Don’t Exclude Antisemitic Motive in Investigation of French Jewish Man’s Brutal Killing, Community Urges
France’s Jewish community has called on the authorities in the city of Lyon to retain the possibility of an antisemitic motive in the investigation of the chilling murder last Tuesday of an 89-year-old Jewish man.
René Hadjaj was pushed to his death on May 17 from the balcony on the 17th floor of the apartment building where he lived in the Duchère district of Lyon. Hadjaj’s murder brought to mind the similar fate met in April 2017 by Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman who was beaten and tortured in her apartment by an Islamist intruder who then ejected her from her third-floor window. The accused assailant, Kobili Traore, was excused from trial in April 2021, on the grounds that he could not be held criminally responsible, as his intake of marijuana on the night of Halimi’s killing had rendered him temporarily insane.
Police have arrested a 51-year-old man in connection with the killing of Hadjaj, described as a gentle man who was known as “Tonton René” (“Uncle René”) and had lived the Duchère district for over 20 years. However, critical details of the crime have yet to be made public — among them how Hadjaj, whose apartment was located on the second floor, ended up being pushed to his death from the 17th floor.
Local news outlet Le Progrès reported that the police in Lyon had examined and then discarded the possibility of an antisemitic motive, claiming that the killing was the result of a dispute between neighbors. The accused killer has not been named and no biographical details have been released. However, the BNCVA — a Paris-based antisemitism watchdog — has claimed that Hadjaj was acquainted with the man, and that he is a Muslim of Arab origin.
In a statement, the local chapter of Crif — the umbrella organization representing French Jews — said it would pay close attention “to the smooth running of the investigation and trusts the police and judicial authorities to ensure that the legal disaster in the Sarah Halimi case does not happen again.”
The statement added that “pending additional information and at the express request of the family whose mourning must be respected, no hasty conclusions should be reached or circulated as it stands.”
Francis Kalifat, Crif’s president, urged on Twitter that the police investigation into Hadjaj’s death be “as complete as possible and that the aggravating character of antisemitism retained even if it is later withdrawn.”
In a hard-hitting editorial, the French Jewish news outlet Tribune Juive asked pointedly how “the police, after having arrested the murderer … could have declared in the hours that followed that there was no antisemitic motive?”
The paper continued: “Why do we hide the identity of the murderer placed in pre-trial detention? Why did the prosecution, the investigating judge and the prefect remain silent, or in any case not hold a press conference, when this murder is out of the ordinary and is particularly heinous given the circumstances and the age of the victim?”
The rise of violent antisemitism in France over the last 20 years has featured several incidents of Jews being held captive and beaten in their own homes by antisemitic intruders. One year after Sarah Halimi’s murder, 85-year-old Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor, was stabbed and burned to death by two men, one of whom she had known since childhood, while in Sept. 2017, three members of the Pinto family were subjected to a vicious assault and robbery by an antisemitic gang who broke into their Paris home.
Earlier this year, the Jewish community in Paris was stunned by the death of 31-year-old Jérémy Cohen, who was fatally struck by a moving tram in the Paris suburb of Bobigny as he fled from a gang assault. Cohen’s mother later urged “caution” in ascribing an antisemitic motive behind the attack on her son, whose kippah, which could have identified him as a Jew, was discovered at the scene.
Separately, a study published in January by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Paris-based Fondapol think-tank revealed that the vast majority of French Jews — 74 percent — had experienced some form of “antisemitic behavior during their lives, from mockery to physical aggression, including insults or verbal threats.”
The study found common agreement that antisemitism in France is on an upward trajectory, with 64 percent of non-Jewish and 73 percent of Jewish respondents acknowledging the steep rise in prejudice targeting Jews over the last decade.