(JTA) — Last April, Traore Kobili threw his Jewish neighbor to her death from her third-story home in Paris while calling her a demon and shouting about Allah. French authorities waited 170 days before they declared the killing of Sarah Halimi an anti-Semitic hate crime — and that was after unprecedented lobbying by French Jewish groups.
“We need to let the judiciary do its job,” Magali Lafourcade, president of the French government’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, said in an interview at the height of the campaign, which united Jewish organizations across the political spectrum.
Nearly a year after that incident, a similar case prompted authorities to do the job a lot faster. The murder of Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor who was stabbed and set on fire allegedly by a Muslim neighbor on March 23, swiftly led to an indictment against her neighbor and an alleged accomplice on murder and hate crime charges.
For many French Jews, Knoll’s brutal slaying — her charred body, riddled with 11 stab wounds, was found in her apartment, which her alleged killers are suspected of torching to destroy evidence — underlines both growing determination by authorities to fight anti-Semitic violence and their apparent inability to prevent it.
“There’s a marked difference in the handling of the two cases, which are very similar,” Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, or BNVCA, told JTA Tuesday. “With Halimi, the authorities dragged their feet and dithered. With Knoll, they acted swiftly. For me, it’s an indication of a lesson learned.”
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “appalled” by her murder, which he linked to the murder of a French police officer, Arnaud Beltrame, by an Islamist last week in southern France. The following day he attended Beltrame’s funeral, and then Knoll’s in the Paris suburb of Bagneux, where Macron said she was “killed because she was Jewish.”
Also Wednesday, at least 10,000 people, including many Jews, some wearing Israeli flags, participated in a memorial march to Knoll’s home from Nation Square. The march, amid intensive coverage by the French media of the affair, was greeted as a heartening development by a community where many members feel abandoned by French society at large in their hour of need.
One participant, Holocaust survivor Nicole Friedman, told JTA that she came to the march “because I’m Jewish, and because I lived through the war.” Flanked by her daughter, Friedman marched slowly with the aid of a cane.
Another marcher, Alain Ndigal, wore an Israeli flag. Ndigal is of African descent and not Jewish.
“I came because this barbarity concerns us all,” the 48-year-old mechanic said.
Meanwhile, dozens of supporters of Marine Le Pen surrounded the head of the far-right National Front party shouting “Marine is with us” as others shouted “N for Nazi,” referencing the first letter of her party’s name in French.
Before its start, the march was marred by issues connected with the deep divisions that continue to bedevil French society. Despite his call for “everyone” to attend the march, the head of the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish communities, Francis Kalifat, also said that neither leaders from the National Front nor the Insubmissible France far-left movement were welcome due to their history of perceived anti-Semitism.
Le Pen and her Insubmissible France counterpart, Jean-Luc Melenchon — between them they garnered more than a third of all the votes cast in both rounds of the 2017 elections — said they would come anyway. Kalifat, in turn, faced criticism even from people sympathetic to his cause, like the philosopher Raphael Enthoven, who accused Kalifat of compromising his own message of unity by saying who was welcome and who was not.
Kalifat ultimately backed down, saying “we need to put the controversy behind us” to avoid the march becoming a political issue.
“It’s certainly an encouraging sign,” Ghozlan said of the high profile of Knoll’s case. Macron’s statements and actions make for “a strong gesture,” he added.
Ghozlan was among those who accused the judiciary and the media of downplaying the Halimi case for political reasons, saying they were wary of playing into the hands of the National Front. The anti-Islam party clinched more than a third of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections that were held a little over a month after Halimi was killed.
But in their handling of the Knoll case, he said, authorities “showed an understanding of the great psychological effect” that the omission of hate crime charges had on French Jews.
The neighbor accused in the murder, a 29-year-old man whose name was not released and whom the BNVCA said is Muslim, knew her since he was a small child, Knoll’s son, Daniel, told The Associated Press. His mother escaped a 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews, moved to Canada and returned to France. Her children left for Israel and beyond. She suffered from Parkinson’s disease that left her largely housebound. She did not have much money, he said.
Whereas the Knoll case demonstrates “greater resolve” on the part of authorities, Ghozlan suggested it also demonstrates their inability despite major efforts to prevent the recurrence of brutal anti-Semitic violence and the devastating effects it is having on French Jewry.
“The community is as guarded as it can be,” he said, referring to thousands of French troops who were posted outside synagogues, Jewish schools and neighborhoods following an Islamist’s murder of four Jews at a Paris kosher market in 2015. “On the security level we are at capacity. And that’s a good thing, but it also shows that no amount of policing will prevent the reality of homicidal anti-Semitism in France unless we also address the root cause.”
To Ghozlan, this cause is how hatred of Israel both conceals and amplifies hatred of Jews.
In July, Macron became the first French president to say that anti-Zionism “is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.” Nevertheless, local municipalities regularly name streets for Palestinian terrorists, Ghozlan said.
“Each case like Halimi or Knoll prompts more Jews to leave their homes either for Israel, abroad or inside the Paris area to safer areas,” Ghozlan said, noting that neighborhoods like La Courneuve and Saint-Denis, which once had thousands of Jewish residents, are now seeing empty synagogues.
According to BNVCA, at least 60,000 Jews have left suburbs and neighborhoods with many Muslims in eastern Paris for western ones in what the group is calling “internal aliyah” – a Hebrew word that means immigrating to Israel. At least 26,000 French Jews have moved to Israel since 2013 – nearly three times the number who came in the previous five years.
One of them is Noa Goldfarb, a granddaughter of Knoll.
“I was saved,” she wrote on Facebook about her aliyah following the killing of her grandmother, whom she described as a “kind and gentle soul full of light.”
Goldfarb left Paris “knowing that neither my future nor that of the Jewish People is to be found there,” she wrote from Herzliya, where she now lives. “But who would’ve thought that I was leaving my relatives where terrorism and cruelty would lead to such a tragedy.”
The killers, she said, “left us not even one object, a letter, a photograph, to remember her by. All we have are our tears and each other.”