PARIS – Journalist Noémie Halioua’s life hasn’t been the same since she answered an unexpected call last year in her office at Actualité Juive, a Paris-based Jewish weekly where she works as culture editor.
On May 18, 2017, as she was about to eat lunch at her desk, the phone rang. An unfamiliar male voice asked Halioua if she were a journalist and if she recognized the name Sarah Halimi.
Six weeks earlier, during France’s presidential election campaign, Halimi, a 65-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman, was savagely murdered in her Paris apartment by a neighbor. Kobili Traoré, the 27-year-old French-born son of Muslim immigrants from Mali, beat Halimi repeatedly before throwing her off the balcony into a courtyard three floors below. Neighbors reported hearing her screams for mercy while Traoré shouted verses from the Quran and “Allahu Akbar,” the Arabic phrase Islamic terrorists often holler when carrying out attacks.
Initially, the murder was largely ignored by France’s non-Jewish media. A brief item in a Paris newspaper had reported an elderly woman died after falling off her balcony in a tragic accident. Critics charged this lack of objective coverage arose out of fear of encouraging popular support for the anti-immigrant National Front’s election campaign.
Halioua listened attentively to the plaintive voice of the man on the other end of the phone, who identified himself as William Attal, the younger brother of Halimi. He said that a few days earlier while consulting the police dossier on his sister’s murder, he had learned more about the anti-Semitic nature of the crime.
Halioua’s phone conversation with Attal led to a 11-month journalistic probe resulting in her recently published book, “L’affaire Sarah Halimi.”
Accusing the media and public authorities of, at best, indifference and, at worst, a cover-up, in that first phone call Attal told Halioua that when he contacted other journalists to tell them of the murder, no one believed him. Had it happened as he claimed, they said, the media would have already covered it.
For their part, the police initially dragged their feet in their investigation. They refused to classify the murder as anti-Semitic, suggesting it was an isolated crime, albeit lurid, committed by someone mentally unstable.
Attal was aghast, saying everyone seemed intent either on suppressing the story or refusing to acknowledge it as a hate crime. He claimed there were incriminating details showing the murderer targeted Halimi because she was Jewish. Even worse, police and neighbors, he insisted, could have saved her during the protracted assault, but failed to act.
Attal appealed to Halioua to get the facts out, saying Traoré, who had confessed to the murder, might never face trial. After claiming insanity, he was promptly sent to a psychiatric hospital without being investigated by the police.
“When William Attal called me, he was understandably upset,” says Halioua, 28, during a recent interview with The Times of Israel in a Paris café beside Place de la République. “As he spoke, I told myself not to assume everything he said was accurate. I know very well that someone who’s in mourning and suffering can’t be both judge and jury. It was the brother of the victim of a terrible crime. I took what he said for what it was, but still his allegations disturbed me.”
The conversation with Attal made a strong impact on Halioua. His despondent but combative manner touched her as much as the murder and lack of media interest angered her. She wondered if it wasn’t yet another in an awful series of anti-Semitic attacks by Islamic radicals that had tormented France’s Jewish community over the past 15 years.
Halioua set aside the novel she’d been writing in her spare time, and switched to nonfiction, which eventually became “L’affaire Sarah Halimi.”
For Halioua, and for other French Jews, the name of this latest victim harked back to another notorious Halimi affair. In 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Paris resident, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a criminal gang, led by a radical Islamist, that targeted their victim because he was Jewish. Only later, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, did French authorities finally acknowledge the anti-Semitic motivation of the killers of Halimi (no relation to Sarah).
French authorities also needed much persuasion to label this new Halimi case a hate crime.
In Halioua’s book, the first chapter is devoted to the phone call that started her investigation. Halioua describes the homicide and subsequent twists and turns in Attal’s quest for justice. She doesn’t hide her disillusionment with the French media, political class and judiciary due to their tepid response to what, in her mind, was an obviously anti-Semitic murder.
On the book’s first page, Halioua writes: “When William Attal called me and recounted the details of his sister’s murder, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of indignation that I transformed into a book. The barbarism of the crime and the indifference it received from neighbors, the media and politicians were scandalous. I felt the need to break this glass ceiling and restore dignity to the victim.”
