Today, May 14, marks one month since the judgment by the French Cour de Cassation, the country’s supreme court, in the case of the murder of Sarah Halimi. The court’s decision has caused international outrage and has deepened angst amongst France’s Jewish community.
It came in the context of persisting anti-Semitic assaults and vandalism undiminished by the COVID-19 lockdowns. From 2012 onward, high profile anti-Semitic crimes, terrorist attacks, murders, vandalism of Jewish places of worship, cemeteries and stores have plagued Europe’s largest Jewish community. Jews have moved out of certain areas of France, considered too unsafe to live, in what was coined the “internal Aliyah.” Despite this, and a large wave of actual Aliyah in 2015, French Jews by and large remain vocally committed to La Republique. The latest ruling in the Halimi case inevitably challenges this unwavering commitment, tested by much hardship over the past decade.
In the judgment, the Cour de Cassation ruled that Kobili Traoré would not stand trial for the murder of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish 65-year-old teacher and physician.
Traoré, a Mali-born French man with a long list of criminal convictions, broke into Sarah Halmi’s apartment on April 4, 2017, clubbed her in the head with a blunt object and threw her out of her window to her death.
The two were neighbours in the six-story building in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville in Paris. When they crossed paths in the hall, Traoré would sometimes call her and her daughter “dirty Jewesses.”
On the night of the murder, Traoré was heard by witnesses shouting: “Allahu Akbar, I killed the demon!”
When the case got to deposition, he stated for the record that he had felt “oppressed” by the sight of a Torah and a Menorah in Sarah Halimi’s home, which sparked the attack.
In the face of such blatant anti-Semitism, it had been already a cause of great concern that the court had taken nearly a year to at last confirm, in 2018, that anti-Semitism had been a motive in the case, something the prosecution had failed to establish well into the investigation. You can read more about persisting challenges to recognize anti-Semitic motives in France here.
As this initial challenge was finally overcome, four years after the murder and following several proceedings, the main question at issue was whether Traoré, who had a history of mental illness, had completely “abolished” judgment on the night of the attack or merely “altered” judgment.
Three expert panels were consulted by the court to determine this. The first expert psychiatrist concluded that the deterioration of Traoré’s mental state resulted from his massive consumption of cannabis and that he could therefore be referred to criminal court.
The second one, however, contradicted the first and held that he could not be held responsible because his drug abuse had only aggravated a pre-existing disorder.
More ambiguously, the third panel of experts argued instead that Traoré could not be held responsible because he had been in the middle of a bouffée délirante, a “sharp delusional puff,” a common diagnostic term used in France.
The court, which was not required to follow any of the experts, ultimately followed the latter. This means that Kobili Traoré will not stand trial for the brutal anti-Semitic murder of Sarah Halimi and will remain in the psychiatric institution where he has been kept ever since the attack.
Condemnations swiftly poured in. Across France, Europe and the world, tens of thousands of demonstrators went out on the streets to express their outrage.
B'nai B'rith France mobilized en masse, as they have all throughout this bitter process, from Paris to Marseille, from Nice to Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lille and across the entire country in support of the Halimi family.
“Should we legalise anti-Semitism?” the satirical Charlie Hebdo chimed in with a poignant and characteristically blunt cartoon.
Indeed, as many others have noted, the ruling has the perverse effect that the intentional use of drugs can be regarded as an exonerating factor in a hate crime.
Answering to public sentiment, the French government’s response was swift. “Deciding to take narcotics and then become 'crazed' should not in my eyes remove criminal responsibility," declared President Emmanuel Macron.
This was followed by an announcement by Justice Minister Eric Dupond Moretti that a new law would be presented in May that would do away with invoking this type of defense for anyone who voluntarily used drugs and alcohol before committing a crime.
Amending the law
Amending the law is essential in order to restore the trust of the French Jewish community, many of whom suffer the daily kind of harassment that Sarah Halimi encountered prior to her murder and who feel that this judgment does too little to protect them.
I should note that the fact that the law is unclear does not mean that French courts do not hold anyone under the influence of drugs accountable for their actions.
