PARIS — The killing of French Jew Sarah Halimi and subsequent efforts to deny its anti-Semitic motives represent a turning point for France’s Jewish community and must seen as a “warning sign” of the country’s changing attitudes towards Jews.
That is the message William Attal, Halimi’s brother, is seeking to stress to both the French community and to Jews around the world.
Speaking to the Times of Israel this week in the Paris suburb where he grew up and still lives, Attal, 62, described the killing and its treatment by police as “a modern day Dreyfus affair,” referring to the late-19th century trial in which a Jewish army officer was falsely labeled a traitor to the French Republic after he was accused of passing secrets to Germany.
“Here too, there is a willing blindness on behalf of the French authorities to see and do justice,” Attal said, during the first in-depth interview anyone from the family has given since the April killing.
Halimi’s family has remained mostly silent as the case has roiled the Jewish community. While French Jews widely regard the killing as the latest in a series of Islamist attacks on the country’s large Jewish population (estimated at some 500,000-600,000), the authorities’ have refused to mark it a hate crime.
On April 4, in Paris’s 11th district, 64-year-old Halimi was tortured and thrown out of her third-story apartment to her death. The suspect, Kobili Traore, a Muslim neighbor of Halimi’s who lives in the same building, was reportedly heard by witnesses during the attack shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “Allah is the greatest,” reciting passages from the Koran and declaring that he was “the devil” who had come to kill her.
Beyond the brutal details of the killing, there has been a deep sense of shock within the Jewish community at the French authorities’ failure to recognize the attack as an anti-Semitic hate crime, with some leaders calling this a cover-up aimed at hiding the true nature of the attack.
Last week, prosecutors presented an indictment against 27-year-old Traore for voluntary manslaughter that contained no mention of the aggravated element of a hate crime. Despite confessing to the killing, Traore, who reportedly has no history of mental illness, is currently being held by police in a psychiatric hospital as per his drug-induced temporary insanity claim.
Macron speaks out
CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish community, used uncharacteristically harsh language in criticizing the indictment, describing it as an “omerta,” the Italian-language mafia term for a cover-up among accomplices.
“CRIF is astonished that the anti-Semitic character of the murder was omitted,” read the statement from the organization. “What is being hidden? Why this denial of anti-Semitism?”
In a significant boost for the campaign to recognize Halimi’s killing as an anti-Semitic attack, French President Emanuel Macron called on Sunday for “clarity” over the incident, implying that some had sought to ignore the anti-Semitic nature of the attack. “We were silent, because we did not want to see,” he said.
Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup of French Jews during World War II, Macron said that “despite the denials of the murderer, our judiciary must bring total clarity around the death of Sarah Halimi.”
The speech was welcomed by the Jewish community and seen by Attal as small victory in the family’s fight for proper recognition of the killing.
“It is a step towards restoring justice,” Attal said hours after the speech. “It shows that the story has now become a national scandal.”
Sitting outside a Jewish-owned convenience store in the Creteil suburb of Paris, Attal said that while the president’s words represent progress, they alone are not enough to correct the damage done by the case so far. That can only come through concrete actions. “Every day that the murderer is in a psychiatric hospital and not a prison it adds even more pain and disrespect towards the family,” said Attal.
The incident is bigger that his own family’s struggle for justice, Attal stressed, describing the killing as “just one a brutal example” of worrying trends in French society.
“The society is repeating the exact same thing that was done to my parents in Algeria in order to kick out the Jews,” the retired business owner said, describing how his parents fled the North African country in 1946.
“No one can deny that situation has deteriorated for the Jews,” Attal insisted, noting increasing attacks over the past decade which he says have led him to fear for the safety of the Jewish community, and his family.
Attal sees his sister’s case as a further escalation. “First, Jews were attacked at a Jewish school,” he said, referring to the 2011 shooting of a teacher and three children at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse. “Then they came into a Jewish supermarket,” he said of the 2015 assault on the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket in which four Jews were murdered by radical Islamic terrorists. “Now, with my sister, they have come into a Jewish home, a direct violation of what should be a safe space.”
Living in fear
That fear was at times palpable — both we arranged our interview with Attal, and during the conversation itself.
Wishing to prevent drawing attention to his own home, Attal, a stout man with a short beard and a warm smile, asked to instead meet at a nearby store, but would not agree for photos to be taken at the site for fear of turning it into a target. Minutes into the hour-long conversation, this reporter was asked to remove or cover up his skullcap. Attal, who describes himself as religious, wore a baseball cap to cover his head and said he had forbidden his children from wearing skullcaps in public.
The Halimi family has largely stayed out of the public debate over Sarah’s death, choosing to air its concerns directly to the police rather than publicly. Halimi’s two daughters declined to speak on record with The Times of Israel, citing the emotional trauma they are carrying.
