What’s going on with French Jews right now? What to know about the Sarah Halimi case and why it matters.

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(JTA) — The 2017 murder of a Jewish woman in France has again burst into global view, with protests held in several countries last week against a legal ruling that means her killer will not face a trial for murder.

But who is Sarah Halimi? Why is her death becoming a cause celebre for Jews around the world? And what, if anything, are the protests aimed at changing for Jews in France?

We answer these questions and others below. Do you have questions about the Sarah Halimi case? Let us know.

Why are French Jews — and their allies around the world — protesting right now?

In April 2017, a 65-year-old woman named Sarah Halimi was murdered at her Paris apartment. There is no question about who killed her: Her neighbor, Kobili Traore, then 27, entered her home, beat her and threw her out the window. Here’s how we covered the shocking murder at the time.

Over the subsequent four years, French courts concluded that Traore, who is Muslim, was motivated to kill Halimi because she was Jewish. He shouted about Allah when he was beating Halimi, and then cried out, “I’ve killed the demon of the neighborhood,” using the Arabic-language word “shetan.” But while French courts acknowledged that the crime was antisemitic, two 2019 lower-court determinations held that Traore could not be tried for murder because he was psychotic at the time of the killing — a condition the court concluded stemmed from the fact that he was very high on marijuana when he killed Halimi.

On April 14, France’s top court, the Cour de Cassation, upheld the lower-court rulings, effectively ending any prospect that Traore will be tried for killing Halimi. The protest on Sunday was a response to that ruling.

If the ruling didn’t change anything, why take to the streets now? And what do French Jews see as antisemitic here?

French Jews have marched in the streets over Halimi’s case previously, most recently in January following an appeals court ruling upholding the decision not to try Traore. The size of the current protests and the depth of emotion expressed during them reflect the fact that the latest ruling exhausts all avenues in the French legal system. 

Many at the rally and beyond saw the moment as a final straw in the strained relationship between France’s Jews and its justice system, and in their tenuous position in a country known for its high rates of antisemitic incidents. “This ruling is a watershed moment,” the president of the Consistoire, the country’s official Orthodox Jewish organization, said at the rally. 

The protests aren’t necessarily charging that the court ruling itself was antisemitic, but they are rooted in disbelief that the French legal system prioritizes a confessed killer’s mental health claims over undisputed evidence that a crime was motivated by antisemitism. While the courts said they had no discretion under existing French law, many French Jews question whether the argument that successfully averted a trial for Traore would have flown had the accused been motivated by far-right ideology.

How does radical Islam play into the story?

While the court ruling centered on mental health arguments, the case comes amid a string of antisemitic attacks by Muslim men in France that began prior to Halimi’s murder and has continued after, and that is part of what French Jews are responding to.

People from a Muslim background are responsible for the majority of violent antisemitic incidents in France and all antisemitic shootings and stabbings of French Jews over the past decade, according to the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Antisemitism, a mainstream communal watchdog. Many trace back to the wave of antisemitic attacks on Jews in the early 2000s, when the second intifada in Israel triggered hundreds of incidents in France. 

The abduction, torture and killing in 2006 of a Jewish cellphone salesman named Ilan Halimi (no relation to Sarah) initiated the current era of antisemitic murders. (Previous attacks on Jews in France had been carried out by foreign terrorists.) The perpetrators, a criminal gang that included many members from Muslim backgrounds, told police they had selected Halimi because he was Jewish and they thought that meant he had money. 

The attacks have resulted in at least 10 deaths in the last decade, including the murder of four Jews by a jihadist at a Jewish school of Toulouse in 2012 and the murder of another four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015. And just a year after Halimi’s death, two men — one who shouted “Allahu akbar” — killed 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her apartment in the same arrondissement, in what police labeled an antisemitic hate crime. That murder prompted a march in Paris as well.

Muslim fundamentalists have also waged attacks on non-Jewish targets, including a 2015 attack on a concert venue that killed 130 people and, just last year, a teacher who showed caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammed to his students. The country is also home to a significant population of Islamic clerics who adhere to radical teaching of Islam. (The majority of Muslims in France are not tied to these fundamentalist movements.) Traore may have been under the influence of one of these imams: Witnesses said that he had spent whole days at a nearby mosque in the months leading up to the murder. 

French authorities desperately want to disrupt this dangerous dynamic, and Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, who is politically liberal on many fronts, has even called for dramatic curbs to some forms of Muslim religious expression in France in order to dim the influence of fundamentalist clerics. Jewish groups have supported those moves, even though they occur amid diminishing tolerance for religion of any kind in the public sphere, including Judaism.