In another 2017 case, a man in Marseille under the influence of alcohol and drugs who broke into his neighbor's apartment and killed a dog by throwing it out of a 4th floor window was deemed criminally responsible and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
In contrast, in the Sarah Halimi case, the court, astonishingly, found that there could be no criminal responsibility because the law “itself does not make a distinction with regard to the origin of the mental disorder.”
The court missed the point: the indisputable self-confessed anti-Semitism of the killer
Of course, the question of Traoré’s responsibility is far from clear-cut. But what the experts, and eventually the court, have all failed to see is that the center of gravity in the case is not Traoré’s drug abuse or erratic behavior, but the indisputable self-confessed anti-Semitism that motivated him to commit a heinous crime.
It was anti-Semitism which led Kobili Traoré to target Sarah Halimi specifically, not “delusional mystical elements,” as one of the experts had claimed. And in doing so, he showed sufficient discernment. Not grasping this fundamental fact is probably the court’s biggest failure.
It could have weighed in on how the law fails to distinguish between a drug-addled delusional puff and outright insanity.
It could also have sought to clarify the question of legal responsibility. Instead, by doing neither it created an unacceptable state of impunity.
The lawyers of the Halimi family have vowed to seek justice both at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and in the Israeli court system. The latter is possible due to Sarah Halimi’s Israeli nationality. This is not unusual. For instance, in terrorism cases, France regularly claims jurisdiction when the victims are French citizens. A ruling on this anti-Semitic hate crime in Israeli courts would perhaps provide a modicum of justice for the Halimi family.
In the aftermath of the verdict, Jewish communities in France and across Europe are outraged at this denial of justice. They fear for their safety and that of their loved ones and feel that the justice system may no longer be on their side.
In dealing with this case, Europeans would do well not to dismiss this outpour of emotion as “hysteria.”
As we have seen, there are several legitimate grounds why the court’s decision is deeply flawed and the proposed amendment to the law must remedy this unjust state of affairs and ensure that the tragic fate of Sarah Halimi never befalls anyone else.
As the Passover seder begins, we read in the Haggadah that it is a mitzvah to talk about the miracles that happened when the Jews left Egypt. The more someone tells about it, the more they deserve to be praised. It is perhaps one reason that seders run long into the night—because there is so much to tell. The promise of praise is a good incentive to dive into the text and commentary.
Educators tell us that children need to be motivated to learn and praise has been shown to work best as that motivator. Recognition of achievement is good for personal growth and the development of character. We know that words matter. Words of encouragement and praise help, shaming and negative comments hurt. Coaches know that praise works. So do good employers, even when it must be accompanied with a suggestion or need to adjust or change.
On Friday night, as Shabbat is ushered into our homes, a tribute to the Jewish woman is said. The Eishes Chayil (Woman of Valor) blessing acknowledges how much a woman does to care for her household and the Jewish world. The last words tell us that she should be praised. Prayers are said, with many references of praise for God. There are also special prayers said on Shabbat that praise the individuals who provide for the needs of a community.
The praise of men and women at the time of their death is a tribute to them. The eulogies delivered by their children and family, friends or co-workers, are offerings of praise for their life and contribution to the world. We honor loved ones by speaking of their good deeds and commitment to their family. These words of praise are words of comfort for the mourners as it often evokes wonderful memories with the deceased.
The greeting card industry has mastered the praise of mothers, fathers, grandparents, couples and birthday celebrants. Most everything we use we buy as a consumer, often the result of an ad or a recommendation or praise by someone who has used it before us. We will see a movie or television show because we have heard it praised by reviewers.
Organizations such as B’nai B’rith are praised for the work they do on many levels in a community. This is often done via community proclamations in honor of a special anniversary year. Good wishes also come from a variety of government officials, citing the many good things that B’nai B’rith makes possible around the globe. The work it does benefits Jews and communities around the world.
I hope you are reading the media releases or articles shared by B’nai B’rith describing projects or programs taking place. Perhaps you see the news item that is picked up appearing in your local newspaper or on social media. It is the praise it deserves, often including praise of the people who make it possible. These posts often receive “likes” when they appear on Facebook. Help this praise go further by sharing the story. Forward it to someone you know and let them know how you feel about B’nai B’rith. If you have something to share with us, please do, as we do not always hear about activities that are done in the name of B’nai B’rith. Sometimes the planners are modest or they have been too busy doing the program to provide this last but important piece of publicity after the event.
