Sarah Halimi, Sisyphus and the Denial of Antisemitic Violence
JNS.org — 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 finally demanded that the judiciary shed light on the nature of the crime.
“Despite the denials of the murderer, our judiciary must bring total clarity around the death of Sarah Halimi,” Macron said. “We were silent, because we did not want to see.”
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.
Halimi’s face and body were fractured in a brutal murder on April 4. She had been afraid of her attacker and his sister’s antisemitic insults for some time. Her assassin called her a “dirty whore” and “Sheitane” (Arabic for Satan), and recited verses from the Quran as he beat her severely, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater) before defenestrating her.
All of France should have been shocked by this horror, and should have risen in unison asking for truth and justice in support of this woman, who was 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 antisemitic act.
All of us trying to draw attention to antisemitic violence in France find ourselves 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 antisemitic incidents? How many times have we heard attempts by the authorities to “relativize” the situation, to explain that there is no new antisemitism — that the rise in antisemitic acts is only hooliganism?
In 2006, very few protested the kidnapping, 24-day torture and the subsequent murder of Ilan Halimi. But notably, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, declared that the murder was an antisemitic crime. This affirmation set the stage for yet another battle over acknowledging the source of the new antisemitism.
It also meant understanding that antisemitism does not only concern Jews, but rather all of French society — and that it is a virulent cancer. 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 our efforts. The Foundation for Political Innovation carried out a study together with the American Jewish Committee, pointing out that vehement antisemitism 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 antisemitism.” And DILCRAH — a ministerial delegation opposing racism, antisemitism and anti-LGBT hate — proposed a plan to fight this scourge, which was adopted by France’s government.
Maybe it is 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 lady 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, President Macron has broken down the wall of indifference that surrounded this drama, and has stood up for all of us — and 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 antisemitism in our country.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris-based Europe branch.