In France, a heinous murder brings Muslim-Jewish tensions to the fore

PARIS — The circumstances of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll’s death almost seemed scripted: a haunting illustration of an enduring, and evolving, anti-Semitism in France, home to the largest Jewish population in Europe and third-largest in the world.

Knoll was among the fewer than 100 Jews who survived the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup, in which French police directed by the Nazis arrested over 13,000 Jews and held them at a stadium in Paris before they were shipped to Auschwitz for their extermination. After the war, she resettled in Paris, where she lived for more than seven decades until she was murdered in her apartment, in the city’s 11th arrondissement, on March 23. Her apartment was set alight; police initially responded to alerts of a fire before finding her charred body. An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed 11 times.

Police swiftly detained two suspects, a homeless man and Knoll’s 29-year-old neighbor, and called the murder an anti-Semitic hate crime. The neighbor, who had known her since he was a child, reportedly yelled “Allahu Akbar!” as he committed the act. An investigation is underway.

Knoll’s murder eerily echoed that of Sarah Halimi, a 67-year-old Jewish woman who was beaten to death, also in the 11th arrondissement, by her neighbor last year. He proceeded to throw her body off her third-story balcony while also yelling “Allahu Akbar!” It took the judicial authorities 10 months under extensive public pressure to acknowledge that Halimi’s murder was indeed motivated by anti-Semitism.

That Knoll’s was condemned as such so quickly came as a relief to Jews here. But although a promising sign for the state’s willingness to combat anti-Semitism, the official recognition did little to assuage unease over the startling reality of rising anti-Jewish violence in France.

 


 

A new anti-Semitism?

Five days after Knoll’s murder, thousands gathered for a march through the 11th arrondissement, which ended at the public-housing complex where she had lived alone. Participants held signs reading, “In France, grandmothers are killed because they’re Jewish.” Others brandished her picture with the words, “Together against anti-Semitism: Mireille Knoll, murdered because Jewish in 2018.”

Estelle, 44, who came to the march with her husband, wore a pin with Knoll’s photo. “We came because we’re sick of this, because enough is enough,” she told me. “There’s a new anti-Semitism in France, it’s been tolerated so far, but now it’s time to speak up.”

Identity crises, socio-economic inequalities, the rise of violent interpretations of the Quran, and enduring anti-Semitic clichés have fused in a toxic mix that has placed the Jewish community, and the nation at large, on edge.

Others I encountered at the march also described a “new anti-Semitism.” Rachelle, 64, argued that officials had “turned a blind eye to mounting anti-Semitism among Muslim communities,” citing tales of Muslim students in the suburbs, or banlieues, who disrupt history lessons about the Holocaust—incidents that, although isolated, sounded alarm bells when they were first reported in the early 2000s.

The murders of Knoll and Halimi were part of a wave of anti-Jewish violence perpetuated by French Muslims that has swept France in tandem with terrorism in general. In January 2015, Amedy Coulibaly, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, took hostages at HyperCacher, a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris, killing four. In March 2012, Mohamed Merah opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a teacher and four students. And in 2006, a group called The Gang of Barbarians kidnapped 23-year-old Ilan Halimi (no relation to Sarah), whom they held hostage and tortured for two weeks. He was found naked and bleeding, with his hands bound and adhesive tape covering his mouth and eyes, crawling out of a wooded area near a train station, where his kidnappers had dumped him. He died of his injuries soon after. The group said it had kidnapped him “because Jews have money.” Those were just the major incidents; since the early 2000s, Jewish places of worship and schools have been the targets of arson and vandalism, particularly in the banlieues, home to large immigrant populations.

 

A picture of Mireille Knoll at the march

 

But the recent violence emanating from France’s immigrant communities shouldn’t distract from a much older problem: anti-Semitism’s deep roots in French history. Recent governments have been slow to reckon with this dark past, from King Charles IV’s 14th-century expulsion of the country’s Jewish population to the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazi regime during World War II—something France officially acknowledged only in 1995. That anti-Semitism has faded from view, but remains alive and well. Since late last year, for example, a heated debate has surrounded the decision to republish the writings of celebrated anti-Semitic authors Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Charles Maurras.