If you want to support any of the work B’nai B’rith does, donations are examples of praise. If you want to bring a program to your community or learn more about B’nai B’rith programs, you can go to the B’nai B’rith website. Remember, there will be praise for your efforts!
According to announcements, the Palestinians will put off the legislative elections originally planned to take place on May 22, followed by presidential elections on July 31. These would have been the first national elections to take place in the Palestinian territories since 2006. The 2006 elections led to an unstable unity government. In 2007, civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah. After a bloody struggle that left hundreds dead, Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza to the West Bank.
When the widely unpopular Abbas issued a formal decree ordering the elections in mid-January this year, many observers believed he was just trying to find some path to strengthen his legitimacy and stay in power.
Close Abbas advisers such as Hussein al-Sheikh, Majid Faraj and the wealthy businessman Nabil Shaath were said to oppose the move from the beginning because they fear that there are many inside Fatah and, of course, from Hamas that would take the opportunity to take all the Abbas team and proxies down.
Now that the elections will most likely be postponed, who is being blamed? Of course, Israel. The real problem is that Abbas firmly believed he could control the vote in May and July, but when a short time ago the convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti said that he would participate, “whatever it takes,” even from his cell, Abbas and his team started thinking that they could have a civil war rather than an election.
Abbas’s justification for delaying the election is based on the symbolic status of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians insist that an election cannot happen if Jerusalem is not included. The Oslo Accords stipulate that a symbolic number of Palestinians can vote at designated post offices. The other 150,000 would vote at ballot boxes in the West Bank.
Let's see what may happen if there are elections, and what the reaction in the international community will be.
Abbas is corrupt and his administration has no popularity in the West Bank. But he has managed to stay in power and tries to use doublespeak to move forward. On one hand he says he wants peace, on the other hand he does not sit at the negotiating table and endorses terrorism, paying great amounts of money to those terrorists who kill Israeli civilians.
Marwan Barghouti wants to take power. He believes he can get out of jail and become the new Palestinian President. But who is Barghouti? He planned and executed several massacres of Israeli civilians. He organized the killing of Georgios Tsibouktzakis, a Greek priest in Ma'ale Adumim, and killed Israeli civilians; he directed a massacre in the Seafood Market in Tel Aviv, killing Israeli civilians; he sent suicide bombers to the Malha Mall; he planned and executed 33 attacks which murdered 21 people. This is Barghouti. This is the murderer who challenges Abbas and wants to lead the PA.
Researchers from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have noted in a special report that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have nominated candidates with criminal records, and Hamas has nominated other criminals who should be in prison for life instead of candidates in an election. Two examples are:
Jamal Muhammad Farah al-Tawil, a Hamas commander in the West Bank who planned multiple suicide bombings, including a 2001 car bombing in a Jerusalem pedestrian mall that killed 12 Israelis and wounded nearly 200.
Jamal Abd al-Shamal Abu Hija, who was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to nine life sentences for involvement in at least six bombings, including the 2002 Meron Junction attack in north Israel that killed nine and the 2001 Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem that killed 15. He is also on the Hamas electoral list.
If relations between the Palestinians and the international community are based on the Palestinian commitment to nonviolence, the recognition of Israel and the acceptance of agreements, it is time to ask if the international silence is because they endorse criminals as possible leaders of the PA or if they will decide once and forever to repudiate the electoral participation of these convicted terrorists.
In this context, Abbas feels comfortable to claim there is no possibility of elections due to the restrictions in Jerusalem. It is false, but the international community sometimes has a tendency to accept these kinds of statements from Abbas. We can watch it in every U.N. agency meeting all the time. Less than a month ago, in the United Nations Union Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Israel was vandalized by a resolution saying that Israel is guilty of “war crimes.” European and Latin American countries did not hesitate to vote such atrocity.
