March 23 marked the anniversary of the murder of Mireille Knoll, an elderly Jewish woman and a Holocaust survivor who was living in Paris. Her murder was one of many brutal, antisemitic attacks in France over the past several years.
On March 23, 2018, two men, Yacine Mihoub and Alex Carrimbacus—both Knoll’s neighbors—entered her apartment, stabbed her eleven times, and lit her body on fire. Allegedly it was a botched robbery that turned into a murder. But, during the investigation and trial, it became evident that antisemitism was a factor in Knoll’s murder.
Yacine Mihobu had antisemitic leanings that became evident during the investigation when officials discovered that he visited Islamist and antisemitic websites and voiced support for the Islamist terrorists who carried out the 2015 Charlie Hebdo slaughter. During the trial, when questioned about antisemitism as a motive in Knoll’s murder, Mihoub said, “I think if it [the murder victim] had been a ‘Geraldine’ or a ’Fatima,’ there wouldn’t have been so much noise.” He went on to question the fact that millions were murdered during the Holocaust, “One or two million dead, we don’t know. We can’t prove it. We weren’t there, neither you nor me.” Mihoub was sentenced to life in prison. His accomplice, Carrimbacus, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for theft with antisemitic motives but acquitted of murder.
But France’s recent 21st-century history of violent antisemitism goes back twenty years.In 2002, a group of vandals rammed their cars through a Lyon synagogue.
In 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old cell phone salesman, was tortured to death as his captors—a gang who called themselves ‘The Barbarians’—read verses from the Koran.
Later, in 2012, a Jewish preschool in Toulouse was the target of a series of Islamic terror attacks. In 2014, a woman, 19, and her boyfriend, 21, were tied up in his family’s apartment, and the woman was raped. According to the victim’s lawyer, three men had burst into the apartment declaring, “You Jews, you have money.”
In 2015, Amedy Coulibaly, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, murdered four Jews in the kosher supermarket HyperCacher. That same year, three men were stabbed outside a synagogue in Marseille while the assailants, one wearing an ISIL shirt, screamed anti-Jewish slurs.
In 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 67-year-old physician and schoolteacher, was shoved out a window while her killer, Kobili Traoré, yelled, “Allahu akbar!”
After nearly twenty years of antisemitic violence, much of which is rooted in Islamic extremism, France’s Jews have increased security. Synagogues have installed security cameras, set up steel barriers, and hired security guards, and some require that any visitors call ahead before attending services.
My in-laws, refugees from Tunisia, warned me not to wear my Star of David necklace outside the house. My husband and I discuss holiday plans in hushed voices when in public. On my first visit to a kosher supermarket in France, I scanned the store and parking lot for escape routes, should there be a shooter. But for thousands of Jews, such safety measures are not enough. And in recent decades, France’s Jews have been leaving for Israel in the tens of thousands.
According to Tablet Magazine’s Matti Friedman, 106,775 French Jews have relocated to Israel since 1972, and 41,860 of those have been since 2010. These numbers are high, but comparing data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics and the European Agency for Fundamental Human Rights shows no direct correlation between the number of France’s antisemitic hate crimes and the exodus of French Jews leaving for Israel. Nonetheless, such numbers still suggest that France is a less-welcoming home for Jews than one would hope. Part of the challenge that France faces with confronting antisemitism is how the country views identity and citizenship.
The French understanding of universalism, a concept that manifests itself in much of modern day French life, is best described as “the notion that citizens are citizens, not members of individual ethnic or religious groups—no intersectionality, no American-style identity politics, no interest groups.” In other words, in France, one should expect to treated, first and foremost, as a French citizen. Ethnicity and religion are private matters that belong in the home. Moreover, the French government collects data about racially motivated crimes, but no data on antisemitic crimes. Collecting data on race or ethnicity is forbidden. Most French people I talk to agree that antisemitism is a problem. But how can France address an issue that targets a specific ethno-religious group, the Jews, when one of France’s values is treating all of its citizens the same?
It is unclear that crimes like the murder of Mireille Knoll are driving Jews to the Holy Land. But in order for France to live up to its pillars of liberté, égalité and fraternité, it must confront the rising tide of antisemitism.