Just as French officials and Jewish communal leaders were hailing the sharp drop in antisemitic incidents in 2005, their long-held greatest fear occurred: A young Jewish man was murdered because of his religion.
The naked and mutilated body of Ilan Halimi, 23, was found last week in a Paris suburb after he spent 21 days of captivity in the hands of a criminal gang called “the Barbarians.” Halimi, a cell phone vendor of modest background, died on his way to the hospital.
The police initially indicated that the kidnap and murder were motivated by greed. But after an angry protest by the Jewish community, and widespread condemnation of the gruesome act, the French government and the investigative judge announced early this week that the authorities were contemplating hate-crime charges in addition to kidnapping and murder.
Instead of an Islamist-inspired hit fueled by the intifada, French Jews found themselves facing a gruesome crime inspired by an age-old antisemitic stereotype: Jews are rich.
“The truth is that these crooks acted primarily for sordid and vile motives, to get money, but they were convinced that ‘the Jews have money,’ and if those they kidnapped didn’t have money, their family and their community would come up with it,” Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy told lawmakers Tuesday. “That’s called ‘antisemitism by amalgam.’”
The previous day, the judge overseeing the probe instructed investigators to look into antisemitic motives in the cases of seven of the 13 suspects arrested after some of them reportedly admitted that Halimi has been targeted because he was Jewish and out of the belief that since Jews are rich, they could obtain a hefty ransom.
The gang called and e-mailed Halimi’s family repeatedly to ask for money. When family members said that they could not find the $500,000, the kidnappers told them to “go and ask in the synagogues,” according to French press reports. When the kidnappers realized that Halimi was poor and that the family was not responding, they became frustrated; they beat up Halimi before dumping him on railway tracks with 80% of his body burned and bruised.
The justice minister announced the judge’s decision just before the annual dinner of the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, held Monday night. Commentators saw the announcement as a maneuver to soothe the anger of the Jewish community, which had held a street protest the previous day. The protest featured accusations that the government was minimizing the crime to avoid increasing tensions that linger from riots late last year by predominantly Muslim youths. At the CRIF dinner, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin promised Jewish leaders that investigators would “shed light” on “an odious crime.”
In recent weeks, French officials had announced that the number of antisemitic incidents had dropped by 47% in 2005 compared with the year before. And Jewish communal leaders expressed cautious optimism that the wave of violence unleashed by the violence in the West Bank and Gaza was receding.
While several searches resulted in the location of some radical Islamic literature, Jewish observers said that the gang — made up of Muslims and non-Muslims — was motivated not by solidarity with radical Islamic groups but by anti-Jewish stereotypes popular in many downtrodden suburbs.
“This is anti-Jewish hatred,” said Sammy Ghozlan, a former police officer who set up a Jewish security group and is known for his outspokenness against antisemitic violence. “You see it in the choice of the target and in the way they treated him when they had him.”
Halimi’s mother, well known in Parisian Jewish circles because she works at one of the capital’s main communal centers, accused police of ignoring this motive for fear of upsetting Muslims.
If her son “hadn’t been Jewish, he wouldn’t have been killed,” she told Ha’aretz. “We told the police there were at least three attempted kidnappings of young Jews, but they kept insisting that the motives were purely criminal.”
Ghozlan said she was upset that the police had ordered her not to respond to messages from the gang — which numbered more than 600. He also said that the investigators tried but failed to localize the calls through wiretaps and tracing.
Sarkozy told the parliament that in the homes of some suspects, the police had found “salafist” literature. By this he was referring to an ideological strain of North African Islamists that has, at times, been linked to Al Qaeda. He also said that police discovered fliers from a pro-Palestinian nongovernmental organization that had been listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Hamas front in August 2003 (French authorities investigated the NGO, but they found no evidence of ties to Hamas).
Sarkozy, who is a leading contender in next year’s French presidential race and employs tough tactics on crime and antisemitism that have endeared him to the Jewish community, also said that four of the six other people whom the gang had approached and tried to kidnap were Jewish.
According to the daily Le Parisien, a woman who had tried to lure two men into the gang’s clutches admitted to police that she was instructed to target Jewish men. The gang reportedly taunted Halimi’s family, as well as a rabbi, with antisemitic epithets and recited Koranic verses during telephone calls and in e-mails. At one point, the kidnappers called the father just before the funeral February 17 to issue death threats and to read verses from the Koran, according to a Jewish source who attended a meeting Tuesday between Sarkozy and Jewish leaders.
The kidnappers also sent photos showing the victim with a gun to his head, bound and blindfolded. One of criminals initially told the police that he had burned a cigarette on Halimi’s head because he was Jewish — but then retracted his statement and said he had acted because he was angry, according to the Jewish source who attended the briefing with Sarkozy. Those actions and others led prosecutors to add aggravating circumstances of antisemitism to the charges sought against some of the suspects. While Jewish leaders who often had criticized the tepid handling of antisemitic cases by French courts hailed the judge’s decision, they noted that the hate-crime charges still could be dropped if the evidence is not sufficient.
Justice Minister Pascal Clement said the police are still looking for the suspected ringleader, Youssef Fofana, an ex-convict who may have fled to the Ivory Coast. On Monday, two civil rights organizations that work mostly with Muslim communities condemned the killing of Halimi. Both the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples and the SOS Racism group said they planned to show solidarity with the Jewish community by joining forces with the prosecution as civil plaintiffs in the case. For the first time in years, SOS Racism will participate in a demonstration organized by major Jewish groups. The event is scheduled for next Sunday, March 5, in Paris.
“We want to make this a turning point and try to make sure that the widespread emotion can be channeled to stop this criminal violence, especially racist violence,” said Patrick Klugman, vice president of SOS Racism. Klugman is also a CRIF board member. “This is a seminal moment for France.”