When are they going to face the reality of corruption in the PA, whose leaders stole vaccines two months ago, which were sent for medical doctors but were used to vaccinate the ruling officers during the tragedy caused by the pandemic?
When are they going to understand that candidates to lead a Palestinian State can be criminals like Barghouti or al-Tawil?
When will the international community, those who believe in real peace, stop harassing Israel in the U.N. agencies and push both Israelis and Palestinians to discuss face to face through a negotiating table?
When is the international community going to understand that corruption and criminals are not the solution for the Palestinian future? The Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan have business and diplomatic relations with Israel. The Palestinian narrative boasting that no Arab country can have peace with Israel without a solution between them and the Israelis is obsolete.
The European and Latin American countries which insulted Israel in the UNHRC last month should react. And the great democracies too.
The pages of the Winter 2020 issue of IMPACT contained a From the Vault column focusing on the cleaning, repair and rededication of the 19th century Moorish-style synagogue in Verdun, France by American soldiers during World War II, who were the first to revive Friday night worship services there. The building had been destroyed by the Nazis before the American troops arrived.
The story of the events in Verdun had originally been published as a first-hand account by Army officer, surgeon and B’nai B’rith member Col. Joseph Haas in a 1945 issue of B’nai B’rith’s American Jewish Monthly.
With funds raised by France’s heritage organization, Fondation du Patrimoine, the synagogue has now undergone a major restoration by the architectural firm Grégoire André. A short film on the foundation’s website details many aspects of this project and includes footage of the restoration process, as well as visuals of the building’s exterior and sanctuary.
Designated as an historic landmark, the Verdun synagogue is owned by Verdun’s Jewish community. Many dangerous leaks from the roof and elsewhere had forced the synagogue to close to the public.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
The decision to resume American aid to the Palestinians is a classic example of cart-before-the-horse thinking that has existed in one form or another for the past seven decades. Upwards of $235 million dollars in aid has been proposed by the White House, $150 million of which would be earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
In exchange for this gesture, it appears there will be no quid pro quo.
Since 1993, the year of the signing of the Oslo Accords — the agreement that was to set in motion an end-of-conflict between Israel and the Palestinian — the conventional wisdom has been that providing financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) would incentivize it to reach a settlement with the Jewish State.
Actually, American assistance to the Palestinians goes back long before that. Since its establishment in 1949, UNRWA — set up to provide aid to Palestinians who fled during Israel’s War of Independence — has received over $6 billion from the United States, by far the largest single international contributor.
UNRWA was originally intended to be a temporary assistance program — until the Palestinians it served were absorbed into the Arab countries to which they fled. It became instead a bloated (it has more than 30,000 employees) and corrupt operation, adding generations of Palestinians to its refugee rolls (now numbering more than 5 million “registered refugees”), politicizing education to the point of teaching hatred of Jews and Israel, and holding out the promise to its beneficiaries that one day they will all return to what is now Israel.
While wealthier Arab countries contributed little to UNRWA, the international community became comfortably accustomed to the organization’s wayward ways, without raising a call for reform. And US financial support continued unabated.
Fade to the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn in September of 1993. I was there to witness what for many of us was a very hopeful day. We sensed that while this would not necessarily portend a warm peace, it could establish an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a renunciation of claims and the prospect of normalcy for Israel and its people that had eluded it for decades.
It was not to be.
Still, American administrations and Congress provided generous assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA), now totaling more than $5 billion since 1994. The general assumption is that this financial aid, combined with that contributed by European countries, Japan, and others would not only help meet humanitarian needs, but would also fund infrastructure projects and civil service salaries. The idea being, with that aid, and an economic stake in their future, the Palestinians would be incentivized to conclude a deal with Israel.
In fact, the opposite has taken root. The litany of missed opportunities at the negotiating table is well known: Camp David, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the Annapolis Conference, the Kerry initiative, all came and went like late winter squalls. It became evident that the Palestinian side wished to pursue a zero-sum approach to peacemaking, a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, that somehow received a pass from many in the US and Europe.
Years ago, I was present at a meeting of Jewish leaders with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who was asked if he recognized Israel as a Jewish state. His response, with a self-assured, cavalier shrug was, “Israel can call itself anything it wants to.” He still refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and demands a “right of return” for over 5 million Palestinians to Israel.