Modern Zionism was largely a response to European—including French—anti-Semitism. The movement’s founder, Theodor Herzl, wrote in his diary that it was in Paris, while observing the protests around the trial of Alfred Dreyfus—a French Jewish officer falsely convicted of treason in a major political scandal—that he “recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism,” concluding that Jews had no choice but to create their own state.

The numbers paint a complex picture. Although Jews are the most-accepted minority in France—Roma and Muslims are the least—anti-Jewish sentiment remains high. Survey data from the National Consultative Commission of Human Rights indicate that although 89 percent of French people consider Jews “French like the rest,” 35 percent believe they “have a particular rapport with money;” 40 percent consider that “for French Jews, Israel counts more than France;” and 22 percent think that “Jews have too much power.” And although Interior Ministry figures reveal fewer anti-Semitic acts in 2017 than in 2016, they were more violent in nature. The findings are particularly stark in their disproportionality: Jews make up some 1 percent of the population but were the victims of more than a third of hate crimes—with a variety of perpetrators—in 2017.

For Delphine Horvilleur, France’s third female rabbi and a leader of the progressive Liberal Jewish Movement of France, the emergence of a new anti-Semitism is “both true and false,” she told me when we met at a café downstairs from her apartment. She arrived frazzled, still wearing sweatpants and struggling to finish a phone conversation, but greeted me with a smile and quickly got to the point. Recent anti-Semitism, she explained, is based on traditional stereotypes: “that Jews have power, something others don’t, money, luck.” But the source has undeniably changed. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about, we don’t know how to put words on the problem without essentializing an entire population that already faces discrimination,” she said, referring to Muslim youth. The “new anti-Semitism,” then, becomes a qualifier, enabling people “to talk about it without naming it.”

 

At the march to honor Mireille Knoll, a sign reads: “In France, grandmothers are killed because they’re Jewish”

 

Echoes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Knoll’s grisly death united the nation in outrage, but that didn’t stop the march in her honor from becoming immediately politicized. Francis Khalifat, the president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, the umbrella group known by the acronym CRIF, announced that Marine Le Pen—the leader of the far-right and historically anti-Semitic National Front party—and Jean-Luc Mélanchon, who leads the far-left France Insoumise party, would not be welcomed. Knoll’s son criticized Khalifat in a televised appearance, saying everyone was welcome: “The CRIF is playing politics, but I’m opening my heart.” Both Le Pen and Mélanchon, and some of their supporters, attended the march, only to leave after being booed.

Many French Jews contend that the far-right and far-left leaders represent two distinct but ultimately convergent forms of anti-Semitism. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front’s founder and father of its current leader, is a notorious anti-Semite convicted of Holocaust denial—in 1987, he called the gas chambers a “detail of history in World War II.” Marine Le Pen, who ousted her father from the party in 2015—before winning an unprecedented 35 percent of votes in the 2017 presidential election—has tried to rebrand the movement, seizing on recent terrorist attacks to supplant its historical notoriety with the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim platform gaining momentum across Europe.

The CRIF labels Mélanchon anti-Semitic because of his criticism of Israel and support for the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement, or BDS, which calls for a boycott of all Israeli products. It has been illegal in France since 2015 on the grounds that it provokes “discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group for their religion or belonging to an ethnicity, nation, race or religion.” The CRIF and many French Jews call anti-Zionism a “reinvented” form of anti-Semitism; President Emmanuel Macron used that very phrasing in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last summer. And while some challenge the notion that anti-Israeli sentiment or support for movements like BDS are inherently anti-Semitic, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has routinely provoked tension between France’s Jewish and Muslim minorities.

“Mélanchon is even worse than Le Pen—he’s anti-Zionist,” Rosine Valensa, a representative of the Association of Liberal Jews of Toulouse, told me in an interview at the group’s community center. She was sharply dressed, wearing stilettos and a blazer, and was expressive and spunky, hardly hiding her strong opinions. “Today we need to clarify our vocabulary—nobody calls themselves an anti-Semite anymore. It sounds better to say, ‘I have nothing against Jews, just against Israel.’” And while she considers it justified to criticize Israeli policy, “it’s the questioning of the state’s very legitimacy” that veers toward anti-Semitism, she specified, putting BDS in that category. That’s why “the CRIF had no choice but to bar both Mélanchon and Le Pen from the march,” she said.

