Sarah Halimi, a Sephardic French Jewish woman, was a retired physician and schoolteacher, who was living in an apartment building in Paris. In April 2017, she was a young grandmother in her sixties, surrounded by her family, and got along well with her neighbors. Her murder shocked the French Jewish community, but the circumstances of her horrific killing somehow are less astounding than what happened after. Kobili Traore, who was initially arrested in conjunction with that crime, was her neighbor. He came from the African migrant community, was an Islamist, and drug dealer. Why is his background important?
Tensions with migrant and Islamist communities in France
France has been experiencing tensions with both African migrant communities and Islamists. Every summer is marred by riots and car arson in some residential areas of Paris. This has become so common and accepted, that this ongoing situation has stopped receiving wide coverage. By 2019, a “black vest” movement (an offshoot of the wide-ranging and mixed “yellow vest” protest movement) stormed the Pantheon in Paris, alleging assorted grievances, but in particular protesting against the threat of deportation. The movement consists of illegal aliens (or, as some prefer to call them, “undocumented immigrants”). However, this is not the only source of confrontation between the French authorities and minority communities; many of the tensions are in fact with the second and third generation descendants of guest workers and dual citizens from former French colonies.
Part of that background is the history of confrontation between populist far right parties, accused of inciting riots through anti-immigrant rhetoric, and violence in disaffected North African Muslim communities. The mass marches, lootings, and riots that have come to the United States in 2020 under the “BLM” banner, have been ongoing in France since the 1990s. Some members of these communities have cited racism and discrimination and complained of lack of access to equal educational and employment opportunities despite being born and raised in France. Others have fallen under the influence of extremist foreign preaches in mosques once funded by Saudi Arabia, but increasingly taken over by Qatar and Turkey-backed imams, most of whom share extreme Salafist and/or Muslim Brotherhood views.
The rise of religious extremism and Jew hatred
The rise of anti-Semitism in France parallels these social divisions, movements, and the rise in Islamist extremism. The French government, despite intercommunity efforts, has failed to come up with any long term and effective solution to these societal and generational problems. President Macron has in the past vowed to stop foreign funding of mosques in general; there have been efforts to engage Moroccan-trained imams who have vocally opposed anti-Semitism; there has also been the issue of anti-Israeli incitement and equation of Jewish life in France with the Palestinian cause; spread of ignorant conspiracy theories, which have resulted in horrific anti-Semitic murders, such as an earlier torture & murder of Ilan Halimi by a gang of violent criminals with African roots who believed that all Jews are rich. Numerous documentaries have been produced about these horrific cases.
France is also no stranger to terrorist attacks resulting from the growth in extremism; there also have been several high profile cases of terrorist attacks targeting the Jewish community, in addition to the better known cases of terrorist responses to assertion of free speech by secularist magazines, such as Charlie Hebdo. Despite the French authorities’ seeming openness to engage with all communities and to promote prophylactic measures against the rise of extremism, France remains dependent on money from Qatar, which has been promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through mosques, educational material, and the media. Qatar’s investment into French real estate and mosques is vast. Moreover, this funding of extremism is inseparable from Europe’s Muslim Brotherhood network of mosques, charities, schools, and social and cultural organizations.
An attempt to engage with less extreme religious bodies on the issue of financing mosques and expelling Islamists has failed, resulting, for instance, in withdrawal of funding by the Saudi Arabia-based NGO, the Muslim World League, from European mosques, leaving the vacuum which the French government continues to allow being filled by other and extreme foreign donors. In the landscape of financial dependency on countries responsible for the spread of extremism (Qatar, Iran, Turkey), and in the fear of confrontation with extremist communities, the Jewish community has found itself increasingly unmoored from mainstream support. In the media, cases affecting the Jewish community have been presented as a “Jewish” rather than a national, French problem; for that reason, the Charlie Hebdo massacre attracted far more attention than the attack on the kosher deli that was part of the same terrorist spree. This is the context in which Sarah Halimi’s murder took place. Now for the story.
Sarah Halimi was known for her gentleness and generosity. She would bake traditional Sephardic and French sweets and cakes, for sharing with her neighbors, including the alleged killer. She knew Kobili Traore from her building since he was young, having lived in the same building for many years. When he grew up, Traore was radicalized after attending an extremist Salafist mosque. He also got into drug dealing. On April 4th, 2017, Traore smoked a joint of marijuana, got into a family dispute, and then proceeded to break into a neighbors’ apartment. The family barricaded itself in the bedroom, but they were not the target. Traore, who had come to believe that Sarah Halimi was “Satan” by virtue of being Jewish, thanks to his extremist religious views, passed through their apartment en route to Sarah’s by climbing from the balcony. He broke into her apartment screaming “Allah Akhbar”, then attacked Halimi, and proceeded to torture her for over an hour.
The neighbors called the police, which arrived shortly outside her door.
Sarah could have been saved.
The police heard her screaming, but took no action, because, they claimed, this was a terrorist attack, which they were neither equipped nor authorized to handle. They instead elected to call a special unit and wait for its arrival.
Meanwhile, Traore recited Quranic verses and prayed as he tortured his victim, and her screaming could be heard outside the apartment.
He then threw her out the third floor window. It is not clear but is believed that she was still alive when he defenestrated her, and that she died upon hitting the pavement. However, as unconscionable as the details of the gruesome murder are, what followed was even more shocking to the community.
The Mockery of Justice
Despite the plethora of witnesses to the heinous crimes, Kobili Traore never stood trial.
He never saw the inside of a courtroom
The judge ruled that Traore was not psychologically competent to stand trial, using the technical term “delusional puff” to describe the alleged effects of cannabis upon the suspect’s state of mind, and ordered his release into psychiatric care.
