October 20, 2018

Israelis bury French terror victims in the Holy Land

Less than a week after the murder of four French Jews in a kosher grocery store by an Islamic terrorist in Paris, the bodies of Yoav Hattab, 21; Yohan Cohen, 22; Philippe Braham, 45; and Francois-Michel Saada, 63; were flown to Israel for burial. 

Their grieving family members came, too, and lit small memorial torches in the company of Israel’s leadership during a funeral at a hilltop cemetery overlooking West Jerusalem’s expanding suburbs — forests dotted with small stone homes. The sun was out, but the air was cold. “I’m crying, but I know that you all cry with me, and I thank all of you for all of this,” Valery Braham, Philippe’s wife, told a crowd of hundreds, some of whom, like her, had flown in from France, and many of whom had walked uphill for over a mile to attend.

“They are my brothers,” said Roee Iluz, a young Israeli man who had traveled to the Jan. 13 funeral from the Tel Aviv area and was standing off to the side, arms crossed, in silence. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader Isaac Herzog all gave emotional speeches, warning of global anti-Semitism and terrorism while in the same breath mourning the private pain of the four families.

“This is not how we wanted to see you come home, to the State of Israel, and to Jerusalem, its capital,” Rivlin said. “We wanted you alive, we wanted for you, life.”

Mourners gather during the burial ceremony in Jerusalem on Jan. 13. Photo by Simone Wilson

Of the terrorist who killed them, Netanyahu said: “We shall not waste words on the contemptible killer, nor on those who slaughtered other innocents on French soil, as it is their actions that provide testimony of their murderous zeal, the poisonous fanaticism of the radical Islamic terrorist organizations that serves as the motivation for carrying out horrific acts around the world.”

And of the endangered Diaspora, he said: “I believe that they know deep in their hearts that they have only one country, the State of Israel, the historic homeland that will accept them with open arms, like beloved children.”

Members of the crowd, like their leaders, seemed half broken, half defiant. Some simply held each other and wept. Others waved signs with messages like, “I am dead because I am Jewish” and “I am Charlie, I am Jewish, I am Israeli, I am French, and I’ve had enough.” Political chatter was unavoidable; hushed conversations in the crowd touched on Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the French exodus to Israel, the elections, Netanyahu’s widely mocked trip to Paris.

Multiple Israelis at the funeral told the Journal they were skeptical that world support for Jews after the kosher market attack, hashtagged as #JeSuisJuif, was sincere or built to last. 

Iluz, 21, said that despite the hashtag, it was clear to him the France unity march was “not about the Jews.”

Israeli-American political analyst Josh Wander, 44, agreed. “I don’t believe there’s any solidarity at all,” he said. “If it was only Jews killed in France, would 50 of the world leaders come to support them? No. Their only fear is of Islamic extremists in their own countries.”

Yom Jasmer, 18, whose parents immigrated to Israel from France, said that even if the solidarity was temporary, the notion of French people marching in support of Jews lifted his spirits. “They understand us now — but I don’t know if it will last,” he said.

A man prays during the funeral in Jerusalem. Photo by Simone Wilson

The French minister of energy and environment, Segolene Royal, represented France’s government at the funeral. From a podium next to the four bodies, she promised to fight anti-Semitism back home. “France without Jews is not France,” she said.

Dina Sirat, a Paris native in the crowd who immigrated to Israel almost 20 years ago with her two children, told the Journal that promises from French leaders gave her little assurance.

“There is a lot of fear now in Paris,” said Sirat, bundled in a red parka, floral scarf and beret. “My sister in France has kids in Jewish school, and they’re afraid.”

The four men being buried in Jerusalem, she said, were killed “because they are Jews. It’s not, ‘I am Charlie.’ It’s not liberty of speech. It’s because they were Jews in Paris.”

Elsewhere in the crowd, French sisters Keren Israel, 17, and Esther Israel, 19, identifiably observant in their long skirts, said they had moved to Israel almost exactly one year ago. They said they hadn’t planned to stay forever, but after this attack, Esther doesn’t want to leave. And Keren, who was planning her return to France before the terror spree in Paris, isn’t so sure anymore.

“It was so hard in France,” Esther said. “You go in the street, in the metro, and they look at you like — I don’t know. Like you’re not normal.”

Funeral attendees carry signs remembering the victims.

High-profile funerals in Israel often draw thousands, but attendees at the burial of the four terror victims said that this one had been much less publicized, and was hard to reach. (Streets were closed for miles around the Givat Shaul cemetery, bringing traffic throughout West Jerusalem to a standstill and forcing many to walk to the funeral.)

Still, it was a dedicated crowd. After the bodies — laid on stretchers and draped in white-and-blue linens — were loaded into four ambulances, the crowd swarmed the caravan as it crawled down the hill to a new tier of Jerusalem’s largest graveyard. Mourners pressed their foreheads to the ambulance windows and mumbled prayers, their tears running freely.

At times, the grief-stricken families from France looked overwhelmed by the hectic procession and hordes of press. Hooked up to a loudspeaker, a funeral organizer yelled instructions to ambulance personnel. “Where is Philippe?” he bellowed. “No, this is Yoav!”

But as their bodies were lowered into the ground, an overwhelming sense of peace and group security enveloped the crowd, now still. Funeral prayers echoed through Jerusalem’s outlying canyons; mothers wept softly; strangers hugged strangers

“They’re home now,” said Noa Dreyfus, 18.

In France, said former Paris resident Sirat, there is little burial space, and bodies are often moved to morgues once next-of-kin have passed. “But if you are here,” she said, “it’s for eternity.”