Murder reopens question of Jews safety in France

paris | The brutal murder of a young Jewish man is roiling the community and reviving questions over whether France is a safe place for Jews.

Ilan Halimi, 23, was lured away Jan. 21 from the store where he sold mobile phones by a woman, abducted and then held in a suburban housing project for three weeks by a gang, where he was repeatedly tortured, according to French officials.

He was then dumped, barely alive and reportedly with burn marks all over his body, at a suburban train station Monday, Feb. 13. Halimi died while being driven to a hospital.

Until this week, detectives investigating the case said they were not linking it to anti-Semitism.

But in a turnaround, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told a Jewish communal gathering this week that officials had decided to treat the case as an act of anti-Semitism. He said the minister of justice had ordered that Halimi’s torture and murder be considered “premeditated murder motivated by religious affiliation.”

He spoke at the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, or CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish groups.

Ironically, de Villepin and CRIF’s president, Roger Cukierman, had hoped that a highlight of the dinner would be the announcement that anti-Semitic acts in France dropped by 47 percent in 2005 over the previous year.

Anti-Semitic attacks, largely committed by youths of North African origin, increased in France during the first few years of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. The climate for Jews had seemed to improve in recent months, as had France’s relations with Israel, but the recent incident has rocked the community.

After meeting with France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, known for ordering the police crackdown against anti-Semitic violence in 2005, Cukierman said Halimi’s death “was one of the worst incidents for the Jewish community in France, if not the worst.”

At least 1,200 people demonstrated in Paris on Sunday, Feb. 19 to show their anger over the murder.

At least 10 people, ages 17 to 32, have been arrested. The suspects, of North African and black African Muslim origins and of white French background, have been labeled the “gang of barbarians” by the French media.

The group’s alleged leader, identified as Youssouf F., has reportedly fled to the West African country of Ivory Coast.

French police officials said they originally thought the only motive of the kidnapping was money.

After questioning several of the suspects, the police reported that there had been six other kidnapping attempts, four of them against Jews. Officials said the suspects told police that because Jews were all rich, someone would find the money to ransom them. Only one of those attempts was reported to the police when it took place.

JTA correspondent Lauren Elkin contributed to this report.