Born into a Sephardi family just east of Paris, Halioua grew up in a suburb north of the city. She’s the third of four children whose father was born in Morocco and whose mother was born in Paris to parents from Algeria.
After earning a degree in psychology from Paris Descartes University, Halioua went to India to volunteer with a humanitarian organization involved in community programs. She did volunteer work for a local newspaper, including writing articles which gave her an appreciation of journalism. After returning to France, she interned at the Le Figaro newspaper and the Jewish magazine l’Arche. In late 2016, she joined Actualité Juive.
Today, after her work on the book, she sees Halimi’s murder as a significant event in French Jewish history.
“I don’t think it will be forgotten,” she says in French. “Psychologically, it was such a shock. Of course, it’s not the first horrific attack against Jews in France. What’s different was the attacker sought out his victim in her home. So now Jews no longer feel safe even in their homes. The murder triggered a new level of fear.”
The real-life plot of a horror film
As Halioua recounts in disturbing detail in her book, Halimi suffered a frenzy of sadistic violence which, months later, the Washington Post described as “resembling the plot of a horror film.”
At around 4 a.m. on April 4, 2017, Traoré gained access to Halimi’s apartment via a neighbor’s adjoining balcony. Wakened from her sleep by noise, she discovered Traoré in her living room where he assaulted her during a 40-minute rampage.
Due to Halimi’s screams, Traoré’s loud curses and the intensity of the violence, neighbors heard the killing unfold. So did police who arrived earlier after being notified by residents. Tragically, they never intervened.
Neighbors could see the beating from their windows and beseeched Traoré to stop. After beating Halimi viciously, he threw her body from a balcony to the courtyard below. Police later found Halimi’s living room soaked in blood.
As part of her research, Halioua twice went to 26 Rue Vaucouleurs in Paris’s Belleville district where Halimi lived for 30 years. A retired kindergarten teacher, she was the only Jewish resident in the six-story public housing project where she raised three children. It’s also where Traoré called Halimi and her visiting daughter “dirty Jewesses” on several occasions when they crossed paths in the hall.
Accompanied by Halimi’s brother, Halioua tried to interview neighbors. Most refused. Some were hostile, clearly afraid of possible reprisals.
“Among those who agreed to speak were neighbors who lived on the same floor as Halimi,” recalls Halioua, who interviewed about 15 people for the book. “It was a Muslim family by the name of Kadda who were away when the murder occurred. The couple invited us into their living room where they spoke tearfully and with great affection for Halimi. They said if they had been home when it happened, they would’ve wanted to save her. I could really feel the sadness in their voices.”
Another resident, who insisted on anonymity, said Halimi had told her of her fear of Traoré. The woman lamented the neighborhood had become increasingly radicalized in recent years by Muslim fundamentalists who frequented the nearby Omar Mosque, notorious for its extreme Salafist version of Islam. On the day before Traoré murdered Halimi, he went twice to the mosque to pray.
Also, that same day, as Halioua reports in the book, Halimi’s sister called her from Israel and urged her to move there given her uneasiness about where she was living and worsening anti-Semitism in France.
Rectifying a systemic failure
Halioua’s book has helped raise awareness of the Halimi case and why many French Jews see it as another example of public officials failing to recognize and prosecute murderous anti-Semitism.
In a chapter titled “And the President Said Her Name,” Halioua focuses on the role of President Emmanuel Macron in calling for police and judicial authorities to better address the crime. More than three months after the murder, he participated in an official ceremony marking 75 years since the infamous Nazi-directed Vel d’Hiv Roundup in which French police arrested 13,000 Jews in Paris on July 16, 1942. Most were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.
In his speech, after denouncing the litany of anti-Semitic attacks in France in recent years, citing each victim by name, Macron said: “Despite the murderer’s denials, the judicial system must bring total clarity to the death of Sarah Halimi.”
Spoken at an event evoking French complicity in the Holocaust – which France only officially acknowledged decades later – Macron’s words had added poignancy.