The ruling outraged the community. Cannabis is not known to have the effect of inducing extreme violent rage that would render the affected into a fit of inflicting prolonged torture as well as carrying out a series of deliberate steps that resulted in murder. Furthermore, even if under the extremely unlikely circumstances that this substance would lead to such an effect in any particular individual, and if the accused had taken a sufficient amount that could possibly lead to that level of sudden intoxication, nowhere in the world would that serve as a full defense for his actions; on the contrary, use of illegal and harmful substances, or other forms of intoxicants, are frequently considered an aggravating factor in crimes committed under the influence. The judge, however, agreed with the prosecutor in claiming that Traore had lost all discernment due to the earlier use of cannabis; however, Traore had no previous psychiatric history, and it is not clear why the judge would believe that cannabis would aggravate Traore to that point if he had shown no previous psychological vulnerabilities beyond the normal response to marijuana.
The case was appealed, but in an even more striking turn of events, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision.
The case since then made it to the Court of Cassation,, the highest authority to appeal such rulings. In the event the Court upholds the decision, Traore will never be tried for this crime and will get to continue walking the streets and potentially endangering others. Furthermore, this case will have established the utterly reprehensible and implausible defense of a “delusional puff”, which will allow further criminals and terrorists to get off scott free after committing killings aggravated by torture and with apparent evidence of planning and ill intent (which would be considered a first degree murder in many US states) and in fact, will encourage other haters to engage in these crimes.
At no point has any of the judges considered this act a “hate crime” or an act of terrorism despite the fact that the police failed to act to save Sarah Halimi solely on the basis of its judgment that it was in fact a terrorist attack. No one in the police force was held responsible.
Meanwhile the experts consulted on the case did not share the initial opinions of the prosecutor or the judge. Paris Public Prosecutor M. Molins and the judge ignored expert testimony and ordered Traore to be placed in a psychiatric facility without initially acknowledging the anti-Semitic motive for the crime or even as a contributing factor. The appeals court did acknowledge anti-Semitic motive, but that did not change the verdict. The battered family was forced to go to cassation.
The kicker? The Paris Public Prosecutor M. Molins, who declared Traore “not criminally responsible” for his actions, and refused to bring hate crime or terrorism charges against him after refusing initially to admit any Jew hatred was involved, is now a magistrate with the Court of Cassation. This makes him both a party and a judge to the case he previously prosecuted, which is not in line with the interests of justice.
The Shameful and Embarrassing Silence of the Jewish Organizations
President Macron, in his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, disagreed with the verdict and opined that the perpetrator should be brought to justice.
However, the court attacked President Macron, alleging political interference with the judiciary independence.
Meanwhile, the allegedly influential Jewish organizations in France and outside of it remained strangely silent with respect to these shocking developments.
Le CRIF, a well known Jewish coalition in France, opted not to intervene in the process, possibly due to the political conflicts of interests.
The American Jewish Committee, which boasts proudly of its strong presence in France, has taken no visible action to engage with the court over this situation, nor to apply its vast resources to exert pressure and to bring international attention to both the heinous crime and the clear miscarriage of justice. Instead, it prioritized the opening of the offices in the UAE, which may not do much for combating international anti-Semitism, but at least will bring sufficient attention and glory to the organization, which otherwise had nothing to do with the Israel-UAE peace process and only issued a lukewarm statement when the news of normalization broke.
The World Jewish Congress has taken the situation further, in an apparent effort to cover up the inconvenient implications of the treatment of this crime for its prestigious relationship and standing in France.
Ronald Lauder, WJC chairman, commissioned Ray Kelly, the longest-serving Commissioner in the New York Police Department, to produce a report concerning the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Fearing that the shocking results of this inquiry might be denied or suppressed, some party leaked the portions of report which ultimately held that France is the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Lauder proceeded to disavow the unauthorized leaks and distanced himself from his own report.
The lack of involvement by these major French and international Jewish organizations raises questions about the utility of these self-appointed spokespeople and “State Departments of the Jews”, and their ultimate agendas. It seems that their dedication to access, popularity, and funding resulting from glamorous photo-ops far outweighs the inconvenience of dedicating resources to their state missions, much less risking all of the above-described boons of toeing just the right line in all the right places.
The Need for an Immediate Media Campaign and Coverage for an Upcoming Rally
Having despaired of securing the backing of major Jewish organizations and human rights NGOs (which are far too busy attacking Israeli cybersecurity firms and accusing Israel of facilitating human rights abuses), the local Moroccan Jewish community, along with its Muslim allies, such as the Moroccan Americans in New York (MANY), have come together to stage a major rally seeking to bring attention to the events. Reportedly, the rally organizers aim to bring together as many as 20,000 people on September 13. They have also created a group for supporters in the US on social media.
This tragic chain of events, made so much worse by the silence of the supposed friends, has already drawn the attention of the American Sephardi Federation in New York and Combat Anti-Semitism Movement.
However, much more needs to be done. The organizers believe that unless the American media starts speaking out on the issue, there is no incentive for the French organizations and media to cover the case properly. Only a major media and social media campaign of support and pressure on the judiciary to hold the perpetrator accountable and to acknowledge and fight Jew hatred and other forms of bigotry in all their manifestations can bring a sliver of hope to this already unacceptable situation, where willful blindness and fear of confrontation with the extremist elements of French society is leading the way to alienating, marginalizing, discriminating, and dehumanizing the Jewish community, in effect treating them as if they are not French citizens, deserving of equal protection under the law.
Therefore, urgent additional coverage and involvement in this case should be the first priority for media and communities of all backgrounds who stand together against injustice, bigotry, hate, and extremism.
Those who have subscribed to the Black Lives Matter cause should be equally concerned by the very obvious injustice in this case in France and should recall the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail.