Sarah Halimi was murdered for being a religious Jew. Why has her own community ignored her fate?
Photos: Menachem Kalish; Flash90
A few days before Pesach 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish preschool director, had come home from work when an intruder entered through the balcony doors of her third-floor apartment in Paris’s 11th arrondissement.
It was her downstairs neighbor Kobili Traoré, a towering, fanatically religious Muslim originally from Mali, and he’d come to kill her.
Within seconds, Sarah was fighting desperately for her life, as Traoré, high on cannabis, screamed “Allahu Akbar” and beat the frail religious woman savagely. Alerted by the terrified neighbors, police arrived but stood outside the locked apartment door, waiting for an anti-terror unit to arrive.
And in the long minutes that passed, Sarah Halimi paid with her life. Muttering Koranic verses and shouting, “I’ve killed the shaitan,” Traoré threw his victim’s body to the street below.
In a France where anti-Semitism has become a fact of life, the name “Sarah Halimi” was about to become iconic — but the media, preoccupied with a close-fought presidential election, didn’t notice.
Thousands of miles away in a tranquil Haifa neighborhood, Yonatan Halimi — a longtime kollel avreich and Sarah’s only son — heard the tragic news, and his life changed forever.
“A relative phoned and said, ‘Something’s happened to your mother,’ ” he recalls of the conversation of four years ago. “And then he slowly broke the news: ‘She didn’t survive.’ ”
As Yonatan Halimi frantically made plans to bring his mother to Israel for burial, he didn’t dream that, having fallen prey to Islamic terror, she would be a victim of the French judiciary as well. In a shock decision three weeks ago, France’s highest court ruled that despite Kobili Traoré’s acknowledged anti-Semitism, he couldn’t be held accountable for the murder because of temporary psychosis aggravated by his drug consumption.
Yonatan Halimi’s sadness is mixed with a weary disbelief born of the long legal struggle, as he searches for words to describe the absurdity of the decision. “The judge said there was no premeditation because of Traoré’s cannabis — yet the killer was lucid enough to be provoked by the sight of my mother’s menorah. Do you think the judge would have ruled that way if the victim were a Muslim?”
As Yonatan Halimi sits in his modest apartment in Haifa’s quiet Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, there’s something dissonant about the stream of news media beating a path to his door. Serving as rabbi to a growing community of French olim, and disconnected from the storm generated by the ruling, Halimi was shocked to discover that his family’s private tragedy has become something bigger.
A beloved preschool teacher to many in Paris’s chareidi community in life, in death Sarah Halimi has become emblematic of French Jewry’s existential fears. At a demonstration in central Paris two weeks ago, 20,000 people gathered to protest. “I will not become the next Sarah Halimi” read one sign, which spoke volumes about the larger meaning of her case.
“L’Affaire Sarah Halimi,” as it’s known in France, has been compared to the notorious 19th-century Dreyfus trial. The reality is more complicated, because it is not institutionalized anti-Semitism at work this time. Instead, according to Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer hired by Sarah Halimi’s sister to represent the family, the judiciary’s “excessive indulgence for Muslim and minority defendants” pre-ordained the outcome.
But as Sarah Halimi becomes the face of French Jewish unease, her son wonders at the silence of his own community at a frum woman’s fate.
“Why is it,” he asks, when I ring after his return from the Paris demonstration, “that you’re the first chareidi journalist who’s ever called?”
A Bond across the Oceans
Paris’s 11th arrondissement, a district northeast of the city center, is no longer a place where Jews want to live; but once upon a different France, that wasn’t the case.
“When we grew up in the 1990s, there was no problem in walking to and from school,” says Yonatan Halimi, although he qualifies, “I always wore a baseball cap.”
It was in that relatively safe environment that Sarah Halimi, née Attal, whose parents had immigrated to France from Algeria, raised her three children. Like many children of North African Jewish immigrants, Sarah was upwardly mobile, and she qualified as a doctor. But her full-fledged teshuvah brought a career change.
“My mother became religious through an Arachim seminar and didn’t feel comfortable continuing to treat men,” says Yonatan Halimi. “So she switched professions and became a kindergarten director. To teach in the state preschool system, an academic degree is required, for which her medical degree sufficed. That’s how she ended up directing the preschool affiliated with the chareidi kehillah of Rav Mordechai Rotenberg, which drew members from across Paris’s Jewish community.”