 

Delphine Horvilleur in 2016. Photo by Fondapol, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Others agree. “Anti-Zionism is a new face of anti-Semitism, but it’s the same attitude,” Patrick Petit-Ohayon, of the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, a Jewish community organization, told me in an interview at its Paris offices, which house other Jewish groups, including the CRIF, and are under substantial military protection. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a pretext. It gives political legitimacy to hide a visceral anti-Semitism—to say that Jews are responsible for what happens in Israel.”

But even as many French Jews defend Israel against movements like BDS, they lament the conflict’s infiltration of their day-to-day. The issue is “linked to another state, with its own population, that has been displaced on us,” Petit-Ohayon said, still sympathizing with the CRIF’s decision.

Other Jewish groups here opposed the move, however. In a scathing communiqué, the French Jewish Union for Peace—which criticizes Israeli policy and supports BDS—said the CRIF “never ceases to sow division.” By “deliberately conflating opposition to Israeli policy and hatred of Jews,” the group argued, “its agenda in reality relays Israeli propaganda and discredits solidarity with Palestine by making it the fertile belly of the vile beast.”

Politics aside, it is evidently difficult to identify a threshold between criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Zionism. Is promoting a boycott of Israeli goods an indictment of the country’s policies or a negation of its right to exist?

“There’s a problem with the words Zionism and anti-Zionism, and I no longer know what they mean today,” Horvilleur said. Because she’s “open-minded and progressive,” she laughed, people assume she’s “not a Zionist, as if it’s an insult, a synonym for radicalism.” Anti-Zionism becomes synonymous with anti-Semitism, she went on, if it denies Jews the right to settle on this territory. “Why would we deprive Jews, exclusively, of the right to their own state?” That wouldn’t be the case for denouncing settlement expansion or the current administration’s policies. “I’m inclined to say, yes, I’m a Zionist, and I’m pro-Palestinian.”

Yet while Horvilleur regrets that the conflict has reverberated in France, she fears that it is too often characterized as the sole driver of anti-Semitism. That was the media narrative after the 2012 attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse, she recalled—Mohamed Merah justified the massacre as “vengeance for Palestinian children.” But that analytical lens “cleared the French state’s responsibility by making it seem like something external,” overlooking anti-Semitism’s legacy in France. With that in mind, the conflict has undeniably “played a phantasmagoric role” in mobilizing so many French Muslims around the Palestinian cause and, accordingly, against Jews—as if the issue “has become a code name for something else.”

The current conversation about anti-Semitism is part of a larger one: fighting a radicalism that inspires violence in the name of Islam, and identifying its causes. And that makes it all the more complex. Identity crises, socio-economic inequalities, the rise of violent interpretations of the Quran, and enduring anti-Semitic clichés have fused in a toxic mix that has placed the Jewish community, and the nation at large, on edge.

 

Patrick Petit-Ohayon

 

Promoting unity in a polarized era

The sense of urgency underscored a manifesto released in late April denouncing a “new anti-Semitism.” It was signed by some 300 intellectuals, public figures and elected officials past and present across the political spectrum. The spate of recent attacks against Jews, which have prompted many families to change neighborhoods or pull their children out of public schools, is tantamount to a “low-volume ethnic cleansing in the country of Émile Zola and [Georges] Clemenceau”—leading critics of anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus Affair a century ago—the authors wrote, condemning media silence on the issue. The inaction is due to a perception “among a segment of French elites” that considers radical Islam “exclusively the expression of a social revolt,” ignoring its religious dimension. Also at fault, a part of the French Left uses “anti-Zionism as an alibi for transforming the executioners of Jews into society’s victims,” because “the Muslim vote is 10 times superior to the Jewish vote.”

Ultimately, the authors called for the removal of Quran verses that incite hatred, advocating a sort of theological reform as part of President Macron’s proposed plan to restructure Islam in France.