At the United Nations, the Palestinians have gamed the system, with their narrative promoted daily in the organization’s major agencies. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and its World Heritage Committee affiliate, resolutions that demonize and delegitimize Israel, and which seek to erase Jewish history in ancient Israel, are adopted year-in and year-out. The UN General Assembly each year funds specialized committees established for the expressed purpose of advancing the Palestinian cause through conferences, photo exhibitions, publications, and other means.
And then there is the issue of “pay-for-slay,” a long-term arrangement whereby the Palestinian Authority pays salaries and money to convicted terrorists or the families of terrorists who’ve been killed, in honor of their “martyrdom.”
In response to this outrage, the US Congress adopted the Taylor Force Act in 2018, named in memory of an American citizen and army veteran who was stabbed to death on a study trip in Israel by a Palestinian from the West Bank. The killer’s family, as do so many others, receives a stipend from the PA. Despite entreaties from the US and others to end this practice of glorifying terrorism, Abbas and his circle of PA lieutenants have steadfastly refused to end the practice. Until then, by law at least, there can be no direct aid to the PA.
Another constant over the nearly three decades since Oslo, has been the Palestinian media and education systems, which on a daily basis promote hatred of Israelis and Jews, using tropes and canards, along with cartoons of Jews and Israelis which evoke Holocaust themes, and stereotypical features, such as hooked noses and dollar signs festooned on overweight figures, right out of Der Sturmer. Teaching hate — and glorifying and inciting the murder of Jews — has been a staple in Palestinian textbooks and children’s TV programs and online postings, and continues unabated.
In response to the PA’s pay-for-slay program, its utilization of the UN system to demonize and delegitimize Israel, and its clear-as-day aversion to a real negotiation with Israel, the Trump administration began a cutoff of aid to the Palestinians. It also cut off aid to UNRWA, citing its innate corruption and politicization.
Earlier this month, the White House announced a resumption of aid to both UNRWA and to the PA, embarking on yet another effort by a series of American administrations to pull or push the Palestinians back into something resembling a peace process. The bulk will go to UNRWA, with the remainder going for a range of other programs. To get around the Taylor Force Act restrictions, it appears that aid to the PA will be directed to non-governmental organizations working in the West Bank.
In announcing the resumption of aid, a State Department spokesperson said, “By resuming this assistance today … we have a seat at the table. We can help drive UNRWA in the ways that we think is in our interest … Obviously, there are areas we would like to reform … We will continue to be in a better position, an even greater position to drive and steer UNRWA in a direction that we think is productive and useful…”
With this restoration of aid, a tremendous opportunity to condition assistance on serious changes both in the PA and UNRWA has been lost. Our previous $6 billion to UNRWA clearly was never used to end the organization’s excess and its promotion of hatred. Why should we assume UNRWA’s way of doing business will change, now that it knows American assistance is back?
And as for the PA, why not have conditionality there as well? Close down pay-for-slay, end the campaign against Israel in multilateral forums like the UN and the International Criminal Court, stop promising a right of return that simply will not happen, end the backing of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, cease antisemitic incitement against Israel and the Jewish people. And, for goodness sake, stop educating your young people to hate. Without education for peace, any process that seeks to end this conflict will never succeed.
In a normal world, the Abraham Accords would serve as a roadmap for the Palestinians — a way out that promises economic success, and a stake in a brighter future for all. The Palestinians are mired in a cycle of victimization, promoted and manipulated by leaders who have a bigger stake in the status quo, than in ending this seven-decades-plus conflict. More than willing to take the aid funding, they see no reason to compromise. And that, finally, needs to be called out.
Throwing good money after bad, as we’ve seen over these past decades, has produced high expectations and low returns. A resumption of aid to the Palestinian leadership based on hope, trust, and luck, will likely be dashed.
A more certain path might have been taken: we’ll consider the help, but not until this checklist of hatred, corruption, glorification of terror, and constant attempts to delegitimize Israel ends. For what is being offered now, this is surely not too much to ask.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Algemeiner.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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