The sincerity that had led Sarah Halimi to choose a new path in life underpinned everything she did.
“When our mother read an inspirational book, heard a moving story, or in fact heard anything that gave chizuk, she was keen to share it with us,” writes Sarah’s daughter Hannah Lugassy. “Very sensitive, she placed a lot of emphasis on acquisition of middos, and urged us to educate our own children in this direction.”
That sensitivity, continued her daughter, expressed itself in her approach to child care. “A baby doesn’t cry for nothing,” was a favorite motto of Sarah Halimi’s — one that she’d share with the teachers of the preschool’s three classes. “A baby has needs and they must be met, even if just to be reassured.”
When Yonatan completed his studies in the school affiliated with Rav Rotenberg’s community, the natural next step was yeshivah in Israel — and his mother wouldn’t let her own loneliness stand in the way. “I’m an only son, so it was hard for her when I left home at 17, but she sent me to learn in Yeshivas Nachalas Halevi’im in Haifa.”
Sarah Halimi’s joy in her son’s Torah accomplishments was genuine and lifelong. “Even a few years ago, when I decided to begin following the Dirshu halachah program, she called my sister and said, ‘Have you heard the news about Yonatan?’ My sister thought it was some family simchah, and then my mother explained, with tremendous pride, ‘He started learning Dirshu!’ ”
So even as Paris deteriorated, the 11th arrondissement grew less safe, and an extremist Salafi mosque opened across the road from her apartment block, Sarah Halimi continued to take pride in her son learning Torah across the sea.
“She was planning to come to the bar mitzvah of my oldest son,” says Yonatan. “And we talked on Sunday, the day before it happened.”
The Halimis’ downstairs neighbor was long a worry for the last Jewish family left in the building. Kobili Traoré was a criminal, drug addict, and anti-Semite, as even his judicial defenders acknowledge.
Traoré’s sister had once called one of the Halimi girls “dirty Jew” and pushed her. Now he was mixing his Islamic devotion — praying five times daily in the local mosque — with intense drug use.
“The afternoon before the attack, which took place at 4 a.m.,” says Yonatan Halimi, “the killer took his nephews to my mother’s neighbors — also Muslims. At that stage he wasn’t high from drugs, and our suspicion is that he was checking out the route for the attack he intended to carry out.”
Whether or not that was Traoré’s intention, what happened next is clear. “During the night, he came back to the neighbors having taken a lot of drugs — clearly to steel himself for the act — bringing with him a change of clothes and a carpet. It was going to be an entire religious ceremony. He climbed over the balcony and entered my mother’s apartment and then attacked her violently.”
Even at a distance of four years, Yonatan Halimi struggles for words to describe what happened. All he’ll say is that his mother screamed and fought with all her strength to hold off Traoré, who was a “giant” and attacked the older woman with his bare hands.
“The neighbors, themselves scared of Traoré’s violence, called the police, and when they came, they thought that Traoré was armed, so they didn’t enter. They waited for a special unit to arrive. According to the police’s own testimony, they heard the killer screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he attacked.”
In a final frenzy, Traoré threw the frail Sarah Halimi — possibly still alive — from the third-floor balcony, and she was confirmed dead a few minutes later. Then, still reciting Koranic verses, the killer climbed back to the neighbor’s apartment.
To anyone with a passing acquaintance with France’s recent history of Islamic terror, it was probable that another anti-Jewish hate crime had just been committed. But strangely enough, the French police were in no hurry to investigate that possibility.
Three days after the attack, senior prosecutor François Molins opened a homicide case against Traoré, but said that anti-Semitism wasn’t being considered as a motive. When a month had passed with no progress, it was clear that the wheels of justice were turning far too slowly, if at all.