The manifesto generated immediate backlash, both for its hyperbolic reference to an “ethnic cleansing” of Jews and its stigmatizing undertones. Critics accused the authors of generalizing about the undeniable anti-Semitism of Islamist discourse to include French Muslims more broadly. They also criticized the pitting of Jews’ and Muslims’ experiences of discrimination against one another, by noting, for example, that the former are 25 percent more likely than the latter to face attacks in response to their beliefs. Dominique Vidal, a historian whose father survived Auschwitz, slammed the text’s omission of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s role, deeming its call to rewrite the Quran “pure and simple absurdity.” He concluded with a warning: “Hierarchizing racisms is participating in them. And hierarchizing the fight against racism is sabotage.”

The current conversation about anti-Semitism is part of a larger one about fighting a radicalism that inspires violence in the name of Islam, and identifying its causes. That makes it all the more complex.

The imam of Bordeaux, Tareq Oubrou, seen by some as a voice of moderation and criticized by others for doublespeak in light of his proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood, lashed out against the text in a radio interview. He called its depiction of anti-Semitism as fundamental to Islam “nearly blasphemous,” and criticized its claim that the Quran “calls for the murder of Jews and Christians” as a “monumental error” made by the very forces France is trying to combat: “ignorant Muslims, delinquents, who remove texts from their historical context.” That is the mistake, he went on, made by “our youth who have no religious culture” who fall prey to radicalism and “don’t refer to imams.” Days later, Oubrou and 30 more imams across the country expressed their indignation in a collective letter published in Le Monde denouncing the “confiscation of [their] religion by criminals.”

I met Samy Ghozlan, who signed the manifesto, in the office of the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, a community hotline he founded in 2002 with the mission of drawing attention to the plight of French Jews. Ghozlan, 75, who was born in Algeria, speaks in a slow, low grumble. Papers are scattered across his desk, in an office that seems to double as a storage unit—discarded printers from the 1990s clash with his suit and tie. He spent his career as a police commissioner in the Paris banlieues, and was struck by an uptick of anti-Semitic acts that corresponded with the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000. “There were calls for vengeance against Israel, played out against Jews, as if we were guilty,” he told me. He also realized that the perpetrators had shifted from the far right to the children of African and North African immigrants, and French institutions were struggling to take note.

Still, Ghozlan said it would be overly simplistic to call anti-Zionism a reinvented form of anti-Semitism. “The anti-Zionist Left doesn’t hate Jews, and there’s no problem with expressing solidarity with the Palestinians,” he said. But often that gets lost in translation. He recalled the lead-up to Ramadan in 2015, when a Communist lawmaker encouraged Muslims not to purchase a certain brand of feuilles de bric—a type of pastry sheet used in North African cuisine—saying they were manufactured in Israel. In fact, the product in question was simply marked as kosher, produced under the supervision of Jewish authorities in France. After all, many French Jews are of North African descent. “They transformed their anti-Israel agenda into an attack on French Jews,” he lamented.

 

Rosine Valensa

 

Ghozlan defended the manifesto’s call to reform Islam, which he believes could both help combat radical Islamism and reduce anti-Semitic sentiment. He clarified that those challenges are overlapping but not synonymous because “it’s not just radicalized Muslims who are anti-Semitic.” He noted that certain imams still preach hatred toward Jews—messages that can trickle into the mainstream. But such a reform would need to come from Muslims, not the state. He identified figures such as Hassen Chaghloumi, the imam of the northeast Parisian suburb of Drancy, as a good candidate to lead the task.

I had run into Imam Chaghloumi, who signed the collective letter published in Le Monde, at the march for Mireille Knoll. “How did we get to this point, to such hatred? How can we have devils that murder an old woman? There is enormous work to be done,” he told a group of journalists. “This is a day of anger,” he said, raising his voice. “Committing murder while yelling God is great tarnishes Islam. These people don’t belong to Islam. We need to say stop, and Muslims need to rise up.”

