Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The murder of Ilan Halimi: Why anti-semitism is a problem

Recently the case of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish young man who was kidnapped, tortured for weeks, and eventually murdered, has been causing a stir in France. It has now been reported in the U.S., in the New York Times article below.
Mr. Halimi, 23, died Feb. 13, shortly after he was found near a train station 15 miles away by passers-by, after crawling out of the wooded area where he was dumped. He was naked and bleeding from at least four stab wounds to his throat, his hands bound and adhesive tape covering his mouth and eyes. According to the initial autopsy report, burns, apparently from the acid, covered 60 percent of his body. [....]
The police, according to lawyers with access to the investigation files, think at least 20 people participated in his abduction and the subsequent, amateurish negotiations for ransom. His captors told his family that if they did not have the money, they should "go and get it from your synagogue," and later contacted a rabbi, telling him, "We have a Jew."
The horrifying death has stunned France, which has Europe's largest Muslim and largest Jewish populations. [....] In the wake of the riots that broke out in the immigrant-heavy Paris suburbs last fall, the case seems to embody the social problems of immigration, race and class that France has been facing with so much uncertainty. The emerging details raise deep fears of virulent anti-Semitism within the hardening underclass, and point to the decaying social fabric in which that underclass lives. [my bolding --JW]
As the last few sentences indicate, the concerns raised by this affair go beyond the sadistic and frightening character of the crime itself. The deeper fear, which is indeed quite plausible, is that this crime epitomizes larger and more pervasive pathologies in French society.

These concerns may partly (though only partly) help explain one curious feature of this case--the prolonged efforts by the French police and government, abetted by some of the journalistic coverage, to pretend that it was unclear whether this crime had an anti-semitic dimension, despite the fact that a whole cocktail of classic anti-semitic themes were quite conspicuously involved. I suspect the motives behind this reluctance to face reality were mixed, including hope that it might turn out not to be true and desires to avoid "inflaming" the situation. But they add up to a pretty straightforward case of denial in the Freudian sense--and collective denial on a scale like this is significant in itself.

=> Some other useful reports and reflections include the following:
Was Ilan Halimi's murder an antisemitic crime? (Engage)

The Ilan Halimi case (Adloyada)
Brutal murder was anti-semitic crime, says Sarkozy (Guardian

There is also a roundup of some relevant items by an Israeli blogger, Alison Kaplan Sommer

And although I would quibble with some formulations in this piece by Melanie Phillips (with whom I don't always agree), overall it is quite acute and illuminating: The murder of Ilan Halimi

=> According to police reports so far, the members of the group accused of torturing and murdering Ilan Halimi are all from immigrant minorities, and almost all Muslim, but their backgrounds are not exclusively Arab. Instead, they seem to be an ethnic rainbow coalition.
Those that the police say kidnapped and killed Mr. Halimi called themselves the Barbarians, and included people of different backgrounds: the children of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, of Arabs from North Africa, of at least one Persian from Iran, and of whites from Portugal and France.
On the other hand, the New York Times article does not mention that Halimi's family, like many French Jews, were immigrants (or refugees) from North Africa. But Jewish immigrants are not quite like the others. An article in the British Independent (quoted here), which is usually more likely to downplay than to highlight instances of anti-semitism in Europe, makes the point:
Anyone who has spent time in the banlieues will know that they are not race ghettoes but social ghettoes where different races are accepted reasonably well. All, that is, except for Jews. The ‘fuijs’ or ‘feujs’ (backward slang for juifs) have become an object of hate-filled fantasy among suburban youths (and not just youths). This is partly because the otherwise apolitical, suburban kids identify with the Palestinian cause. They also have the grotesque conviction that all Jews are super-rich and conspire to prevent other ethnic minorities from rising in French society. French authorities now admit that anti-Semitism was a ‘factor’ in the torture and murder of M. Halimi. They insist, however, that the main motive of the Barbarians was money, not race or politics. One police officer said: ‘If this gang had heard that all Martians were rich they would have tried to capture a Martian.’ This was meant to be reassuring. It is not. It is terrifying. The gang abducted M. Halimi for money. They casually tortured him for three weeks because he was Jewish.
=> At an early stage of this affair one of the French police investigators, explaining why this didn't seem to be an anti-semitic crime, made the following remark (quoted here).
"What we're dealing with isn't any racist or anti-semitic motive. It's just that to their way of thinking, Jew equals money," explained one of the crime investigators.
Oh, all right. What's anti-semitic about that?

As it happens, there was a lot more to the anti-semitic dimension of the crime than just the belief that all Jews are rich. But as the British blogger "Adloyada" correctly explained, even if that had been all, the police inspector would still have been missing the point:
Believing Jews all have money and stick together to protect only their own is a core element of anti-semitism. You don't have to sign up to everything Hitler believed in to be thinking anti-semitically. And if you find it perfectly rational and understandable that this gang should have centred on Jewish victims and gone for others with Jewish sounding names, yet issue a statement to the press denying that anti-semitism was a factor in the crime, as did the Paris Procurator, Jean Claude Morin, then you are indeed part of the problem.
=> Incidentally, so far I have seen very few discussions that begin by condemning this crime but then go on on to "explain" and excuse it by "understanding" the motivations of the perpetrators in a sympathetic light, or blaming the whole thing on Israeli or U.S. policies. Either the gratuitously sadistic character of this particular crime has temporarily inhibited these reflex responses from the usual sources ... or else I have simply missed them, which is also possible. I'm sure it's just a matter of time.

--Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE, 2010: A total of 27 members of the gang that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered Halimi were brought to trial. Verdicts were handed down on July 10, 2009. The leader of the gang, Youssouf Fofana, was (rather astoundingly) the only defendant facing a murder charge. He was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 22 years. Three other defendants were sentenced to 18, 15, and 9 years respectively; 2 were acquitted; and the rest received sentences ranging from 6 months to several years, with a few suspended sentences. Some defendants appealed, and after a public outcry against the leniency of many of the sentences, the prosecutors appealed a number of those (French law allows that). In a final ruling on December 17, 2010 the convictions were upheld and time was added to some sentences.

===========
New York Times
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Torture and Death of Jew Deepen Fears in France
By Craig S. Smith

BAGNEUX, France, March 3 — Two strips of red-and-white police tape bar the entrance to the low-ceilinged pump room where a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, spent the last weeks of his life, tormented and tortured by his captors and eventually splashed with acid in an attempt to erase any traces of their DNA.

The floor of the concrete room, in the cellar of 4, rue Serge-Prokofiev, is bare except for a few packets of rat poison, a slowly drying wet mark and a dozen small circles drawn and numbered in white chalk, presumably marking the spots where the police retrieved evidence of Mr. Halimi's ordeal.

Mr. Halimi, 23, died Feb. 13, shortly after he was found near a train station 15 miles away by passers-by, after crawling out of the wooded area where he was dumped. He was naked and bleeding from at least four stab wounds to his throat, his hands bound and adhesive tape covering his mouth and eyes. According to the initial autopsy report, burns, apparently from the acid, covered 60 percent of his body.

"I knew they had someone down there," said a young French-Arab man, loitering in the doorway of a building adjacent to the one where Mr. Halimi was held. He claimed to live upstairs from the makeshift dungeon but would not give his name or say whether he knew then that the man was a Jew. "I didn't know they were torturing him," he said. "Otherwise, I would have called the police."

But it is clear that plenty of people did know, both that Mr. Halimi was being tortured and that he was Jewish. The police, according to lawyers with access to the investigation files, think at least 20 people participated in his abduction and the subsequent, amateurish negotiations for ransom. His captors told his family that if they did not have the money, they should "go and get it from your synagogue," and later contacted a rabbi, telling him, "We have a Jew."

The horrifying death has stunned France, which has Europe's largest Muslim and largest Jewish populations. Last weekend, tens of thousands of people marched against racism and anti-Semitism in Paris, joined by the interior minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, and smaller marches took place in several other French cities, including Marseille.

In the wake of the riots that broke out in the immigrant-heavy Paris suburbs last fall, the case seems to embody the social problems of immigration, race and class that France has been facing with so much uncertainty. The emerging details raise deep fears of virulent anti-Semitism within the hardening underclass, and point to the decaying social fabric in which that underclass lives.

Those that the police say kidnapped and killed Mr. Halimi called themselves the Barbarians, and included people of different backgrounds: the children of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, of Arabs from North Africa, of at least one Persian from Iran, and of whites from Portugal and France.

The gang's leader was a tall, charismatic young man named Youssouf Fofana, 25, one of five children born in Paris to at least nominally Muslim immigrants from Ivory Coast. When he was a teenager, the family moved to the bleak neighborhood of 12-story concrete apartment blocks where Mr. Halimi was held.

Trouble started early. He studied plumbing at a local vocational school but by the age of 16 had already begun a series of run-ins with the police, eventually racking up 13 arrests for everything from theft to fencing stolen goods. In 1999, at the age of 19, he stole a car, beating the Portuguese owner who tried to intervene. He was arrested and sentenced to his only jail term, serving two years in prisons in Nanterre and Fleury-Mérogis, neither far from Paris.

He returned to his mother's apartment and used his prison credentials to assume the role of senior tough among younger, idle men and women, people in the neighborhood say. Lawyers familiar with the case suggest that this is when the seeds of the Barbarians were sown.

By 2004, the police say, he tried extortion, aiming at prominent French Jews. When that failed, the gang apparently turned to kidnapping, using young women as bait.
The Barbarians are thought to have been behind six attempted abductions, four of Jewish men, before succeeding with Mr. Halimi.

In a case in early January, a woman tried repeatedly to get a Jewish music producer to meet her on the outskirts of Paris, finally managing instead to persuade his father to come to a suburban parking lot, on the pretext that she had music CD's that belonged to his son. Several men met the father instead, beating him senseless when he resisted their attempt to force him into their car.