The Times of London reported that the Halimi family’s lawyer, Jean-Alexandre Buchinger, said that Traoré should be charged with “murder with anti-Semitism as an aggravating circumstance.” But, quoting French Jewish leaders, the paper reported that the judicial system’s foot-dragging was deliberate, and carried national political ramifications. With France’s elites desperate to keep the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen — then locked in a close race with the centrist Emmanuel Macron — out of power, the last thing they wanted was another case showing the French state’s weakness in the face of Islamic terror. “Anti-Semitic killing ‘hushed up for election campaign,’ ” headlined the Times.
It didn’t take long for Yonatan Halimi to sense that justice wouldn’t be served in his mother’s case. The French legal system uses judges as prosecutors who decide whether the case should go to trial — and in the Halimi case, that particular judge seemed unusually anxious to acquit the defendant. “She wasn’t interested in examining the murderer’s phone, or looking at the security cameras in the mosque where he spent a lot of time. Both my sisters and I felt that she wouldn’t be good for us — that she had a sense of compassion for the defendant.”
Things were about to get even worse, as the battle of the psychiatrists began. At issue was a French law that distinguishes between someone whose mental awareness has been “abolished” and is not responsible for his actions, and one whose awareness has been “altered,” in which case culpability remains. Daniel Zagury, a noted Jewish psychiatrist who was first called to assess Traoré, reported that the killer was fit to stand trial, given his ability to identify Sarah Halimi’s candles at the time of the attack.
But for some reason, that assessment wasn’t good enough for the judge. The second psychiatrist she called — Paul Bensussan, also Jewish — disagreed, saying that Traoré was irresponsible due to a psychotic attack that had begun far earlier in which he was convinced that his stepfather wanted to poison him. In a later interview, he explained that while Traoré was a “gunpowder keg as he burst into Sarah Halimi’s home,” it was due to “believing that he was possessed and pursued by demons.”
“Shortly before the events, he kidnapped his Muslim neighbors, who barricaded themselves and called the police, and it was through the balcony, fleeing the demons, that he entered Sarah Halimi’s apartment,” Bensussan said.
The lenient psychological assessment admitted the anti-Semitic impulse — “it was evident that the spark of crime was the sight of the menorah and the religious books” — but Bensussan concluded it was “the delirium that led to the murder.”
The dueling psychiatric assessments have consumed many column inches in French newspapers, but Yonatan Halimi says the family’s lawyers spoke for many French people when they voiced their skepticism over the inexact science of psychiatry.
“After the crime, Traoré built a cover story of psychosis,” he says. “But we know that the murder was premeditated, because it came out at one of the hearings that Traoré had told friends, ‘Tonight everything will be over.’ And although Bensussan is now digging in with his medical diagnosis, at a certain stage he admitted in another hearing that he’d made a mistake in his assessment of Traoré.”
But for Yonatan Halimi, the biggest question mark hovers over the behavior of the judge herself. “The strange thing is why the judge felt a need to get a second, more lenient opinion in a case like this. It felt like she was out to get a lenient verdict for the defendant, because he’s a from an ethnic minority.
“If the roles had been reversed and a Jew had committed the crime against a Muslim, do you think the defendant would have been able to plead temporary psychosis in this way?”
Gilles-William Goldnadel, a lawyer for Sarah Halimi’s sister, agrees — although he expresses it in stronger terms.
“France’s problem is the excessive indulgence for anyone from the so-called ‘poor’ classes. It blinds judges to Jewish or other victims. So I’m sure that if the killer had been Catholic or Jewish, the verdict wouldn’t have been the same.
“It’s like the jury in the Derek Chauvin case in Minneapolis,” he says. “There was no way they could have acquitted him, because the city would have gone up in flames. So imagine you are a judge where a Muslim is killed — they’d be scared to acquit, because Paris would burn.”
Paris resident Jean-Yves Camus, a longtime Mishpacha contributor and an expert on radicalization, agrees that there are real grounds for the perception of left-wing values within France’s judiciary.
“Many magistrates are left-leaning, and there’s a sense that they’re too soft on crime when the defendant comes from a minority immigrant background — he’s treated as a victim.”
Camus also resorts to an American analogy. “It’s like Democrats in the US who are softer on crime. Although that may have implications for Jews, is not specifically a Jewish problem,” he explains. “Just a few weeks ago, a mob of teenagers in the southern suburbs of Paris threw Molotov cocktails at a police patrol car, severely injuring the policemen, some of them for life. But many of the attackers walked free, while the others were only locked up for two to three years. So the Sarah Halimi case comes when we have a national debate about the lack of deterrence against criminals because of the judiciary’s leniency.”