Attal, however, said he could no longer keep quiet. “I didn’t want to talk about it for a long time, but I can no longer remain silent in the face of this lack of justice. I feel like I have no choice but to tell the full story of what happened,” he said, adding that he hoped his sister’s death would act as a “warning sign” to both the French Jewish community and Jews around the world.
Reading from both the police report and the autopsy with his voice cracking and tears in his eyes, Attal shared some of the previously unknown details of the final moments of his sister’s life. As he began to read, two of his children, aged 16 and 20, who had accompanied him to the interview, asked to step away from the table, unable to listen to the harrowing description.
Attal recounted that the attack began at around 4 a.m. on the morning of April 4 when the suspect, who lived in the apartment underneath Hailmi’s, broke into her home via the residence of other neighbors, a family originally from Mali.
Traore is said to have knocked on their door and forced his way in, appearing so aggressive and agitated and murmuring Koranic verses, that they all locked themselves in a bedroom and called the police. Carrying a prayer mat and a change of clothes, he told the family that “today there will be death.” He then made his way to Halimi’s apartment through their balcony, according to the police report.
“She tried to call the police but the batteries apparently fell from the phone as he began to beat her with his fists,” the report said. The phone was later found on the balcony covered in blood. Neighbors, who placed a further three calls to the police, said that Halimi could be heard screaming for help.
Police had arrived just three minutes after the first call, but made their way to the wrong building at first. Once they were at the apartment, they decided to call for back-up rather than breaking down the locked door. Afraid they were facing a terror attack, they waited for the anti-terror squad. By the time the special unit arrived, at around 5 a.m., Halimi was dead.
Blood trails and hair found at the scene suggest Halimi was beaten unconscious and dragged to the balcony, where she was hurled to her death three stories below. The autopsy determined that her skull, eye sockets, and cheeks had all be broken by punches to the face. Almost whispering, Attal said that the coroner believed she was alive when thrown, and that she died on impact.
Witness testimony, including a six-minute video of the incident filmed from the opposite building and given to the police, showed that Traore shouted “Allahu Akbar” and recited Koranic verses while assaulting Halimi. At one point, Halimi could be heard shouting, “Call the police, Call the police.”
Traore responded, “Call the police, the devil is here.”
The grisly details of the killing and the manner in which it was carried out, according to Attal, leave “absolutely no doubt that this was a pre-planned, Islamic terror attack” against someone who was known by the neighbors to be Jewish.
“There is no way that this can be denied,” Attal said, expressing his shock that French authorities, despite the police report, maintain the attack was not terrorism.
Time to leave
The family will not give up on seeking official recognition of an anti-Semitic motive to the attack, Attal said, but they will soon have to continue their fight from nearly 3,000 miles away, in Israel.
Next month, in a direct response to the murder, Attal said he, along with his wife and four children, are making aliyah with the Jewish Agency, as part of an International Fellowship of Christians and Jews program to bring French Jews to the country. Attal’s nieces are also expected to join their brother in Israel. (The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews arranged the interview with Attal.)
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, IFCJ president, told the Times of Israel that his organization’s program, which provides new immigrants with financial aid on arrival, is aimed at helping French Jews “suffering from regular aggression and serious violence, from Muslim extremists that live in the suburbs where the Jews live as a besieged minority.”
“The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has been active in the realm of aliyah (immigration to Israel) since the early 1990s. Throughout more than two decades, the Fellowship donated close to $186m. to facilitate immigration via the Jewish Agency. In November 2014, the Fellowship established an independent immigration bureau which has expanded every year and brought higher numbers of immigrants to Israel,” according to Fellowship spokeswoman Chava Magder-Cohen.
The IFCJ program has received a mixed response, with representatives from the Jewish Agency criticizing Eckstein for “taking credit” for the work they put into processing each new immigrant. A senior official stressed to The Times of Israel Tuesday that while Attal may be flying with the IFCJ, their immigration has been processed and managed by the Jewish Agency.
Joelle Eckstein, the rabbi’s wife, met with Attal this week during a visit to France ahead of a Tuesday flight bringing 150 new immigrants to Israel. Eckstein told The Times of Israel that there was no rift with the Jewish Agency.
“In this instance, we saw a vacuum and a place where we could help, so we came in to do that,” she said, noting that the IFJC was not seeking to replace other organizations working in the field but rather to help immigrants, like Attal, who need the additional support.
Attal said he had planned to move to Israel before his sister’s death, but the incident sped up the process and “gave me the absolute certainty, and all of my family, that we need to do this now.”
According to Attal, his sister had also wanted to move to Israel.
“She always dreamed of aliyah and wanted to live next to her son in Israel, but she stayed in France in order to help with her grandchildren,” he said. “Now her children are making aliyah without her and can only visit her grave in Jerusalem.”
Raoul Wootliff was flown to France as a guest of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.