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The Schmooze

How an Age-Old Stereotype Led to a Horrific Kidnapping

Was the 2006 kidnapping, 24-day long torture, and murder of 23-year-old French-Jewish cell phone salesman Ilan Halimi by a suburban Paris gang fueled by anti-Semitism? In the new documentary film, “Jews & Money,” there’s no doubt about the answer.

Image by Courtesy of Stephanie Yin

In the film we see lawyers arguing over the validity of anti-Semitic hate crime charges, but filmmaker Lewis Cohen’s starting point is obvious. The story of Halimi’s murder and its aftermath serves as a springboard for the history and development of Western anti-Semitis, and the adoption of its elements by Islamists and others opposed to the State of Israel.

In particular, it is the gang leader’s admission that Halimi was targeted because of the belief that all Jews are rich, which sets the stage for the filmmaker’s investigation of this invidious canard.

Cohen told an audience at the first screening of the film’s final cut on April 17 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco that it was the topic of Jews and money, and not the Halimi case specifically, that first interested him. He said he hadn’t thought much about the origin of the stereotype until he took an extended trip to Europe about five years ago. He decided he wanted to focus on the subject, and when someone told him about Halimi, he realized the crime was an excellent framing device.

To contextualize the anti-Semitism of the Halimi case, Cohen brings commentary from historians like Sara Lipton of SUNY Stony Brook, NYU’s Robert Chazan, and Derek Penslar of the University of Toronto. Professor and writer Joshua Halberstam sheds light on the meaning of money to Jews today, in particular in the Hasidic community from which he originates.

These scholarly insights and explanations, accompanied by visuals ranging from Medieval art to Nazi-era propaganda posters to early 20th-century Hollywood movies, take the viewer into the history of how Jews became associated with money lending, and of the advent of the anti-Semitic notion that Jews control the world economy. A visit to Rothenburg, Germany, where Rabbi Meir ben Baruch refused to be redeemed after being taken captive by ransom seekers, provides historical context to Halimi’s kidnapping.

These slower-paced segments provide a respite and counterpoint to the suspenseful black-and-white re-enactments of the 2006 crime. There are also fast-cut scenes shot outside the courtroom in 2009 and 2010, as well as interviews with Halimi’s mother and girlfriend, locals in the suburban Paris housing projects that are home to the gang members, and a number of journalists and attorneys.

Cohen, a French-speaking Montrealer, mentioned that it was difficult to get the Parisian Jewish community to open up to him. He also said that the only reason a couple of young men from the housing projects would agree to speak to him on film was because he wasn’t from the French media.

The filmmaker clearly prevailed against such challenges, creating a complex yet cohesive narrative. Even those already familiar with the Halimi case and with the history of anti-Semitism come away emotionally rattled by how Cohen managed to put it all together.

The next screening of “Jews & Money” will take place at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on April 21, and it will be broadcast on Canadian television at the end of the month. It is not yet scheduled for a theatrical release.

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