Is there antisemitism in modern France? The case of Sarah Halimi

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Is there antisemitism in modern France? The case of Sarah Halimi

The case of Sarah Halimi – the Jewish French school teacher who was murdered in 2017 – continues to cause upset in France. Why is the attacker not being persecuted? Is it because there is antisemitism in France?

The murder
The case of Sarah Halimi – the Jewish retired French school teacher who was assaulted and killed in her home in April 2017 – continues to cause upset in France. Sarah’s attacker yelled Allahu akbar while assaulting her, and after the attack declared, “I killed the devil.” This case is considered – especially by the Jewish community in France – a modern instance of antisemitism in France.[1] [2]

The murder of Sarah Halimi is not the first antisemitic murder in France and it has been compared to the murder of the holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in the same neighbourhood in 2018[3] and the murder of Ilan Halimi in 2011.[4]

Was the attacker unaware of his doings?
After the murder, it took a while for the French government to define the attack as antisemitic. Nevertheless, in 2019, the attacker was declared not to be criminally responsible for the attack by the French court. This is because he was under the effect of cannabis when he performed the assault. The court argued that the cannabis caused a state of psychosis, making the attacker unaware of what he was doing when murdering Sarah.[5] [6]

Is the French government denying the truth?
The murder of Sarah Halimi generated significant public reactions in France and beyond. Intellectuals, newspapers, media, politicians, and Jewish figures all asked for the investigation of antisemitism and Islamic terrorism as the possible motive for the attack. Many accused the French government and press of covering up the attack by attributing the responsibility to the effect of drugs rather than antisemitism.[7] [8] [9]

In 2017, seventeen academics asked to shed light “on the death of this French woman of Jewish religion killed at the cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’.” They condemned what they named “the denial of the real” and argued that “this crime of a rare barbarism did not receive enough media attention.”[10]

The response of the Jewish community
The decision of the French Court of Cassation in April 2021 led to rallies organised by Jewish communities not only in France but also in other places in Europe and in Israel. Those protesting demanded justice for Sarah Halimi.[11] [12] Protests and gatherings took place outside French embassies and consulates in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, Rome, London, Tel Aviv, and the Hague. Many social media posts, such as those published by Humans of Judaism – a popular Instagram account – also denounced the situation.[13]

Moreover, the CRIF – an umbrella group of French Jewish communities – defined the decision of the supreme court a “miscarriage of justice.” The founder of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism argued that he “no longer had full confidence that antisemitic hate crimes in France are handled properly.”[14] The president of the Consistoire, the country’s official Orthodox Jewish organisation, said at the rally that “this ruling is a watershed moment.”[15]

What do the French Jews want?
What French Jews are asking from the French government are two main changes. The first is for a new murder trial to be conducted. According to them, the perpetrator should be persecuted for what he did, beyond the question of mental health. The second thing the protesters are asking for is a new law in France that demands that someone who consumes drugs should be held responsible for their actions while under the effects of these drugs. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy proposed to call this new law ‘Sarah Halimi’s Law’. This change in the law would respond, according to him, to “the pressing need to respond to the acts of antisemitic and racist killers, even those intoxicated by drugs, or identitarian cult leaders, or Salafist imams.”[16] [17] 

Could Sarah Halimi’s case cause Jews to emigrate? 
It is difficult to determine whether the new developments in the case of Sarah Halimi will cause Jews to emigrate from France. In the past, episodes of antisemitism like this caused a wave of emigration of French Jews to Israel. In the past 10 years, around 50,000 Jews – out of a community of 449,000 – have already left France to go to Israel. The emigration reached its peak in 2015, after a wake of terrorist attacks in Jewish schools and institutions in France. Allyana Levy, a 20-year-old French student. stated: “Sometimes I think I’ll stay here, other times, like after the Sarah Halimi affair, I’m not so sure.” She also added: “When I’m afraid to walk in the street because I’m a woman, because I’m Jewish, it’s difficult. My nieces in Israel feel safe at all hours of the night. So you start thinking what’s better.”[18]

Thus, cases like this cause a lot of pain and fear among French Jews, especially after the experience of the Holocaust, which is still a fresh wound for Jews in Europe and around the world. We will have to see if France will be able to make Jewish people feel safe in their country. If not, many of them might eventually choose to emigrate.

Ghila Amati

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[1] Sarah Halimi: Frenchwoman’s sister seeks trial in Israel over killing

[2] Sarah Halimi: How killer on drugs escaped French trial for anti-Semitic murder

[3] Men suspected of Holocaust survivor’s murder will go on trial in Paris

[4] The rising tide of anti-Semitism

[5]French judge rules Jewish woman’s killer not responsible because he smoked weed

[6] Suspect in 2017 Paris killing of Jewish woman won’t stand trial

[7] In France, murder of a Jewish woman ignites debate over the word ‘terrorism’

[8] French intellectuals accuse authorities of covering up Jewish woman’s slaying by Muslim neighbor

[9] Sarah Halimi Was Murdered By a Muslim Attacker Reciting Verses From the Quran, But Was He a ‘Terrorist’?

[10] L’appel de 17 intellectuels: «Que la vérité soit dite sur le meurtre de Sarah Halimi»

[11] French Jews plan mass rally in Paris to demand justice for Sarah Halimi

[12] London rally called outside French embassy to protest Sarah Halimi verdict

[13] What’s going on with French Jews right now? What to know about the Sarah Halimi case and why it matters.

[14] French top court rules against trying Muslim who killed Sarah Halimi

[15] What’s going on with French Jews right now? What to know about the Sarah Halimi case and why it matters.

[16] Sarah Halimi’s Law

[17] France Seeks Change in Law After Outrage Over Verdict in Anti-Semitic Killing

[18] Infuriated by the Sarah Halimi ruling, French Jews scream about the state’s handling of anti-Semitism