What specific changes, if any, do French Jews want to see now? 

As with many protest movements, one goal of this one is to give voice to French Jews’ increasing distress — in this case, over their safety and their confidence that French institutions are protecting them.

But the rallies are also calling for two concrete changes. First, protesters want something called a trial of facts for Traore. Such a trial would allow him to be prosecuted for his actions even if his mental health precludes normal sentencing.

The protesters also want a law named for Sarah Halimi that stipulates that voluntary consumption of drugs will make the consumer of those drugs criminally liable for any action committed while under their influence. The French government has said it plans to introduce a bill that would allow judges to take drug consumption into account when determining culpability.

So wait, is it true you can get away with murder in France if you smoke pot?

This is the refrain of critics of the court’s ruling, but it’s not actually what the court determined. The ruling holds that, under current laws, you can avoid being tried for murder if a court determines that the pot you smoked triggered a psychotic episode. 

While marijuana use is not associated with departures from reality the way that some other drugs are, emerging research suggests that using high-potency marijuana may be associated with psychotic breaks, particularly in people who are predetermined toward certain kinds of mental illness.

That is what the psychiatrists who examined Traore concluded had happened. Notably, two of the most prominent experts that the state asked to weigh in are Jewish: One of them, a psychiatrist named Paul Bensussan, concluded that Traore was experiencing a psychotic episode at the time of the killing.

“The crime was that of a madman, but his crime was anti-Semitic because in his delirium he equated Jews with the devil,” Bensussan told Marianne magazine, according to The New York Times. “Public indignation and that of the Jewish community are, I believe, related to the false idea that recognizing insanity and the lack of penal responsibility mean denying the anti-Semitic dimension of the act.”

French courts are not always convinced that drug consumption makes it impossible to hold people accountable for their actions. In another 2017 case, a man who threw a dog out a window in Marseille failed to convince judges that he was completely under the influence of drugs. Protesters at the Paris rally cited that case in advancing antisemitism charges, holding signs that said “In France, the life of a Jewish woman is worth less than a dog’s.”

Where is Halimi’s killer now?

French authorities are saying only that he is being held at a “psychiatric hospital.” Authorities are not at liberty to divulge further details as they fall under medical confidentiality. Traore will be subject to “restrictive measures” for the next 20 years, according to the BFMTV television channel, though the nature of these measures has not been specified.

How are non-Jews in France responding?

Until very recently, the Halimi case had not featured prominently in French news coverage. The France 5 television channel and other major stations did not even mention the April 14 judgment of the Cour de Cassation in their weekly roundups, and almost everyone at the protest in Paris on Sunday was Jewish. But Macron’s comments on the case, and his instruction to seek changes to the country’s legal code, have brought the case into the national consciousness. 

The case is being championed particularly by those who are concerned about immigration and radical Islam in France. This week, the cover of Charlie Hebdo, the provocative magazine whose offices were the site of a 2015 jihadist attack that killed 12 and another four at a kosher supermarket, featured a caricature of a Muslim man holding a knife while appearing to be blowing out the candles on a menorah.

How are Jews outside of France responding?

On Sunday, protests took place outside French embassies and consulates in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, Rome, London, Tel Aviv and the Hague, at a minimum. Information about the Halimi case is also circulating widely on social media, with posts by Humans of Judaism, a popular Instagram account, and multiple other accounts devoted to fighting antisemitism offering posts for users to share. 

Some of the groundswell has been driven by a campaign launched by an organization called the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement, which organized many of the rallies and initiated hashtags, including #JeSuisSarahHalimi, meant to draw attention to the case on social media. According to a recent report in the Forward, the group is part of a constellation of organizations formed in recent years, often with funding from American conservatives, that promote the idea that the far left and Muslim fundamentalists pose as much of a risk to Jews as white supremacists, who have perpetuated most attacks on Jews in America and whom President Joe Biden called “the most violent terrorist threat” to America.

Enough about the crime — who was Sarah Halimi? 

The Halimi case has taken on symbolic significance, but before there was a cause, there was a physician, educator and mother who was beloved by her students and children.

Halimi was born Lucie Attal on Nov. 30, 1951, in Nogent-sur-Marne, a western suburb of Paris, to parents who had immigrated to France the previous year from Algeria and who worked as greengrocers. As an adult, Halimi joined a more observant Orthodox Jewish community than the one in which she grew up, changing her name to Sarah at around that time. She married a man from that community, a psychologist, and kept his name, Halimi, after their divorce five years later. They had three children together.

