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Protesters in S.F. lash out at French ruling in Sarah Halimi murder

J. The Jewish News of Northern California

BY GABRIEL GRESCHLER | MAY 3, 2021

Approximately 60 people gathered Sunday in front of San Francisco’s City Hall to protest a French court’s decision in the killing of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish French woman who was the victim of an antisemitic attack in her Paris apartment building in 2017.


The retired doctor and schoolteacher was beaten to death by Kobili Traoré, who reportedly was yelling “Allah Akbar” and also said “I killed the shaitan” before throwing Halimi out of her apartment window. In Islamic belief, a shaitan is an evil spirit that incites humans to sin.


Three weeks ago, France’s highest court ruled that Traoré, a devout Muslim, was unfit to be put on trial because the marijuana he had smoked before the killing made him psychotic. He’s currently in a psychiatric hospital.


The court’s decision sparked protests around the world and has pushed to the forefront the threat of antisemitism facing France’s Jews. The ruling also resulted in the resignation of a Jewish judge from the eastern region of the country.


In San Francisco as they did elsewhere, protesters held signs that read “Justice for Sarah Halimi,” “Shame on the French court” and “I am Sarah Halimi.” One person held up a copy of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which reacted to the court ruling with a cover that translates to “Should we decriminalize antisemitism?


“What happened to Sarah Halimi is absolutely atrocious,” said Audrey Darby, who drove from Healdsburg to attend the protest. “It’s a sign of what has been going on in France for many years. I will not go to France until these events are changed.”


The demonstration included speakers from the Jewish French community of San Francisco, as well as leaders of Jewish advocacy groups such as the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs and Club Z.


Paris-born Isabelle Marcus, who has lived in the United States since 2000 and was a co-organizer of the San Francisco protest, said she has been “extremely concerned” about antisemitism in her home country.


“The French government denied justice,” said Marcus, whose mother lives in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, where Halimi was killed and where she had lived for more than 30 years. “We are asking for the government to take care of the French Jewish community and protect this minority as they would for any other French community. They need to protect every citizen and to give them access to justice.”


Marcus read aloud in French — and then later translated to English — a speech that the Consulate General of France in San Francisco Frédéric Jung provided to the protestors.


“As you are gathered here today, here in San Francisco, in memory of Sarah Halimi, victim of a horrible antisemitic crime, I share with you the all the feelings this crime inspires,” the speech read. “The Court has nevertheless concluded there will be no murder conviction. It is not for me to comment upon the court’s decision.”


Jung added, “I’d like to remind you of France’s total commitment to the fight against antisemitism in all its forms.”


Mike Harris, a co-organizer and member of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, said he’s been following the Halimi case since shortly after her killing on April 4, 2017.


“A Jew is murdered for being Jewish,” he said. “We have to speak up about this.”


Harris applauded French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance on the Halimi case. After the court’s April 14 decision to not have Traoré stand trial, Macron told a French newspaper, “Deciding to take narcotics and then ‘going mad’ should, not in my view, remove your criminal responsibility.” The president said he also wants to see the country’s laws change in response to the court’s decision.


A lower court previously had determined that Traoré was unfit to stand trial, and Halimi’s family appealed to the higher court, known as the Court of Cassation. That court’s ruling determined that “a person is not criminally responsible if suffering, at the time of the event, from psychic or neuropsychic disturbance that has eliminated all discernment or control.”


French politicians “recognize that this was really a travesty of justice,” Harris said. “So, great, they’ve recognized it. Now we need to have you move to make sure that no miscarriage of justice like this happens.”


The Halimi case stands as another example of antisemitism in France and the rising tensions between the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities.


Speakers at Sunday’s protest brought up examples as far back as the Dreyfus affair from the late 1890s, when a French Jewish military officer was convicted of passing secrets to Germany even though he wasn’t guilty. They also cited the 2012 killings of four people, including three children, at a shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse. And in 2018, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was killed in her Paris apartment in an incident that authorities determined was a hate crime.


“You can’t bring back a life and you cannot correct the injustices in France and in French history, but France needs to rise to the occasion and say, ‘Enough is enough,’” said John Rothmann, a talk show host on KGO radio. “If they believe in liberté, égalité, fraternité, if they want to maintain a viable Jewish community in France, this is what has to happen. France’s history demands it.”


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