But Chaghloumi is a controversial figure who lives with a permanent security detail. His home was vandalized in 2006 after he called on Muslims to respect the Jewish memorial in Drancy—one of the sites from which Jews were deported during World War II. In 2010, Islamists stormed his mosque after he publicly supported a law banning the full-face veil in public places. His detractors are also wary of his perceived proximity to Israel, partly because he has criticized Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza. Many Muslims “consider him a traitor, or the ‘imam of the Jews,’” Ghozlan, a longtime friend of Chaghloumi, told me. His rocky reputation attests to the deep tensions gnawing at the French social fabric—and to the diverse reality of French Muslims that clashes with the monolithic depictions so dominant in media narratives here.

How can the victims of discrimination discriminate?

The issues at play in France’s experience with both a so-called new anti-Semitism and the rise of radicalization—religious extremism, echoes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and socio-economic discrimination against young people of African and North African descent, to name but a few—may seem unrelated. But they reinforce each other in a dangerous loop.

Many of the Jewish leaders I spoke with drew a link between feelings of marginalization among Muslims and anti-Semitism, a dynamic at the center of why so many considered the manifesto to be counterproductive. “France allowed a generation of youth to grow up without feeling French,” Valensa, of the Association of Liberal Jews in Toulouse, told me, referring primarily to second- and third-generation children of immigrants from North Africa. “So many say they’re Moroccan or Algerian, not French.” But in those countries, the dynamic is reversed: they’re considered French. “They feel like they’re neither from here, nor from there, and they need a cause. It’s a failure of the French integration process” that followed decolonization.

 

Imam Hassen Chaghloumi at the march for Mireille Knoll

 

Horvilleur, the rabbi, connected the dots. She is concerned that so many young French Muslims who remain relatively quiet on other issues facing Muslims globally are “all of a sudden so riled up as soon as it has to do with Israel and Palestine.” Although she doesn’t seek to “minimize the conflict,” she wonders “why it has become such a fantasy, a religious cause.” Perhaps that’s due to their “quite understandable” sentiment of being discriminated against. “And then we wonder,” she added emphatically, “how can the victims of discrimination discriminate?” Many scholars consider that identity crisis a driver of radicalization: a sense of limbo, of not belonging, that creates a void ripe for extremist ideologies.

A sense of being sidelined, however, wouldn’t translate to anti-Semitism without tapping into the same hateful tropes about proximity to power and control that have plagued Jews throughout history. “If someone of African or North African origin is a victim of a discrimination, that needs to be pursued,” Ghozlan told me. “But Jews aren’t responsible for that.”

The situation has been deteriorating and thousands of Jews have left France in the past decade. Knoll’s murder renewed calls for a mass exodus, prompting Malek Boutih, the president of SOS-Racisme, to declare that “today, Jews are no longer safe in France.” Knoll’s granddaughter wrote in a Facebook post from Israel: “Twenty years ago, I left Paris knowing that neither my future nor that of the Jewish People is to be found there.”

And if a faulty link between Jews and Israeli policy is exacerbating contemporary anti-Semitism in France, Israeli leaders have done little to insulate Jews outside Israel from their political decisions. After the HyperCacher attack, Netanyahu said Jews should leave France for Israel, calling it their “home”—exhortations other Israeli leaders have made in the past. That narrative isn’t always well-received. Then-President François Hollande criticized Netanyahu’s remarks, telling Jews, “Your place is here, in your home. France is your country.”

Still, the French Jewish community in Israel has grown significantly in the past decade, and even those who are committed to staying in France struggle to be hopeful. “It’s humiliating that every Wednesday, my kids come to this very synagogue after school and have to pass by four armed soldiers just to enter,” Valensa told me. “It’s humiliating that during Passover, I tell my kids not to tell anyone why they aren’t eating at the cafeteria.”

Petit-Ohayon of the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, is cautiously optimistic. “I think there will still be Jews in France for many years,” he said. “But will they live in safety? That will depend entirely on the actions taken today.”

About the Author

Karina Piser’s research will explore measures to promote French secularism in public high schools in immigrant-heavy areas. Beginning in suburbs of Paris, she will interview students, teachers, administrators, and education-policy practitioners to better understand how the government is targeting schools to improve social cohesion in the aftermath of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks. Prior to receiving the ICWA fellowship, Karina was an editor at World Politics Review, and has previously held positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights in Tunis, Tunisia. She holds a master’s degree from Sciences Po Paris, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and World Politics Review, among other publications.