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The Death of Sarah Halimi

August 5, 2021

by: By Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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This is the story of a woman viciously murdered simply because she was Jewish. It is a story her family wants told as they seek justice, battling systemic anti-Semitism at every turn. It is a story that is difficult to read, but one with a critical message. Even for those of us who are committed to fighting this evil, anti-Semitism sometimes becomes more about numbers, statistics, graphs and political posturing than about people. Her family wants the world to know that increasingly in many parts of the globe, this is what anti-Semitism looks like.

A Life Cut Short

Lucette Attal-Halimi was a 65-year-old French woman who was also an Orthodox Jew. Today, thanks to an ongoing global outcry for justice, the world knows her by her Hebrew name, Sarah. Her son describes her as a loving mother who studied medicine for seven years and became a family practitioner. Later, as she and her husband raised their three children, she gave up that profession and became the director of a government-funded preschool. Under Sarah’s leadership, her son says proudly, that school became famous all across Paris.

On April 4, 2017, Sarah’s life was violently cut short by a drug-crazed Muslim neighbor who lived one floor below her third-floor flat. In the early morning hours of that fateful day, Kobili Traore broke into a neighboring apartment whose residents huddled terrified in a locked bedroom as the intruder shouted prayers and verses from the Quran. Using their window, he accessed a balcony from which he was able to climb to Sarah’s apartment. She was the only Jewish resident of the building.

After phoning the police, the residents of the first apartment waited in fear as they heard Sarah’s screams and the voice of her attacker shouting “Allahu akbar,” [Arabic for “Allah is greatest”] and “I killed the Satan.” For thirty minutes, Sarah was beaten and tortured before her assailant threw her body out a third-floor window. Traore then returned to the first apartment where the residents—still hidden and waiting for the police—heard him shouting prayers and Quranic verses.

A Travesty of Justice

The tragedy was compounded by the poor handling of the case on virtually every level. For nearly a year, authorities refused to admit the anti-Semitic nature of the crime, and though Traore was apprehended in July 2017, the case didn’t reach the judiciary until July 2019. At that time, the court ruled that the crime was indeed motivated by anti-Semitism, but that Traore was not criminally responsible for his actions because his heavy use of marijuana had put him in a state of “temporary psychosis.” What ensued was a four-year battle for Sarah’s family as they sought to get the preposterous ruling overturned. Finally, in early 2021, the French Supreme Court heard the case. Unfortunately, they agreed with the lower courts. Traore would never be charged with Sarah’s murder.

The global Jewish community was incensed. French Jews, leaders worried, have increasingly become targets of jihadists and other anti-Semitic groups. Many of the victims have received “partial justice at best—or no justice at worst” from the French legal system. Now, perpetrators would have an outrageous free pass for more anti-Semitic violence. They need only smoke some marijuana first.

The Bitter Root

Others, however, believe the problem goes much deeper. The article of the French penal code that allowed the judges to render their verdict also gave them the discretion to find Traore responsible and punishable for Sarah’s death, even if he was high on drugs. But they chose not to interpret the law in that manner. Author and journalist Ben Cohen points to the Dreyfus affair as the beginning of over a century of increasing victimization of French Jews with a consistently biased judicial system. Prior to the false accusations leveled against Alfred Dreyfus in 1894, anti-Semitism had existed primarily among the elite of France, but the very public Dreyfus trial changed all that. Although Dreyfus was eventually exonerated, it came too late. Anti-Semitism had gone mainstream, resulting in over 100 years of oppression, ghettoization, fear and uncertainty for the Jews of France.

Today, France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. Although that is less than 1% of France’s total population, over 51% of racially motivated crimes target Jews. In a recent article in National Geographic, France’s interior minister warned that anti-Jewish sentiment is spreading like poison. President Emmanuel Macron declared that anti-Semitism is at its highest levels since World War II, while Prime Minister Edouard Philippe admitted that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in French society.

Unfortunately, France is not alone in its systemic anti-Semitism. In a recent issue of the Atlantic, editor Jeffrey Goldberg reported that the statistics in other countries, including the UK, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Belgium, are equally dismal. Jews in Europe are murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on and insulted for being Jewish. “Dirty Jew” rings in the streets, as does “Death to the Jews” and “Jews to the gas.” Attacks from the far left and the far right, intermingled with a religious hatred due to the influx of Muslims—many of them young and radicalized—mean Europe’s Jews have literally nowhere to turn. Many have chosen to remain in countries where their families have lived for generations but are increasingly uncomfortable with any outward expression of their Jewishness. Many others, however, have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel), recognizing Israel as their only safe haven. For Jews who would like to remain Jewish in any meaningful sort of way, says Goldberg, Europe is not the place to be.

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