Sarah Halimi, Sisyphus and the denial of anti-Semitic violence

July 31, 2017
French President Emmanuel Macron on July 26. Photo by Charly Triballeau/Reuters

It took too long for the French people to recognize the Jewish victim of a brutal April 4 murder by name. After weeks of indifference by media outlets and politicians, French President Emmanuel Macron demanded publicly that the judiciary shed light on the nature of the crime. 

Significantly, Macron spoke of Sarah Halimi during the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv, the roundup of more than 13,000 French Jews during the Holocaust in 1942.

“Despite the denials of the murderer, our judiciary must bring total clarity around the death of Sarah Halimi,” Macron said, adding that “we were silent, because we did not want to see.”

Halimi’s face and body were fractured in multiple places. The 65-year-old had been afraid of her suspected attacker and his sister’s anti-Semitic insults for some time. Her suspected assassin is reported to have called Halimi a “dirty whore” and “Sheitane” (Arabic for Satan), and recited verses from the Quran as he beat her severely, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) before defenestrating her.

All of France should have been shocked by this horror, and should have risen up asking for truth and justice in support of this woman assassinated in her home simply because she was Jewish. Instead, everyone buried their heads in the sand. The prosecutor still has not designated Halimi’s murder as a premeditated anti-Semitic act.

Once more, all those fighting for French society to stand up against anti-Semitic violence find themselves in the same position as the mythological hero Sisyphus, condemned for all eternity to perform the impossible task of pushing an immense boulder up a steep hill each day, only for it to roll back down as the sun sets.

How many years have we implored French authorities and society to react to the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents? How many times have we heard attempts by the authorities to “relativize” the situation, to explain that there is no new anti-Semitism, that the rise in anti-Semitic acts is only hooliganism?

How many years have we implored French authorities and society to react to the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents?

In 2006, very few protested the kidnapping, 24-day torture and assassination of Ilan Halimi (no relation to Sarah) by a gang led by a man born to immigrants from Ivory Coast. But notably, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, declared that the murder was an anti-Semitic crime. This affirmation set the stage for yet another battle over acknowledging the source of the new anti-Semitism. This meant accepting the fact that victims of racism could themselves be racists.

It also meant understanding that anti-Semitism does not only concern Jews, but rather all of French society — that it is a virulent cancer. If left untreated, it can metastasize and destroy an entire society. Historically, in our liberal democracies, the safety of Jewish communities is an indicator of the level of health of the society as a whole.

Other courageous voices joined. The Foundation for Political Innovation carried out a study together with the American Jewish Committee, pointing out that vehement anti-Semitism comes from three sectors of the population: a substantial portion of French Muslims, the extreme left and the extreme right. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls famously stated that “France without Jews would no longer be France,” and emphasized this inconvenient truth: “Yes, anti-Zionism has become in many parts of French society a screen that hides a visceral anti-Semitism.” DILCRAH — a ministerial delegation opposing racism, anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT hate — proposed a plan to fight this scourge, and the plan was adopted by France’s government.

Then how is it possible that after the murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murder of three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi in Toulouse in 2012, and the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in 2015, France has relapsed into denial by refusing to acknowledge the reality of anti-Semitic violence when it comes to the murder of Sarah Halimi?

Maybe it was our fault, as we Jews did not want to be seen as constantly complaining. Maybe the Jewish community was unwilling to believe that in 2017, it is still possible that an elderly woman would be beaten and defenestrated just because she is Jewish.

By recalling her name at the ceremony commemorating the Holocaust-era roundup of French Jews, and by demanding justice for Sarah Halimi, Macron has broken down the wall of indifference that surrounded this drama, and has stood up for all of us, for all of France.

With these words he has, in his own way, advanced the boulder of Sisyphus.

Let us keep the boulder from rolling back down, by refusing to accept the continued impunity of those who spew the poison of anti-Semitism in France.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris-based Europe branch.

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