When the former Trump administration announced that it was moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017, the reaction in the Muslim world and among Muslim communities in the West was predictably furious. In the Friday sermons that followed that announcement, several imams around the world denounced Israel in uncomplicatedly anti-Semitic terms, many of them quoting the same hadith—a saying attributed to the prophet Muhammed—that speaks of a mass slaughter of Jews by the Muslim faithful.
Writing about these sermons at the time, I highlighted three that were delivered at mosques in the United States in that same week, all of which spoke about Jews in genocidal terms. Two of the sermons—one at a mosque in Houston, Texas, the other in Raleigh, N.C.—cited a rather bloodcurdling hadith that reads as follows: “Judgement Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews. The Jews will hide behind the stones and the trees, and the stones and the trees will say, oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew hiding behind me—come and kill him.”
That same hadith surfaced at a sermon given by the Imam of the Grand Mosque in the city of Toulouse in southwest France, Mohamed Tataiat, right after the embassy move. Resident in France since 1985 and occupying the post in Toulouse in 1987, Tataiat has been hailed by his supporters as a voice of moderation and enthusiastic backer of interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews.
Last week, the criminal court in Toulouse concurred with that dubious assessment, acquitting Tataiat of the incitement charges that were filed against him by CRIF, the main Jewish organization in France, as well as the National Office for Vigilance Against Antisemitism (BNVCA) and the International League Against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA). After a three-month trial, the court deemed that in quoting the hadith, it had not been Tataiat’s intention to “provoke hatred or discrimination.”
Since the authenticity of this hadith is not in question, one can understand why the act of simply quoting it might not be regarded as a criminal offense, even in countries, like France, with stringent hate-speech laws on the books. But as with any kind of hate speech, context is key.
Two considerations should be borne in mind. Firstly, the hadith about the Muslims fighting the Jews on Judgement Day has long been an established component of radical Islamist texts; for example, a PBS Frontline investigation into Saudi school textbooks in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in the United States 20 years ago revealed its use in the book used for religious studies. If the Toulouse court had approached the Tataiat case with any diligence, it would have noted this hadith’s militant pedigree, as well as the fact that Tataiat was not the only imam who invoked it in a sermon attacking the U.S. embassy move.
Secondly, the court could have watched the video of the relevant section of Tataiat’s sermon, which is available on the website of the U.S. think-tank, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). In his sermon, Tataiat is heard quoting the hadith before explaining it as follows: “This hadith was narrated by Imam Muslim (a ninth-century Persian scholar revered in Sunni Islam). The Christians and the Jews also believe these prophecies.” Without further comment on the hadith, Tataiat then related a fabricated anecdote about the “Israeli prime minister” fretting that the Jewish state “would not live longer than 76 years—as is written in the prophecies of [the Jews].” Bolstering this apocalyptic prediction of Israel’s impending doom, Tataiat then quoted an unnamed journalist who attended the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres as supposedly saying that the occasion marked not the funeral of Peres but the “funeral of Israel.”
Critically, nothing that Tataiat said amounted to criticism of the hadith’s message in any way. But by hiding behind an early medieval Islamic text and by loosely connecting contemporary events with its core message that the Jews’ days on earth are numbered, he was able to convince a court in France that his intentions were noble.
Of course, the French judiciary doesn’t need much persuading that anti-Semitism is a phantom invented by overly paranoid Jews. One Jewish leader compared the Toulouse court’s decision in the Tataiat case to the shocking decision earlier this year in the case of Sarah Halimi, the Jewish woman murdered in her Paris apartment on April 4, 2017 by an intruder who shouted Islamist slogans as he beat her to death. After four years of insult and heartache inflicted on French Jews as they waited for a formal announcement of the criminal trial of Halimi’s killer, Kobili Traoré, in April 2021 the country’s highest court announced that he would be excused from such a trial on the spurious grounds that his intake of cannabis in the hours before the killing had rendered him temporarily insane, and therefore criminally irresponsible. There is clearly a habit in French courts of ignoring the substantive charges whenever the problem of anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, with a focus instead on procedural matters that work to the advantage of the accused.
The problem is that in democracies, we rely on the police and the judiciary to enforce the rule of law. Elected politicians can pass laws, but they cannot enforce them directly. As necessary as that separation of powers is, when it comes to France we are compelled to conclude that the many condemnations of anti-Semitism proffered by French politicians are worth zilch for as long as French courts dismiss Jewish fears of anti-Semitism as an irritation—and nothing more.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.