Ilan Halimi’s murder shows why IHRA is so vital in today’s world

Definitions of hatred still matter despite shortcomings, writes Jonathan Boyd


A picture of Ilan Halimi is seen at a makeshift memorial, on February 13, 2019 in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, after a ceremony in his tribute, two days after two trees planted in memory of the 23-year-old Jewish man abducted and killed over a decade ago, have been found vandalised. - Ilan Halimi was kidnapped by a gang that demanded huge sums of money from his family, believing them to be rich because he was Jewish. After being tortured for three weeks, the 23-year-old cellphone salesman was found dumped next to a railway in the southern suburb of Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois. He died while being brought to hospital. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP) (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images)

January 21, 2021 12:18

The nightmare began fifteen years ago this week. Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old French Jew, failed to return home for Shabbat dinner, or to show up for a family lunch the following day. Halimi’s girlfriend then received a phone call instructing her to log in to an unfamiliar email address, where she found an image of her boyfriend sitting in front of an orange sheet, his eyes and mouth taped shut, nose bleeding, a gun pointed at his head. On his knees was a copy of that day’s Le Parisien.

Thus began twenty-four days of unimaginable torment for Halimi’s family and girlfriend and, most of all, for Ilan himself. Over the course of his ordeal, the mobile phone salesman was tied up, stripped naked, gagged, beaten, humiliated and mutilated. Eventually, his kidnappers shaved his head, dumped him in woodland, stabbed him several times, covered him in petrol and set him alight while still alive. He succumbed to his wounds soon after being discovered.

Initially, the motive wasn’t clear. The kidnappers simply demanded a £400,000 ransom. But the underlying antisemitic intent quickly became apparent. After chanting a passage from the Koran in Arabic over the phone, one of the kidnappers told Halimi’s father to raise the money from the Jewish community if he couldn’t pay it himself. A week later, a rabbi with no connection to the Halimi family received several phone calls directing him to a cassette containing a recording: “I am Ilan Halimi. I’m the son of Didier and Ruth Halimi. I’m a Jew and I’m being held hostage.”

In the interim, the police discovered that two other Jewish men had been lured into a trap a few weeks previously just as Halimi had been, one of whom only escaped a similar fate to Halimi when he was discovered handcuffed in a basement, his face bloodied.

The police were also aware that several Jewish doctors had been blackmailed by bogus patients a year earlier, using an email address set up specifically for the purposes of extortion — precisely the same method used in the Halimi case. Every one of these racketeers gave their address as rue Serge Prokofiev in the Parisian suburb of Bagneux. the same street in which Halimi was subsequently imprisoned and tortured.

Halimi’s mother, who later published a devastating account of her son’s ordeal, was quickly convinced of the kidnappers’ antisemitic motives. But the French police were not. They made all the obvious connections except the Jewish one. They insisted that the crime was motivated purely by avarice and that the kidnappers would not murder Halimi. The family’s fears of antisemitism were dismissed and they were too terrified to defy the police for fear of the consequences for Ilan.

It wasn’t until the trial of Youssouf Fofana, mastermind of the kidnapping and murder, that the penny dropped, when he demonstrated his contempt for “Zionist terrorists” and “bearded men wearing kippahs” and greeted his verdict with a cry of “Allahu Akbar.” Only then did magistrates add antisemitism as an aggravating factor.

We must recall this crime not only because it occurred exactly fifteen years ago, but because it highlights the critical importance of law enforcement agencies being able to see Jew hatred when it is staring them in the face. An imperfect but ground-breaking definition of antisemitism had been adopted by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in 2005, a year before Halimi was kidnapped. Police and monitoring groups often found it difficult to define antisemitism, particularly in cases involving anti-Israel statements or motives, and were thus failing to accurately record or consistently count antisemitic incidents. The EUMC definition — subsequently superseded by the almost identical International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition — was designed to address these problems.

