It was inspiring to see nearly 200,000 people out on the streets of Paris and other French cities last weekend, protesting the grisly torture and murder of a young Jewish man at the hands of a gang of mostly Muslim immigrants. The massive public outcry against antisemitism, led by some of France’s leading politicians, echoed the famed 1990 march led by then-president François Mitterrand following the desecration of dozens of Jewish cemeteries in the country.
The message coming from last weekend’s protest could not have been clearer: Once again, Jews in France — home to the world’s third largest Jewish community — and across Europe are being threatened by religious hatred and by antisemitic violence.
The tragedy that befell Ilan Halimi — being left for dead, naked, handcuffed and covered with burns near railroad tracks south of Paris after being held captive for three weeks — should obviously worry his fellow French Jews. The reaction to the tragedy, however, is also cause for concern.
In the days following Halimi’s horrific murder, strong pressure by his grieving family and by French Jewish groups turned what was a monstrous criminal act into a symbol of modern-day antisemitism. This was, without a doubt, a mistake. Aberrant crimes never should be used to define relationships among ethnic groups, and most certainly never in shaping how a community views itself.
The French police are still unsure to what extent Halimi’s death was a consequence of antisemitism. The gang that killed him, the self-styled “Barbarians,” was motivated by greed and not by racial hatred. Antisemitism may have played a role insofar as the kidnappers believed that Jews had money and that a rich Jewish community would help Halimi’s family pay the ransom.
But in previous attacks, the gang also has targeted non-Jews. Perhaps they treated Halimi particularly badly because of his religion, but perhaps it was only out of the frustration that his family was unable to come up with the ransom. Police investigators now believe that the gang was ready to release Halimi, but decided in the end to murder him after he accidentally glimpsed some of their faces.
For Halimi’s family, of course, these nuances do not matter. Understanding the exact circumstances of his death will not bring him back to life.
But for the larger Jewish community, the circumstances surrounding the tragedy are of paramount importance. The question is not just whether the Halimi murder is evidence of growing antisemitism in France, but whether it is also an omen of worse things to come — just as far-right death squads targeting prominent Jews in the Weimar Republic foreshadowed the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
The shadow of the Holocaust was certainly present during last weekend’s march. And it was present in the words of Roger Cukierman, chairman of CRIF, the chief representative body of French Jewry: “It is important for French society to recognize,” he told a local radio station, “that small racist and antisemitic prejudices can have terrible and dreadful consequences.”
After worrying mostly about skinheads and neo-Nazi groups in the early 1990s, Jewish groups have mostly turned their attention to the “new antisemitism” driven by the rise of radical Islam, Muslim rage against Israel and growing anti-Zionism of the left. The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 sparked an increase in anti-Jewish violence — particularly in France — that reached its peak in 2004.
That certainly has made French Jews feel less secure than they did a few years ago, and among the young there is growing talk of leaving. But as the recent street riots in the suburbs of Paris showed, most of the anger of young Muslims is not directed at Jews per se. Radical Muslims are not about to take control of state power and turn its instruments against the Jews. And whatever antisemitic prejudices the kidnappers might hold, they are certainly not the spearhead of Islamic fundamentalism, and for that matter may not even have any links to other Muslim groups.
The initiative to turn the Halimi murder into a symbol of antisemitism came from the Jewish grass roots. Young hardline groups like Betar and the French chapter of Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League blamed the authorities for ignoring the racist character of the crime, and in doing so pressured a hesitant CRIF to take up the cause.
Despite the national outpouring of solidarity, however, the hard-liners’ success is a double-edged sword, because it has made French Jews feel even more isolated, embattled and persecuted.
French society is rife with social and ethnic tensions, and French Jews are particularly affected: Many of them live next door to Muslim immigrants, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels Muslim anger. But the amalgamation of these problems with the continent’s history of persecution is misleading and detrimental to Jewish interests.
Unlike those of the 1930s, today Europe’s Jews do not live under any existential threat. Ilan Halimi’s family deserves condolences, but his barbaric murder must not become a symbol of Jewish existence in today’s Europe.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.