Around 300 people gathered in eastern Paris on Sunday to mark the tenth anniversary of the murder of Ilan Halimi, who died after 24 days of brutal torture. There were few non-Jewish attendees.
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The small crowd and its Jewish focus illustrate the wide disconnect between how the Halimi case is understood within and outside of France’s Jewish community – and what that might mean for the French Jewish future.
For France’s Jews, it remains an intimately tragic affair, marking arguably the most savage and sadistic anti-Semitic crime in France since World War II. For many citizens of French or European Christian origins, it is indeed a despicable violent crime, but not one fuelled by anti-Semitism. For me this is a form of blindness, of denial – but also a mark of the failure of France's government and Jewish community to establish violent anti-Semitism as a central concern for the whole of society.
Twenty-three-year-old Ilan was lured on a date by a beautiful young woman then kidnapped and held for ransom by the so-called "Gang of Barbarians," a loose association of small-time, hash-smoking, criminal losers. They acted on orders given by a charismatic follower of radical Islam who hated Jews, Youssouf Fofana, a Frenchman whose parents were from Ivory Coast. When no ransom was forthcoming, and as the police were tragically bungling attempts to find him, Ilan was tied to a chair for 24 days in a basement room in a suburb just south of Paris and tortured to death.
He died while being driven to hospital, having been found alongside a suburban railtrack. The police’s poor performance was an embarrassment for the government. Then-interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy apologized to Ilan's mother, Ruth Halimi. She was devastated. While writing articles on the case at the time, I cried with her in her apartment.
Guershon N'duwa, president of the FJN, the Black-Jewish Federation of France, a constituent member of the French Jewish umbrella body CRIF, has organized the ceremony for Ilan Halimi for the past ten years, but he will not organize an eleventh. "The French government has always minimized the case of Ilan Halimi, and even now, has still not woken up to establish the link with the attacks of the past few years," says N'duwa, "and there is a definite link, a hatred of Jews.”
He continued: "But while Jewish community leaders have reached upwards, if you like, to French political parties on the right and left, they have not reached out to the non-Jewish public. So in spite of grandiose statements by politicians about fighting anti-Semitism, many French people still believe that Ilan's horrific death was a specifically Jewish affair, with few emotional links to the overall French nation, and not even necessarily a case of anti-Semitism. In reality, the intense emotional reaction by Jews here became a line that separated them from other French people, who reacted with intellectual disgust, but little more."
Both the Jewish community and the French government have been unable to engage the wider French public with the need to see, recognize and confront violent anti-Semitism and incitement against the community. This has diminished the number of French people who see anti-Semitic violence as a problem for all of France, not only its Jews and the government and security elite. For many, World War II had ended long ago, so it was easier to believe that this was a simple indecent but random tragedy committed by sociopaths.
There were a few non-Jewish speakers at the gathering, including Tony Harrison, the actor who played Fofana in the film directed by Alexandre Arcady, 24 Jours (24 Days), and who read from Primo Levi to the gathering. Released in April 2014, the film was a flop here: the general population was apparently not interested enough to relive the torture and police bungling, and even young French Jews – including my own sons - mostly thought it would be too brutal to watch.
The anniversary event’s low turnout was also an indication of intra-Jewish politics that have weakened the community’s resonance to speak as a united voice on this issue. In fact there were five other competing Halimi commemoration ceremonies around Paris this year, somewhat atomizing the effect of fewer and more robustly attended events. There were no Halimi family members present at Sunday’s Boulevard Voltaire gathering either, though his sisters reportedly attended one of the other ceremonies.
"This has become a very politicized affair and I am unhappy enough about that not to do it again," says N'duwa, who comes from a Protestant family in Congo-Brazzaville, Africa. He converted to Judaism years ago in France and has also lived in Israel.
"Guershon was the victim of Jewish community political manipulation in the organizing of this ceremony," comments Michel Zerbib, the editor-in-chief of Radio J, who was present. "Let's say, and this is very delicate, that certain parties at the other ceremonies did not want Guershon's Black-Jewish Federation to become a member of the CRIF several years ago, and so now, they boycotted his ceremony on Sunday. They acted as if it did not exist. You could say that this was a low point in Jewish community activity in Paris."
Youssouf Fofana, who organized his kidnapping for ransom, will be in prison for years, in theory for life. Most of the others involved, including the woman used as bait, and the building superintendent who gave them the basement room and apartment in which Halimi was tortured in exchange for 1500 euros (which he never saw), have already been released.
N'duwa is disappointed that the Jewish community is not reaching out to others in France, notably to moderate Muslims. I remember very well that at the time members of North African and Arab-Muslim communities here who were horrified by his death, immediately recognized it as an anti-Semitic act, and were furious that the gang ringleader Fofana claimed that it had anything to do with Islam.
One glimpse into a future of a more substantial solidarity between French Jews and Muslims was provided by presence of the young, articulate, dynamic Imam from the southern city of Nimes, Hocine Drouiche, who was born and raised in Algeria and candidate for the post of the Rector of the Main Mosque of Paris and the presidency of the Representative Council of Muslims of France.
He spoke to the small crowd: "Ilan, pardon, mon frère, excuse me my brother, we could not save you from those barbarians."
For me, that is the only ray of light that emerges from this grim story.
Brett Kline is a journalist based in Paris, and works for France Télévisions. He is originally from New York, and travels often to Israel and Palestine.