Deep Dive | More Jews Murdered in France

What explains the rise in antisemitic violence in the past 20 years in France, and what can the government do about it?
The French flag, made up of red, white and blue stripes, sits atop a tall buidling. Most of the flag's surroundings are in the shadows of the night. A light shines only on the flag.

On May 17 of this year, in Lyons, France, Rachid Khechiche, 51, threw René Hadjaj, 89, from the 17th story of their apartment building. According to multiple reports, Khechich and “Uncle René,” who was Jewish, were friends who had an argument. 

In August, another Jew—Eyal Haddad, 34, of Tunisia—was killed by a neighbor with an ax over 100 euros Haddad owed. French police are investigating the motive for this case, although an antisemitism watchdog in France has suggested that the alleged killer confessed to police that he killed Haddad because he was Jewish. And back in February, Jeremy Cohen, 31, was killed by an oncoming tram after, apparently, being assaulted on the street due to his kippah. The death was initially treated as a traffic accident.

In the Hadjadj case, French police initially dismissed the possibility of an antisemitic motive for the killing, but ten days later, in the wake of an outcry from France’s Jewish community, Lyon public prosecutor Nicolas Jacquet released a statement announcing the extension of the investigation into this territory. There have been other brutal murders of elderly French Jews in recent years, including those of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her apartment in 2018 and the 2017 death of Sarah Halimi, a retired schoolteacher and doctor who, like Hadjadj, was attacked and thrown out of a window by a neighbor. 

“We used to be scared in the streets, but it’s another level when you are afraid that you can be attacked by your neighbor in your home,” says Anne-Sophie Sebban-Bécache, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office. “It’s a new modus operandi, adding a new dimension to the phenomenon of antisemitism in France.” It is but one face of a many-headed Hydra of French antisemitism, which for decades has drawn heat from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We suffer a lot in France from new forms of antisemitism coming from anti-Zionism, radical Islam and conspiracy theories,” says Jonathan Arfi, the newly elected president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), an influential umbrella organization of French Jewish groups. “We really want the government to understand that this anti-Zionism makes life very hard for Jews.”

At around half a million, French Jews comprise the second-largest Jewish diaspora population in the world, after the United States. According to the American Jewish Committee in Paris (AJC), antisemitic incidents make up the majority of hate crimes based on religion or ethnicity in the country despite Jews making up less than 1 percent of the French population, although official sources ranked antisemitic hate crimes behind anti-Christian and homophobic ones in 2020. The AJC says that 74 percent of French Jews report having been the victim of an antisemitic incident in their lifetime. 

As head of the AJC’s Paris office, Sebban-Bécache’s job is to advise the French government on how to protect the Jewish community from antisemitism. Although Jews have a long and varied history in France, including many episodes of flourishing as well as state-sponsored antisemitism in both the medieval and modern eras, Sebban-Bécache says that the current wave began during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. “I was a teenager at the time, and we felt fear within the Jewish community,” she says. “But at that time the government and French society were blind to this phenomenon.” During pro-Palestinian street demonstrations, says Sebban-Bécache, Jews were intimidated and Jewish shops were attacked. “That’s how it started.”

That’s how it continued during subsequent upticks in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants over the next decade, with clashes in Gaza mirrored by violent demonstrations in France, including attacks against synagogues. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the pressure was such that record numbers of French Jews moved to Israel, with antisemitism one of the primary reasons cited. “I am French, born in Paris,” one individual told the German state-owned outlet Deutsche Welle at the time. “I’m thinking about moving to Israel, because French people are more and more against Jews. They say we are a lobby, that we are the masters of the world, and it’s not so!”

Antisemitic activity doubled from 2013 to 2014, with demonstrations in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles devolving into arson of a kosher supermarket. A synagogue was also targeted and became the site of a confrontation when members of the Jewish Defense League formed a perimeter around it. Anti-Israel demonstrations were temporarily banned, and France’s then-prime minister Manuel Valls denounced anti-Zionism as antisemitism—causing some to claim that Jews were receiving preferential treatment and pressuring the influential within France to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. 

A crowd stands in front of a building caling for the dissolution of the Jewish Defense Leage

A crowd stands in front of a building holding signs calling for the dissolution of the Jewish Defense League, in 2019. | Screenshot from Instagram

In the most extreme cases, this bolstered a conspiracy theory that France’s most powerful politicians were being controlled by the “Sayanim”—Jews occupying high levels in media and government whose loyalty to the state of Israel supersedes their loyalty to their home country. Sayanim is Hebrew for “helpers.” According to this version of the narrative, Sayanim are understood to follow orders from the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence agency, although there are variations.