Last April, days after “L’affaire Sarah Halimi” came out and while Halioua was busy promoting the book, France was once again shaken by another heinous killing of an elderly Jewish woman living alone in Paris, this time a Holocaust survivor. In sharp contrast to the Halimi murder, the Paris prosecutor quickly labeled Mireille Knoll’s death a hate crime.
“This latest murder reinforced the substance of my book and made it even more topical,” says Halioua. “However, I found far fewer anti-Semitic elements in the case than with the Halimi murder. Paradoxically, despite less evidence of anti-Semitism, it provoked a strong public revulsion within days. Of course, the fact the victim was a Holocaust survivor made it more powerful.”
Since Sarah Halimi’s murder, the case has endured a slow, convoluted journey through France’s legal system. At one point, the chief prosecutor for Paris met with French Jewish leaders, telling them the murder didn’t have an anti-Semitic nature but was still under investigation. An attorney for the Halimi family told journalists the murderer had “the profile of a radical Islamist and yet somehow there’s resistance to call a spade a spade.”
Following her death, Halimi was buried in Jerusalem. A few months later, Attal moved to Israel with his family, due to the anti-Semitic murder of his sister and the worsening situation of Jews in France. Earlier this year, to honor the memory of Halimi, relatives and friends created a charity in her name – Derech Sarah – to help French Jews immigrating to Israel. It provides educational support to children of immigrants having difficulty adjusting to Israel’s school system.
Two months ago, following a second psychiatric assessment of Traoré requested by a judge, the court said he was unfit to stand trial. This contradicted a ruling earlier this year. A third evaluation of Traoré is now underway, ordered by the investigating magistrate. If the result, expected next month, determines he is mentally unstable, he’ll avoid prison.
Traoré, whom Halouia tried unsuccessfully to interview, previously spent several years in prison for aggravated violence, drug dealing and other offenses, for which he was never sent to a psychiatric hospital.
“From the outset, the judge has seemed to have wanted to avoid a trial,” says Halioua. “I fear that, alas, the killer won’t stand trial for his crime.”
A symptom of the downfall of French culture
Halioua doesn’t mince words about the implications of the Halimi murder.
“With this attack, you get the impression of being confronted with a new level of unbearable violence, directed at both Sarah Halimi and by extension the Jewish community,” says Halioua. “Yes, this affair is about Sarah Halimi but it’s also about French Jews. It’s a symptom of the growing anti-Jewish hate today in France’s Arab-Muslim milieu.”
Halioua’s next book will be on Sarcelles, the Paris suburb where she grew up, focusing on how its once vibrant Jewish community has declined as many Jews left for safer areas due to hostility from Muslim neighbors, a phenomenon occurring in other French cities as well. One of 15 journalists and authors to write a chapter in a recently published book titled “Le Nouvel Antisémitisme en France,” she is concerned by the impact on Jews.
“While promoting my book, appearing at events with Jewish audiences, I’ve seen a lot of fear among people,” says Halioua. “French Jews are terrorized by what’s happened in recent years and they’re looking for answers. They need answers. When you see the number of French Jews leaving for Israel or talking about it, you understand the degree of pessimism about the future.” Among those is Hiloua’s mother, who left for Israel two years ago.
“Like many French Jews, my mother sees her future in Israel, not in France,” says Hiloua, who has visited Israel many times. “She feels as if France abandoned her as a Jew. It’s the same with many others who’ve left. It’s partly Zionism but also feeling abandoned by your own country.”
Halioua sees the plight of Jews as part of a larger problem.
“Anti-Semitism in France is also a question of the disintegration of the French model,” says Halioua. “The people who hate Jews also often hate France, too. That’s a fairly recent phenomenon. Looking at the bigger picture, you realize France itself is in danger due to this issue of anti-Semitism.”
Since that fateful phone call from Halimi’s brother 18 months ago, Halioua has thought long and hard about the murdered woman.
“The case has definitely changed me,” says Halioua. “It showed me in a difficult way that anti-Semitism is no longer theoretical. In becoming interested in this affair, Sarah Halimi’s suffering and the human dimension I confronted marked me very much. It didn’t change my view of the world or of the situation of Jews in France, but I now know it more profoundly and understand it better.”