For the second time in 20 years, France basked in the accomplishment of winning the World Cup with a team whose diverse backgrounds were as much a symbol of national unity as the creative brand of soccer they played. By any reckoning, a team made up of names like Mbappe, Pavard, Hernandez and Pogba is a near-perfect representation of the inclusive republican ideal that France’s leaders say they aspire to.
But when it comes to actual results, politics is rarely as definitive and inspiring as sports.
Since he took office last year, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to combat the anti-Semitism that, all too often in France, underlies acts of violence against Jews that are bestial in nature.
Other French politicians, such as Macron’s predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Franҫois Hollande, as well as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, have all made similar promises, arguing with genuine conviction that hatred of Jews is a direct threat to France’s republican and democratic traditions. All of them have uttered, and repeatedly, some variation of the sentence that “France without its Jews is not France.” And yet, not only does the violence continue, French Jews can’t be sure of justice even when the perpetrators are caught.
On July 11, lawyers for the family of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish pensioner viciously murdered in her Paris public housing apartment in April 2017, were informed of a new development by the city magistrate investigating the case. A panel of psychiatrists had compiled a second report on the mental health of 27-year-old Kobili Traore, Halimi’s killer. The reported concluded that Traore’s supposed lack of discernement—essentially, mental awareness of his own situation—means that he is unfit to stand trial on a charge of murder aggravated by anti-Semitic prejudice.
Before examining this shocking twist in the Halimi case, some sense of the wider context is in order. France’s 450,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Europe, have for two decades lived with levels of anti-Semitism that are alarming both in themselves and when compared with the rest of the continent. Since the 2006 ordeal of Ilan Halimi—a young French Jew who was kidnapped, brutally tortured and left for dead by a gang who seized him out of the belief that all Jewish families are wealthy and willing to pay ransom demands—France has seen four presidents come and go. And yet, the year 2017-18 was one of the worst on record, with 92 incidents of violent anti-Semitism reported—a 20 percent increase on the previous year.
Alongside Halimi’s murder, and that of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in March this year, we have seen the phenomenon of “home invasions,” largely Muslim gangs targeting Jewish homes for robbery while taking the inhabitants hostage. In one case, the non-Jewish girlfriend of a young Jewish man was raped as a gang roamed through his family home, screaming about their “brothers in Palestine” as they searched for the horde of cash they just knew the Jews were hiding. In another case, a young Jewish man was overpowered and his elderly parents badly beaten by a gang convinced that the Jews were hiding diamonds and bundles of cash somewhere in their abode. All this has crystallized into what French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, called in February a “new type” of anti-Semitism in France: “violent and brutal.”
And no more so than in the case of Dr. Halimi. On the night of April 4, 2017, Traore broke into Halimi’s apartment via the apartment of her neighbors, a Malian family who were cowering behind a locked door as he embarked on a violent rampage punctuated by prayers and Islamic religious slogans. It was not the first time that he had encountered the kind, deeply religious widow who lived by herself; on previous occasions, he had called Dr. Halimi and her visiting daughter “dirty Jewesses” when passing them in the corridors their apartment building. For nearly an hour, Traore subjected Halimi to a frenzied beating. The blows and his angry cries of “Satan” were loud enough to alert neighbors, who called the police. Convinced that they were dealing with a terrorist attack, the officers dithered for nearly half an hour, by which time Traore had thrown Halimi to her death from a third-floor window.
In the ensuing weeks, the Halimi family had to deal not only with the trauma of this horrific killing, but with the indifference of a national media worried that exposing the Halimi case and its anti-Semitic foundations would strengthen far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at the expense of Macron, the eventual victor.
Since Macron assumed office, the media has woken up to the Halimi case, and it treated the murder of Mireille Knoll one year later as an example of anti-Semitic savagery in the same vein. Towards the end of last year, it seemed certain that Traore would face trial after all. This was in part due to the testimony of psychiatric expert Dr. Daniel Zagury, who noted that however intoxicated the killer was, he harbored a conscious anti-Semitism that was unleashed on Halimi. By his own account to the police, Traore confessed to feeling angered by the sight of Shabbat candlesticks and a Torah scroll in Halimi’s home.
Yet on the basis of this new report, we are now supposed to believe that Traore—a petty drug-dealer with a long police record—is so deluded that he cannot understand the facts of the crime he committed, let alone its hateful nature. We are supposed to believe, as one of Halimi’s lawyers pointed out incredulously this week, that smoking cannabis (a drug Traore had been using for 10 years and one hardly known for causing psychotic episodes) was a more decisive factor in his rage than his loathing of the woman to whom he’d previously aimed anti-Semitic barbs.
We are supposed to believe all this and more about a killer who had the presence of mind to tell the police, when they finally arrested him, that Halimi had committed suicide.
Under French law, a murderer who is deemed sufficiently insane can avoid a trial. If the third psychiatric evaluation of Traore that has now been ordered by the investigating magistrate echoes the conclusions of the second, then he will be excused a trial, protected indefinitely by a scientifically dubious assessment of his mental health.
That’s why France’s leaders should expect to undergo the trial of international public scrutiny if this sadistic, anti-Semitic killer is sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of answering for his crimes. France’s ability to secure elemental justice for its most vulnerable citizens is being tested—and nothing less than the reputation of a nation is at stake.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.
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