Ignoring, Excusing, Enabling: Sorbonne Scholar Probes French Media’s Attitude on Rising Antisemitism
In the week that has passed since the judicial announcement that the murderer of Sarah Halimi — the 65-year-old Jewish woman beaten to death in her Paris home by an antisemitic intruder in April 2017 — may be released without trial on mental health grounds, the French media has duly reported this latest development and swiftly moved on.
This disinterested attitude defined the French media’s approach to the case from the moment it became clear that the killer — Halimi’s neighbor, Kobili Traore — had previously targeted her with antisemitic abuse and had yelled slogans including, “Allahu Akhbar,” as he beat her mercilessly, before throwing her out of a third floor window to her death.
According to Yana Grinshpun — an antisemitism scholar at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris — the media’s attitude stems from an ideologically-rooted refusal to recognize that antisemitism within the Muslim community is a grim reality.
Grinshpun gave a paper on the French media’s attitude to antisemitism at a major conference in Berlin last month that was co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (ISCA) at Indiana University. In her talk, she quoted a telling observation made by Mohamed Merah — the Islamist gunman who murdered three French soldiers, three Jewish children and a Jewish teacher during a week-long killing spree in March 2012 — during his interrogation.
“I knew that if I killed soldiers and Jews, the message would come across,” Merah explained. “Because if I had killed civilians, the French people would say, ‘Here is a madman from Al Qaeda, just a terrorist, he kills civilians.'”
According to Grinshpun, this same notion that Jews are not quite as innocent as other civilians because of their ties to Israel, and therefore to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, is rife throughout the French media and is regularly encountered by the French public.
“Whatever the media is, left-wing or right-wing, you always find these anti-Zionist and antisemitic articles,” Grinshpun told The Algemeiner in a recent interview.
“If you take Le Figaro, which is on the center-right, if you take Le Monde, which is on the center-left, if you take Libération or L’Humanité (left-wing dailies) or La Croix (a Catholic daily), we cannot say about any of them, as would be the case in the US, that there are media in France that are pro-Israeli,” Grinshpun said. “They don’t exist.”
Grinshpun pointed out that the vast majority of French media outlets unquestioningly follow the editorial guidelines for reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict circulated by Agence France Presse (AFP), the national news agency.
“AFP strongly advises against using the word ‘terrorist’ when you have a terrorist attack in Israel,” Grinshpun said. “So when it happens, the headline would be something like ‘Truck Hits Pedestrians in Jerusalem,’ or, ‘Shooting in Tel Aviv.’ No human agency is involved.”
On the other hand, Grinshpun continued, “when it’s in France, you will read headlines like ‘Terrorist Attack in Nice: Dozens Killed.'” Similarly glaring inconsistencies apply to terrorist groups as well. “If it’s Al Qaeda, you can say ‘terrorist,’ but the word is rarely used in the case of Hamas or Hezbollah,” Grinshpun said.
Similar considerations apply when it comes to attacks on French Jews by members of the Muslim community. Twelve Jews, Sarah Halimi among them, have been brutally murdered in the upsurge of antisemitism that began in France nearly 20 years ago, in every case by the hand of a Muslim. Yet the tendency in the French media, Grinshpun said, is to rationalize such acts.
“The media often talks about the ‘despair’ of the Palestinians, and there is a similar approach here in France,” Grinshpun said. The Paris judges who recommended that Traore, Halimi’s killer, be excused a criminal trial on the grounds that his chronic consumption of marijuana had left him mentally unfit at the time of the killing were in some ways echoing the narrative around the Halimi case already constructed by many French news outlets.
“We now have this concept of an ‘unbalanced person,'” Grinshpun noted — a category of people who cannot be held legally responsible for criminal acts, even when the act in question is a murder.
“The media doesn’t appreciate that there are two consequences to this approach, which I call ‘propaganda’ because there is no other word to describe it,” Grinshpun said. “The first consequence is to legitimize Palestinian terrorism against the Jewish population in Israel. The second consequence is that this emphasis on ‘despair’ and ‘victimhood’ legitimizes terrorism as an effective method of political struggle in the world more generally.”
A further consequence is that media coverage largely refrains from examining the bigotry against Jews that too often underlies acts of terrorism and violence, Grinshpun said. In the Halimi case, she noted, “the antisemitic character of the crime was recognized because of the action of the Jewish community here in protesting. It was not possible to ignore the letters and petitions and protests, and some more marginal media outlets did cover that.”
But, she continued, “overall, the impression we are left with is that if the media could have silenced the Halimi story, they would have done.”