So, a year after the EUMC completed its work, when Halimi’s case landed on the desk of the Police Judiciaire at the famed 36 Quai des Orfèvres, they should have been aware of the definition. But it appears to have passed them by. In their defence, even Halimi’s mother showed a level of sympathy. “How could anyone imagine that in 2006, in France, the life of a Jew could still be at risk just because he was Jewish?” she said.

I doubt anyone would utter those words today. Yet the struggle to define the nature of contemporary antisemitism remains challenging. Racism towards Jews can be expressed in multiple ways, some subtle, some obvious. Hostility towards Israel in particular eludes simple categorisation: the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism is often blurred.

In many respects, the IHRA definition gracefully sidesteps this challenge by offering examples of cases that “could” be antisemitic, “taking into account the overall context.” The fact that it is a ‘working’ definition rather than a legally enforceable one softens it further; it exists primarily for guidance. Applied as intended, it should be helpful — those required to judge a given incident can use it to inform their thinking, but they are not bound by it and it holds no authority in law.

That is right and proper for another, more philosophical reason. Defining hatred of any type is difficult; defining hate speech even more so. There is often a sizeable grey area between what is said, meant and heard. Moreover, there is a vital distinction between offensive speech and hate speech, although they are easily confused.

The right to offend is an important principle, protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Diluting it may constitute a direct attack on freedom of speech itself, thereby damaging one of the most fundamental tenets underpinning Western civilisation.

Causing offence, while unpleasant, matters: it can help to expand thought, hold power to account and prompt change. Curbing that right, while sometimes necessary, should only ever be done with the utmost care.

A philosophical debate about freedom of expression quickly feels a world away from the horrors of the Halimi case. But it’s not. Antisemitic murders are grounded in antisemitic ideas, so detecting those ideas, whenever and wherever they appear, is not to be taken lightly. Youssouf Fofana and several of his accomplices had long been steeped in antisemitic ideas: they had Islamist sympathies, were passionately opposed to Zionism and convinced that all Jews have access to vast sums of money.

Of course, very few expressing opposition to Zionism or support for the Palestinians will become antisemitic murderers.But in a small handful of cases, some will commit criminal acts and others will aid and abet them. That’s why law enforcement agencies, universities, local councils, political parties, sports clubs and others should adopt the IHRA definition. It’s not to curb freedom of speech about Israel, or to score points in identity politics games, and deploying it in those ways serves no one, least of all Israel itself. It’s rather to ensure that all these bodies know enough about antisemitism to ask the right questions, spot the signs and connect the dots when antisemitic intent is present.

They need the definition precisely because, as the Halimi case demonstrates so clearly, antisemitism is sometimes very difficult to acknowledge.

So, even though the definition is flawed, imprecise, incomplete and open to misinterpretation, and even though it will continue to be open to abuse by people who act in bad faith, I remain grateful that it exists.

In these days of political extremism and terrorism, if it helps anyone in authority to look antisemitism in the face and actually recognise it, it will have served its purpose.

Thankfully, incidents like those involving Ilan Halimi are extraordinarily rare. But it remains a vitally instructive case nevertheless. It reveals antisemitism in its most gruesome form and reminds us that what may seem obvious to us may not be obvious to others, even if they are among the most experienced and supposedly objective police officers in Europe.

Definitions of hatred matter, for all their shortcomings, and their absence can cause acute, even devastating pain.

In the most haunting words in her book, Halimi’s mother, Ruth, addressed the matter directly. She wrote: “The sorrow of having lost my son is compounded by the pain of seeing an abhorrent debate emerge.

“Mere prejudice, stupidity, ignorance, a financial crime, some said, despite the antisemitic statements made by the chief suspect, whose words were reported in all the newspapers. This obstinate refusal to look reality in the face wounds me, offends me, revolts me. It makes me feel as if Ilan were dying a second time.

“Denying the reasons for his ordeal was like killing him all over again.”


Jonathan Boyd is director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

January 21, 2021 12:18

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