This notion of Jews within France penetrating the government in order to delegitimize anti-Zionism fits well with less extreme statements by more mainstream public intellectuals at the height of the violence in 2014. For example, Pascal Boniface, then director of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations, condemned the violence but clearly felt that the counterreactions of France’s Jews since the Second Intifada were the greater issue. “It was only…in 2000, and the repression unleashed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, that the reflex to accuse critics of Israeli policy of being antisemitic became commonplace,” wrote Boniface, who Sebban-Bécache describes as a renowned anti-Zionist researcher. “As the image of the Jewish state began to deteriorate, pro-Israeli lobbies also grew in strength.”

The year 2015 was a turning point for the French public’s perception of antisemitism, says Sebban-Bécache. In that year, three attacks within one month helped link the growing wave of radical Islamic terror with the vulnerability Jews had been feeling for years. On January 7, two brothers attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper, killing 12 people including the editor and injuring 11 more. The next day, a separate attacker killed a policewoman and four other people at a kosher supermarket. Several weeks later, an attacker stabbed three soldiers patrolling outside a synagogue in Nice.

“Before Charlie Hebdo, we had other terrorist attacks against Jews, but the French Jewish community felt very lonely, because there was no big reaction from the whole society. There was a tendency to say that these terrorists were lone wolves,” says Sebban-Bécache. But after the attacks in January 2015, hundreds of thousands marched in support of the police, journalists and Jews. “This was a relief for us, but we also felt some bitterness. We were thinking that if only the Jews had been killed, we would have never had so many people in the streets.”

Identifying the source of this rise in violence is not simple. There is a rich history of antisemitism in France from both the left and right ends of the political spectrum: French people who affiliate with the extreme right party “Rassemblement National” and extreme left “France Insoumise” are more likely than average to hold antisemitic prejudice (a difference of 6 to 13 points in comparison). 

 

A vigil for Charlie Hebdo. Flowers of all colors and candles are placed on a cobblestone sidewalk.

Mourners place flowers and candles in a vigil for Charlie Hebdo. | WIKIMEDIA

But according to the American Jewish Committee’s research, today’s animosity is not only political: the demographic with the highest proportion of antisemitic views is those with a Muslim background. “The gap is spectacular, the difference with the average stretches from 27 to 30 points on some prejudices we have tested,” says Sebban-Bécache. “For example, more than one French Muslim out of two think that Jews have too much power in media and finance.”

 

Sebban-Bécache notes that the difference is much smaller among French youth. “The positive note is that the poll shows that young French Muslims are less antisemitic than their parents,” says Sebban. “It means that being born, raised and educated in France can play an important and positive role.” 

However, Hakim El Karoui, a Muslim writer and author of “A French Islam Is Possible,” a 2016 report by the influential Paris think tank Montaigne Institute, found that younger French Muslims are more likely to hold more radical views, in the face of underemployment and other social issues. French Muslims themselves are frequent targets of violence and prejudice, and rates of Islamophobic attacks have risen in recent years, leading to emigration of this population as well. Per a 2017 Pew report, in mid-2016, 5.7 million Muslims comprised 8.8 percent of France’s population, although estimates range between 5 and 10 percent. According to the European Union, there is more prejudice against Muslims in France than against Jews—for instance, 81 percent of French respondents would feel comfortable if one of their children was in a love relationship with a Jewish person, versus only 68 percent for Muslims. 

El Karoui says that while 46 percent of French Muslims have beliefs that are fully compatible with French values, 28 percent have authoritarian views. “They are mostly young, low-skilled and facing high unemployment; they live in the working-class suburbs of large cities,” wrote El Karoui. “This group is no longer defined by conservatism, but by its appropriation of Islam as a mode of rebellion against the rest of French society.”

The majority of France’s Jewish population arrived in the country from North Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the simultaneous wave of Muslim immigrants from the same region. Under French colonialism, Jews and Muslims faced very different conditions. “Jews in Algeria were naturalized as French citizens very early,” says Sebban-Bécache, whose father immigrated from that country. “It created a competition between Jews in Algeria and [Muslim] Algerians, that I think stayed in the consciousness after they all emigrated to France.” 

France has “a lot of lower-class Jews living in very mixed areas where you also have a lot of [other] immigrants from North Africa,” says CRIF’s Jonathan Arfi of the working-class suburban districts where many of these attacks have taken place. “It’s a place where you have a strong dialogue between Jews and Muslims, but it has been also a place where we have witnessed the strongest level of antisemitism over the last 20 years.”

 

The murder of René Hadjadj by Rachid Khechiche, reportedly a Muslim, occurred in one of these neighborhoods, as did that of Sarah Halimi. Halimi lived in Belleville, Paris, and was killed by Kobili Traoré, a local drug dealer who had previously threatened her with antisemitic insults. Traoré broke into Halimi’s apartment at night and beat her viciously, trying to strangle her before throwing her body out of her window. As he did so, he shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and “I killed the Shaitan!” (Shaitan is Arabic for Satan.)