Halimi studied to become a doctor but opted for a different career: She became a kindergarten teacher and director of a private Jewish nursery in the 4th district of Paris. It was “her life’s work,” her son told Noémie Halioua, the author of a 2018 French-language book about Halimi titled “L’Affaire Sarah Halimi.”

What are the historical parallels for French Jews?

More recently, several antisemitic killings have been seen as watershed moments for French Jews. The killings in Toulouse in 2012, in particular, are seen as spurring a wave of emigration. And Jews have turned out en masse to protest antisemitic events many times in the past, including with a memorial march for Mirielle Kroll in 2018. 

But the degree to which French Jews, including their leaders, are expressing concern about whether the state is on their side feels new. For that, the best historical parallel may be more than 120 years old.

That parallel, which is increasingly being cited in the Halimi case, is the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer was accused of spying against France in the 1890s. The case shook French Jews’ growing confidence that they were considered full citizens in their country; it also inspired Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, to conclude that Jewish nationalism was needed to keep Jews safe in the world. At least some, including representatives of the conservative Europe-Israel advocacy group, explicitly made the comparison during the rally Sunday in Paris.

How do French Jews feel about the legal system? 

Like Jews in other countries, French Jews appreciate the police and the protection they provide and express that appreciation in varying ways. In 2016, amid a polarizing debate in France about the use of force by and against riot police, the main political organ of French Jewry came down strongly on the side of police. And at Jewish community protest rallies, community leaders often invite demonstrators to sing the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, to honor police officers guarding participants.

That happened, too, at the April 25 rally. The first speaker asked the 20,000-odd protesters in attendance to observe a minute’s silence for Stéphanie Monfermé, a police officer who was killed, allegedly by a jihadist, near Paris on April 23. The request was observed by all.

But it’s clear that for many French Jews, the Halimi case has represented a breach in confidence about whether the state is on their side.

“It defies belief,” a former police commissioner in the Paris area who led an antisemitism watchdog group told JTA in 2017 about how the police and justice system managed the case. “But it corresponds to broader problems. Today I no longer have full confidence that antisemitic hate crimes in France are handled properly.”

In particular, some French Jews believe that the country is especially hesitant to take on violence by radicalized Muslims. Prominent figures within French Jewry believe that the French media, justice officials, politicians and even representatives of French Jewry maintained from 2000 to 2002 a “virtual blackout on more than 500 cases of antisemitic violence” directed by Muslims at Jews, allegedly as payback for Israel’s actions, Shmuel Trigano, a prominent scholar of French antisemitism, wrote in 2017. In 2019, the former head of a French intelligence agency revealed that France had agreed, possibly with judicial backing, not to target Palestinian terrorists who killed French Jews in Paris in 1982 if they refrained from carrying out further attacks on French soil.

Could this ruling change French Jews’ political orientation?

Jewish attitudes to President Emmanuel Macron are generally positive, especially following his announcement of a “radical” plan, as he called it, to counter “Islamist separatism.” It received the full backing of CRIF and other mainstream community organs, where the main points of criticism were that the plan came too late and did not go far enough. He has also routinely shown up at Jewish events and in 2017 made a historic speech about French complicity in the Holocaust, which drew praise. In the wake of the Halimi ruling, he has called for changes in France’s legal system.

While Macron’s popularity has waned overall in the wake of multiple issues and the Jewish community’s patience is growing thin with law enforcement, most of them are are likely to support him as long as they believe he can keep from power the runner-up in French politics, Marine Le Pen, and her far-right National Rally party. Le Pen’s party, which Jews have historically shunned because of the antisemitic record of its founder, Marine’s father Jean-Marie, has made significant inroads in national politics in recent years, in part because of its hardline stance against immigration. 

Could the Halimi case cause Jews to emigrate? 

We can’t know yet, but past episodes of antisemitism in France have led to spikes in emigration to Israel, the main destination for French Jews. About 50,000 Jews have moved to Israel in the past decade, from a community of about 449,000, according to a 2020 demographic survey. The exodus peaked in 2015 and coincided with economic stagnation and the wave of terror attacks on Jewish institutions, beginning with the 2012 Toulouse school shooting. Because moving to Israel is a bureaucratic process, it took about two years for the trend to begin to appear in Israeli immigration data. 

“Sometimes I think I’ll stay here, other times, like after the Sarah Halimi affair, I’m not so sure,” one 20-year-old French student told JTA during the Paris protest. “When I’m afraid to walk in the street because I’m a woman, because I’m Jewish, it’s difficult. My nieces in Israel feel safe at all hours of the night. So you start thinking what’s better.”

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