JERUSALEM (Feb. 11)
Ilan Halimi, the young French Jew kidnapped and tortured to death by an anti-Semitic gang outside Paris last year in a murder that shocked his country, has found his final rest in Jerusalem.
Halimi was reburied in the capital’s Givat Shaul cemetery on a warm, sunny winter morning last Friday in front of a crowd of several hundred people, most of them French immigrants to Israel.
The day before his mother, two sisters and brother-in-law had accompanied the body from Paris, where it was unearthed that morning from a suburban cemetery.
The disinterment and reburial were arranged by the Jewish Agency for Israel and Pierre Besnainou, president of the European Jewish Congress and the United Social Funds of France.
In the cemetery’s small, packed ceremony room, family members tried to prevent their faces from being filmed by the many television and press cameramen present. They did not speak at the ceremony but listened, motionless, to officials who addressed the gathering.
Among the speakers were Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar; France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk; Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski; the French ambassador to Israel, Jean Michel Casa; Ze’ev Boim, Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption; and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“Why bury Ilan in Jerusalem?” Sitruk asked. “We Jews are believers, and we believe there are at least two lives, the one on Earth and the one we don’t see. Life on Earth ended for Ilan last year, and now this is the beginning of celestial voyage.”
Sitruk choked back tears several times during his talk.
“Does Israel want to be a big cemetery?” he asked. “No, but people who don’t come here for life on Earth can come here for eternal life.”
“Ilan was murdered because he was Jewish,” Bielski said. “This is an example of racism and anti-Semitism, and it is unacceptable to treat this as an ordinary murder.”
Casa noted that “Ilan Halimi was Jewish and he was French. This murder was an insult to France and the French people, and to the entire world.”
Casa said a February 2006 demonstration in Paris showed the depth of French support for the Halimi family, but a number of people at the funeral disagreed.
“Most of the French didn’t give a damn about Ilan,” said Chloe Haik, 20, who made aliyah from Paris last year. “More than 80 percent of the people at that demonstration were Jews, and everyone knows that.”
Haik and several friends came to the funeral from Netanya on buses offered by the Jewish Agency and a French immigrant group in Israel.
CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, was represented by Arieh Ben Semhoun, CRIF head in Toulouse, who is expected to run for the group’s presidency.
“There is a symbolic force in this,” Semhoun said. “Ilan means tree in Hebrew, in this case a tree cut down in France and replanted in Israel.”
Hoenlein told JTA after the ceremony that he doesn’t blame the French government for the country’s surge of anti-Semitic activity in recent years.
“French officials have taken strong measures to deal with this, and I think they realize that anti-Semitism is a global issue,” he said.
Halimi was lured to his kidnapping by a young woman who came to the phone store where he worked and feigned a romantic interest.
Members of the gang reportedly told police after their arrest that they wanted to kidnap a Jew because they believed all Jews were rich and they could extract a healthy ransom from Halimi’s family. When they discovered that the family was of modest means, they reportedly said they decided to kill Halimi anyway because they hated Jews.
Hoenlein said some U.S. Jewish officials had proposed taking legal action against residents in the apartment block in the Paris suburb of Bagneux, where Halimi was sequestered and tortured, because they didn’t call police even when they knew a young Jew was being tortured in the basement.
Hoenlein told the gathering that Halimi was a hero of the Jewish people, but not everyone agreed.
“Ilan didn’t do anything to be a hero,” said Lionel Levi, who made aliyah almost three years ago from a Paris suburb. “He was not an activist or anything like that. I heard he was a very nice young man, and positive, but this was an ordinary good family that was struck by tragedy, and I think this is all very sad.”
Besnainou, who perhaps has done the most for Halimi’s family since the tragedy, refused to speak at the ceremony, saying it had gone on long enough. He said privately that a decision had been taken this week to launch an Ilan Halimi Fund in Paris, which will sponsor two projects a year focusing on tolerance.
“We cannot bring Ilan back, but we can do this,” he said.
Besnainou worked closely with David Roche, the Jewish Agency head in Paris, to arrange the burial in Jerusalem.
Halimi’s mother, Ruth, told JTA that the ceremony was very difficult, but she was comforted by the fact that her son had been buried in the holy city.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m going to wake up from a bad dream,” she said, “but I do know that he is gone forever.”
Ruth Halimi said she was moved by the support she had received from many French people and others around the world after her son’s death, noting that she had been warmly received in New York and Washington on a visit several months ago.
“Still, it’s almost impossible to believe that people knew a boy was being tortured in their own apartment building and they simply did not bother to call the police,” she said. “If they had bothered to call, Ilan might still be alive, but they didn’t.”
Under the warm Jerusalem sun, she pursed her lips, forced a smile for a split second, then looked away.