Traoré later denied having any antisemitic motivations, saying that he felt “possessed…by an external force, a demonic force.” The magistrate accepted this explanation and ruled that Traoré was not criminally responsible for Halimi’s death because he was experiencing a temporary cannabis-induced psychosis. This caused a furor among the French Jewish community, which accused the French police of a cover-up

“I’ll never forget that he was considered mentally ill just during the killing. He decided to take drugs and then he killed her and was considered mentally ill due to the drug’s effect,” says Arfi bitterly. “That means if you want to kill someone, you just have to take drugs and you will be exonerated.”

A red, white and blue sign with a picture of Sarah Halimi that reads "JUSTICE pour Sarah Halimi"

A sign that reads “Justice for Sarah Halimi” in French.| WIKIMEDIA

“​It’s a tragic case. It’s a second Dreyfus Affair. It’s a denial. It’s a disgrace. There was no trial, the murderer is on his way to freedom,” said Meir Habib, a French-Jewish lawmaker and a former leader of CRIF, in the wake of a recent report by a parliament committee exonerating the authorities. 

The violent death of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018 prompted a major response from the French establishment, in stark contrast to the feeble one after Halimi’s death just the previous year. Knoll, 85, was stabbed repeatedly and then set on fire by Yacine Mihouba, a Muslim neighbor, who was later sentenced to life in prison.

After Knoll’s death in 2018, Paris-based journalist Rachel Donadio wrote in The Atlantic that French politicians felt freer to call out antisemitism because there was no upcoming election, and they didn’t need to court Muslim votes “in the banlieues, or the working-class suburbs that are home to generations of France’s immigrant underclass.”

The recent murder of René Hadjadj “reminded us of the case of Sarah Hamili,” says Arfi. “It was really, really scary for us to see that elderly Jews can be killed this way.”

 

If the fight against antisemitism is linked to the rise of Islamic separatism and French Islamophobia, the French government’s toolbox in combatting both is limited by Laiceté, a principle of France’s political culture that effectively prevents the government from collecting any ethnic or religious data, and therefore from taking targeted action or supporting interreligious dialogue. “France is very sensitive about doing any ethnic statistics,” says Sebban-Bécache. “I think it’s a precious principle of the French Republic not to put a finger on one community, but on the other hand, this should not be taken as an excuse to turn a blind eye to what is happening on the ground.”

El Karoui of the Montaigne Institute also noted this stringency as a barrier. “I don’t know [how] you deal with a problem if you are not able to have a clear picture,”  he told NPR in 2017 after the study was released. “So getting statistics to find out who French Muslims are was compulsory.”

“In the face of a terrorism perpetrated by individuals claiming to represent Islam, the immediate reaction of the State was, and remains, to implement strict security measures,” El Karoui wrote in the report. “While this response is legitimate at a highly tense moment in time, it cannot suffice to preserve social cohesion and national harmony for generations to come.” 

The state is taking some action, however. Antisemitism has been linked to anti-Zionism and condemned by powerful politicians, which pleases Arfi and Sebban-Bécache, and the past several presidents of France have each made yearly appearances at the annual CRIF gala. Moment Institute fellow and former U.S. special envoy on antisemitism Ira Forman considers government policy to be one of the foremost indicators of the seriousness of antisemitism in a given society, and gives France good marks. “France’s governments over the last 20 years, the center-right under Sarkozy, the socialist Hollande, and now Macron, a centrist, have all been great,” says Forman.

So what can the state do better? Ideas range from better regulating American social media companies, which facilitate the spread of conspiracy thinking, to better institutionalizing Islam so that imams do not have to be trained—and perhaps radicalized—abroad. Sebban-Bécache also wants the government to better assess the efficiency of the measures taken by its biannual plan to fight against antisemitism and to dedicate more budget for its implementation. Currently, a single small office handles antisemitism, racism and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and is supposed to deliver trainings all over the country. But the main suggestion from both Arfi and Sebban is to improve education.

“In schools we teach a lot about historical antisemitism in history coming from the extreme right, from Nazism,” says Arfi. “But they will not teach a lot about the current forms of antisemitism.” Adds Sebban-Bécache, “it’s difficult for the French government to train teachers to explain to their students that when they target Jews because they assume that they’re all pro-Israel, this is discriminating against Jews. It is a complex issue and we need to dedicate more energy for pedagogy.”

Lyons public prosecutor Nicolas Jacquet is not expected to release any more information about the death of René Hadjadj for at least a year, while he considers the possible role of antisemitism in the case. Regardless of the determination, antisemitism in France will continue to be a hot and contested topic, and France’s Jews are watching closely. “We don’t know the details of the relationship between Mr. Hadjadj and the killer, but we insist that antisemitism not be neglected in the legal process,” said Arfi. “We just want to make sure that if he had not been Jewish, it would not have been different.”

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