Ilan Halimi, 10 years on: Jewish Lives Matter
By Ben Cohen
In his preface to a recent publication from Fathom, a British magazine covering the Middle East, British lawyer and anti-Semitism expert Anthony Julius—always the author of a memorable phrase—denounced “anti-Zionism and its creature, the BDS movement,” as “one of the major political stupidities of our time.”
The import of Julius’s comment struck me as I was reflecting on the terrible fate of Ilan Halimi, the young French Jew who 10 years ago was kidnapped for ransom by a largely Muslim gang. Halimi spent nearly a month in the custody of these “barbarians”—that was what they called themselves—during which time they beat him, burned him, and tortured him. Halimi was left for dead by a railway track outside Paris on Feb. 13, 2006, and indeed, he did die of his wounds just a few hours after being discovered.
In the tumult that followed the murder, it emerged that Youssef Fofana, the gang leader, had targeted Halimi because he was a Jew, and Jews have money. It was a brutal demonstration to a skeptical French public that anti-Semitism within the Muslim community—often fueled by savage attacks on Israel’s right to exist and dark mutterings about the political influence of its Jewish supporters—is all too real.
Speaking at the recent 10th anniversary commemorating Halimi’s murder, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazneuve confessed, “Ten years after the murder we still feel this collective regret of hesitating to call the act by its true name—anti-Semitic hate.’’
That hate is also, as Anthony Julius might acknowledge, a monstrous form of political stupidity. Despite being one of the discredited ideologies that grounded totalitarianism in the last century, anti-Semitism has persisted into this one. Its followers have regrouped under the banner of the elimination not just of Israel, but of the empathy and affiliation with Israel that most Diaspora Jews feel towards it.
This onslaught upon Jewish empowerment and self-confidence has more than one symbol. At its depths, it is exemplified by the extraordinary cruelty Ilan Halimi was subjected to, solely because he was a Jew. In that regard, you might also include the murderous siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris last year, at the close of a week that began with an Islamist terror attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
At its “height”—and I use that word with reservation—it takes the form of either rationalizing anti-Semitism or denying that it exists altogether. Instead of understanding the Halimi murder as an act of hatred aimed at the Jewish people, some French intellectuals advise us that the “sentiment that a large section of black and Arab French youth feel toward the Jews is something quite different, having nothing in common with historic anti-Semitism.”
The authors of that claim, Messrs. Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, and Ivan Segre, then explain that it’s all Israel’s fault: “The young people we are referring to make an amalgam between the Israeli state’s anti-Palestinian repression and this distorted image of French Jews, which can lead them to believe all the Jews in the world, here and elsewhere, are their enemies.”
It is distasteful to think of Ilan Halimi’s torment as an “amalgam,” but this kind of explanation isn’t limited to these writers. Similar arguments have been made following other atrocities against European Jews, such as the murder of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, in which four people were killed.
Again, the pattern in these attacks is the same: the perpetrators were local Muslims (although it should be clarified that no foreign Islamist organization was involved in the Halimi murder) and the rationalizers were the same folks who portray BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) as a legitimate, non-violent cause. The net effect of both reinforces, quite simply, the sense that whether they are outside or inside Israel, Jews are overprivileged interlopers with malign and disproportionate influence. In other words, exactly the same political stupidity that prevailed in the darkest days of the 20th century.
Of course, anti-Zionism is unlikely to trigger another mass extermination of the Jews, but that’s a miserable standard to live by. Right now, it is the main contributor to the insecurity that European Jews too frequently encounter. Paradoxically, legal measures against the hate speech practiced by BDS supporters may lead some of its wilder followers to pursue further violence targeting Jews in frustration at the blunting of their campaign against Israel.
What the Jewish community should register is that, over the last decade, we have accumulated more than our fair share of what might be called, in different circumstances, “martyrs.” There is Halimi, and with him the other victims in Paris, Brussels, Toulouse, and even Israel, where random Palestinian attacks on Jewish civilians are inspired by the constant repetition of anti-Semitic motifs in Palestinian media. There is also the example of Alberto Nisman, the Argentine federal prosecutor who was likely murdered while pursuing an investigation into the previous Argentine government’s cover-up of Iranian responsibility for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Let me conclude with a thought in the form of a slogan: “Jewish Lives Matter.” As the AMIA and Nisman cases demonstrate, violence and terror against Jews and their institutions can go unpunished. As Europe demonstrates, living an openly Jewish life can mean going to shops and schools that are guarded by soldiers or armed police.
Ten years after Ilan Halimi’s death, governments no longer deny that there’s a problem, but their response is necessarily limited in impact—after all, today’s youthful bearers of anti-Semitism distrust their own politicians almost as much as they do the Jews themselves. Thereby do the Jews, once again, find themselves as the yardstick of Europe’s future social harmony. And that’s the last place they want to be.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org 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. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).