go there to buy kosher products. Jews were targeted that day only because they were Jews.

Strangely enough, the same attackers assaulted Jews, police officer and cartoonists. What is the connection among these targets? What do they symbolize? In my mind, the killers in Paris and in Toulouse before them were aiming at a universal principle that allows everyone to be themselves, to be different.

Attacking the police is attacking public order and the authority of the Republic, two notions that are universal, that aim to forge a society of the kind that enables individuals to evolve freely according to their conscience.

Attacking cartoonists is rejecting freedom of expression, in essence a universal principle that extends as far as blasphemy. Attacking cartoonists shows an obsession with uniformity, a desire to impose a particular vision of the world on an entire society.

Attacking Jews is attacking a collective whose entire culture aspires to the goal of reconciliating the universal and the particular. Jewish values aspire to universality. An impossible challenge, it is always in distinguishing ourselves that we are called upon to embody those values. A distressing contradiction for many of us; an intolerable provocation for the killers and for those disciples of the idea that everyone is the same.

Yoav was a practicing Jew, a Tunisian and a patriot. As a Tunisian, he grew up also with a great sense of ease in France, where he felt somewhat at home. He spoke French without a trace of an accent, even though I believe a certain North African “boonies” quality accounted for the occasional linguistic slip. And while being (practically) French and entirely Tunisian, he could speak Hebrew with amazing fluency, even adopting an Israeli accent. Yoav was a polyglot. At home everywhere and everywhere, Jewish. He was particular and he was universal. It’s that ideal — of remaining yourself without closing yourself off from others — that the killers sought to destroy, in vain. It’s that ideal that seems to me to be ultimately what characterizes the French Republic.

“Judaism,” said the 19th-century Italian rabbi and philosopher Elie Benamozegh, “is the universal as a goal, but particularism as a means.” That’s what Yoav embodied.

Rest in peace, ya sahbi, my friend.

Baruch Dayan Emet. Blessed is the true Judge.

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