Mike Akiba worked with Mr. Halimi at Voltaire Phone in Paris, one of a dozen tiny Jewish-owned cellular telephone shops along Boulevard Voltaire in the 11th Arrondissement. He said Mr. Halimi was alone in the store when a 17-year-old French-Iranian girl came in and flirted with him. Mr. Akiba said she might have thought Mr. Halimi, a handsome man with piercing brown eyes, was the owner.

Mr. Halimi told Mr. Akiba about her the next day and said he had agreed to meet her that Friday night near Porte d'Orleans, a neighborhood on Paris's southern edge. Mr. Akiba last saw him about 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, as he drove from Boulevard Voltaire in his Champagne-colored Renault Twingo.

Mr. Halimi apparently met the woman as planned, then drove her to Sceaux, a suburb near Bagneux, where his captors must have grabbed him. His car was later found abandoned in a parking lot there.

Mr. Akiba said the investigating police officers discovered the gang had tried the same tactic on several men in the other phone shops.

Mr. Halimi was taken to the Pierre-Plate housing project in Bagneux, and initially held in an empty third-floor apartment at 1, rue Serge-Prokofiev, with the help of the building's superintendent, according to the lawyers who have seen the investigative files. The gang covered his eyes and mouth with tape, leaving only a hole for a straw.

The Halimi family's first contact with the kidnappers was the night of Saturday, Jan. 21, when a gang member called Mr. Halimi's girlfriend and instructed her to log on to a Hotmail e-mail account. That began a series of agonizingly disjointed communications from Mr. Halimi's abductors that included hundreds of phone calls and e-mail messages, and ransom demands that started at $500,000 and dropped to $5,000, said the family's lawyer, Francis Szpiner.

After a few days, the gang moved their captive to the concrete basement room beneath a section of the building a few doors down. They shaved his head and sliced his cheek with a knife, photographed him with blood running down his face, and e-mailed the picture to his family.

As the days wore on, his captors turned increasingly cruel, stripping off his clothes and beating, scratching and cutting him. A burning cigarette was pressed into his forehead.
The family was instructed to send a ransom to Ivory Coast, via Western Union, and Mr. Fofana traveled to that country at least once in early February. According to reports after his eventual arrest, it was after the ransom failed to arrive that the torture of Mr. Halimi began in earnest.
The police did not yet know the identities of the gang members but were close on their heels. Around Feb. 10, Mr. Fofana briefly visited an Internet cafe on the Rue de la Fidélité in the 10th Arrondissement, wearing a cap and a scarf that covered his mouth and nose. "I don't even think he took his gloves off," the manager said Friday. Just 15 minutes later, he said, police officers arrived looking for a black man, a computer-generated sketch in hand. They lifted fingerprints from the keyboard Mr. Fofana had used and confiscated the computer's hard drive and the 5-euro note he had paid with.
On the evening of Feb. 13, Mr. Halimi was found. It is not yet clear when he was stabbed or whether his captors thought he was dead when they dumped him among the trees behind the Ste.-Geneviève-des-Bois train station south of Paris.

Two days later, with the case beginning to make shocking headlines, Mr. Fofana flew back to Ivory Coast and was soon moving freely about town with a girlfriend, identified by the French media as Mariam Cissé. Meanwhile, the police had begun circulating sketches of two women who had served the gang as bait, drawn from the recollections of the men who had been approached.

One was the 17-year-old French-Iranian believed to have lured Mr. Halimi to his death. The sketch of a second woman proved particularly accurate, and when it was shown on television, many people recognized her as Audrey Lorleach, 24, lawyers involved in the case say.

Fearing she would be caught, Ms. Lorleach turned herself in and led the police to her boyfriend, Jérôme Tony Ribeiro, a young man of Portuguese descent. He gave the police Mr. Fofana's name.

When Mr. Fofana saw his name and image in the French media the next day, he was enraged and called Mr. Halimi's father and girlfriend and various of his accomplices in France from Abidjan, threatening them all — and confirming his whereabouts to the police. He was arrested on Feb. 22. [Mr. Fofana was returned to France on Saturday after being handed over to French custody by Ivorian authorities, Agence France-Presse reported.]

So far, a total of 19 people, ages 17 to 39, have been arrested in connection with Mr. Halimi's abduction and death, including the French-Iranian woman, whose first name is Yalda.

The police found Islamist literature and documents supporting a Palestinian aid group in the home of at least one of the people arrested, but lawyers involved in the case dismiss Islamic extremism as a motivation, noting that many of the people involved were not Muslim. The Halimis' lawyer, Mr. Szpiner, denied French news reports that the gang had called Mr. Halimi's family and recited the Koran.

Mr. Fofana has admitted his involvement. In an interview videotaped by a local journalist at the police station in Abidjan and broadcast on French television, a smiling, relaxed Mr. Fofana denied that he killed Mr. Halimi and dismissed the anti-Semitic aspect of the abduction.

"It was done for financial ends," he said on the tape.

Standing in the doorway in Bagneux near where Mr. Halimi was held, the young French-Arab man smiled when asked about Mr. Fofana. "He was nice, everybody liked him," he said. "If the police bring him back here, the guys in the neighborhood will liberate him."

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