Background Report a Case of Murder or Anti-semitism?

In this provincial city of 100,000, tucked away in the Jura mountains 400 kilometers southeast of Paris, nine out of 10 of the inhabitants had never heard of William Nakash, a 25-year-old French Jew of North African origin, of Avraham Sharir, the Justice Minister of Israel, or of the fierce legal battle that erupted in Israel when Sharir refused last week to extradite Nakash to France for the crime of murder.

Now, however, the case is front-page news. The local daily, “Le Republicain De L’est,” devoted a full page to it last Friday and the police, the city fathers and the townsfolk, including the tiny Jewish community, are angered by the obloquy heaped on Besancon and its citizens by Nakash’s defenders.

Nakash, known to his friends as “Vivi,” was convicted in absentia by a French court for the murder, with two accomplices, of 20-year-old Abdelali Hakkar, an Algerian Arab, on the night of February 24, 1983.

He was given a life sentence, a formality under French law when a defendant flees the country. The law provides for automatic re-trial when the fugitive is apprehended.

Nakash fled to Israel under an assumed name. Only after he was arrested there for attempted robbery did his identity become known and France requested extradition. Suddenly, he was surrounded by supporters. Nakash, who claims to be a Baal Tshuva, has been passionately defended by Orthodox Jews and rightwing nationalist elements.

They have depicted him as a hero who killed an Arab in self-defense, a “nationalistic” act forced on him by unbearable harassment by Jew hating Arabs, abetted by a climate of rampant anti-Semitism in Besancon.

SORTING OUT THE FACTS

Was that true? This reporter visited Besancon to find out what happened on the night of the murder, the background and motivation for the crime, and the political climate here. And, is Besancon indeed known for its anti-Semitism or racist feelings?

The court minutes of the trial of a 24-year-old Algerian, Hassen Hamoudi, one of Nakash’s accomplices, provided some answers. In May 1984, Hamoudi was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. The second accomplice, Charlie Mimi, a 23-year-old youth of mixed race, was arrested in Miami, Florida, on April 15, 1985 and will go on trial here January 16.

The charge sheets against the three suspects, interviews and on-and-off-the-record conversations with police officials, prosecuting attorneys, local reporters and some of the city’s 500 Jews yielded more information.

The police inspector who was in charge of the case, a veteran of the Paris Serious Crimes Squad, confessed to be “deeply surprised” by the agitation and political turmoil.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” he told this reporter, the murder was “a straightforward settling of accounts which got out of hand. Vivi, a small-time hoodlum who tried to play the tough guy, got carried away…There was no racket, no gang warfare. Politics? Anti-Semitism? You must be out of your mind to imagine something like this. Atoush (the victim’s nickname) would probably not have found Israel on a map and cared as much about politics as about last winter’s snow.”

‘REVOLTED’ BY INSINUATION OF ANTI-SEMITISM

Jacques Lorach, president of the Besancon branch of LICRA, the International League Against Anti-Semitism, told this reporter he was “revolted” by insinuations that Besancon might be a hotbed of anti-Semites.

Lorach, a 72-year-old lawyer, served as Deputy Mayor for 25 years. “Never in all my life, and certainly not in my political career, have I heard or been told about any anti-Semitic remark,” he said. “Not even my bitterest political opponents, including the extreme right, have ever tried to use this weapon (anti-Semitism) against me.”

Lorach’s wife, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who lost most of her family at Auschwitz, founded a local museum in honor of French Jewish deportees in the Citadel which overlooks the city. It is one of the largest and most impressive memorials to the Holocaust outside the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

It was financed exclusively by the city and the regional authorities. The museum covers four floors and has a staff of more than 20. At its entrance, carved in rock, stands a figure representing the Jewish deportees, a gift of the region’s best known sculptor, Gerard Oudinot.

Ironically, Oudinot’s son was guilty of the only anti-Semitic manifestation known in Besancon, one seized upon by Nakash’s defenders in Israel as “proof” of an anti-Semitic atmosphere. The young man posted a sign outside a cafe he owned saying “Jews and monkeys are forbidden to enter this bar.” He was sued by LICRA and fined 5,000 Francs.

“There might be anti-Semites in Besancon–we cannot read into peoples’ hearts,” Lorach said. “AII I know is that after the Rue Copernic Synagogue bombing (in Paris in 1980) over 3,000 people marched in protest through this city’s streets.” There are 150 Jewish families and fewer than 500 Jews in Besancon.

BACKGROUND OF LOCAL JEWISH COMMUNITY

About a third of them came here from North Africa in the 1950′s and early 1960′s They have had integration problems. Besancon is a cold city, climatically and psychologically. But those who spoke to this reporter said they encountered no anti-Semitism.

What of Nakash’s family? Its first member to arrive in Besancon was Vivi’s older brother, Marco, born in 1954 in Setif, Algeria, when it was still a Department of France. The entire family moved to France after Algerian independence. In 1958 they settled in Bagneux, a poor and dreary Paris suburb.

Marco worked as a clerk, then as a salesman at a flea market. In 1976 he was arrested and sentenced for pimping. After serving time, he arrived in Besancon and took a job as a waiter at a restaurant/bar owned by a Jewish family from Algeria, the EI Beze brothers. One of the latter reportedly has a criminal record.

HOODS WORK OVER RECALCITRANT PATRONS

Later, Marco opened a bar of his own in partnership with an Alsatian Catholic couple. It was called “The Select.” Like other bars in town, it catered to a working class, and , in some cases, criminal clientele. When patrons failed to settle their bills, musclemen were hired to “collect.”

One of the bar’s problem customers was Hakkar, who drank a lot, didn’t pay and boasted of it to his friends. He was known locally as a hoodlum. According to Hassen Hamoudi’s testimony at his trial, Vivi Nakash asked him and Charlie Mimi to help his brother Marco deal with the problem. The three of them were childhood friends from Bagneux.

Police stressed that Nakash would not have asked an Algerian Arab, Hamoudi, and Mimi, a mulatto, to help if his reasons for attacking Hakkar were political.

GUNS OBTAINED IN PARIS

The three obtained guns in Paris. According to Hamoudi, they planned to use them in a holdup and to give Hakkar no more than a thorough beating. Police tend to believe that version. After tracking down Hakkar on the night of February 24, they chased him. For some reason they panicked and opened fire. When police reached the scene of the shooting, Hakkar was dead with 14 bullets in his body.

The murder was quickly solved, but by then Nakash had fled to Israel and Mimi to Florida They got away because of a jurisdictional mixup at police headquarters between the city and regional police. Hamoudi was arrested a few days later in the south of France.

Janine Simonin, a non-Jewish lawyer who has close ties to the Jewish community here, said she was “horrified” by what she read and heard about the defense put up for Nakash in Israel.

As for anti-Semitism in Besancon, she recalled that when the Israeli Ambassador, Ovadia Soffer, visited the city last year “he was welcomed like a king.” The museum of the French Jewish deportees was decorated with huge Israeli flags. “Can anyone doubt our city’s feelings toward Israel?” she asked.

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court will decide whether or not to overrule Justice Minister Sharir’s decision not to deport Nakash.

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