For many in the Jewish community who were following the Halimi case as court after court sided with the killer, the psychiatric hair-splitting was too much. Surely it was obvious that a confirmed anti-Semite screaming “Allahu Akbar” while murdering a Jewish woman for possessing a menorah could not get off free?
After years of intermittent terror attacks and mass aliyah because of the rising anti-Semitic tide, that frustration spilled over two weeks ago. In a wave of demonstrations in Paris and 30 locations worldwide, 20,000 people — an unexpectedly large crowd considering the coronavirus restrictions — took to the streets to protest the judicial abandonment of France’s Jews.
Jonathan Behar, one of the organizers of the protests, says that the Halimi decision felt like a “punch in the face.”
“Four years ago, I called for the first demonstration when I heard that a Jewish woman had been killed by someone calling her the devil, and the media wasn’t interested. I’m a member of a Jewish motorcycle group, and so we paraded through Paris with flags saying ‘Justice for Sarah.’ ”
As successive courts refused to try Traoré, Behar called for bigger and bigger demonstrations, until the shock ruling three weeks ago. “I realized that we need to make a lot more noise, and the turnout — which was significantly younger than previous protests — showed how scared French Jews feel about this. There were also non-Jews — even Muslims there — because ordinary French people are starting to realize that the next victim could be a guy just drinking a beer.”
Behar points out that unlike at previous protests against Islamic terror, there weren’t many French flags flying. That was intentional, he says, and there was a strong message: “We wanted to show that unless French law protects Jews, the Jewish community won’t feel part of France.”
Fear in France
As the buzz around the rally built two weeks ago, amid global media focus on the Sarah Halimi ruling, Yonatan Halimi was urged by his students to go to Paris.
“ ‘You can’t not go,’ they told me. ‘You don’t realize how big this has grown.’”
And so that’s how it was that a dark-suited avreich from Haifa found himself addressing senior French politicians in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, about a cause that began with his mother’s death and is now far more than that.
But as Sarah Halimi — whose Jewish mother’s face has taken on a national significance that her family could never have fathomed — becomes an icon, how much difference will the outcry make? Is this a turning point, or another way station in modern France’s slow spiral into anti-Semitism?
“This is certainly a wake-up moment, because there were many more at this demonstration than were expected,” says Jean-Yves Camus. “But this story also comes at a time when the 2022 presidential election is starting — which looks like another contest between President Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen. It puts pressure on politicians not just to make speeches but also to do something concrete.”
Unless France’s politicians enforce their will on the judiciary, rhetoric is all that will remain. Such is the leniency of the judicial system that in the absence of game-changing new evidence, Kobili Traoré could well walk free, say experts. Currently held in a psychiatric hospital, the killer’s diagnosis of “temporary psychosis” is unlikely to keep him institutionalized in the long term.
As Yonatan Halimi prepares to talk to the next interviewer, he betrays the complex feelings he has about his current role. Alongside his Torah teaching is the unsought role of media advocate, for a movement that is as much about the future of French Jewry as about justice for Sarah Halimi. But he’s also a son trying to ensure that his mother — frail in body but a giant in spirit — is not forgotten by her own community.
“It’s important that we do this — for her memory, and so that the French authorities take responsibility for French Jews,” he says. “But my mother’s true legacy is how she taught us to live, with faith in Hashem.”
A Gift to the Far Right
Watching his native France from his vantage point in Israel’s Knesset is Shas MK Yossi Tayb, who has been active in pressing the case for French Jews. He sees the Sarah Halimi episode as a gift for the far-right National Front, which has gone from the political margins to potent electoral force on the back of mainstream politicians’ failure to tackle Islamic radicalism.
“Marine Le Pen will campaign on the Halimi case for sure,” he predicts. “So if President Macron doesn’t do something serious to correct this, she will get stronger. That means instituting a zero-tolerance policy for any attack on the Jewish community, verbal or otherwise.”
In a recent conversation, a prominent figure in the French Jewish community told Mishpacha that a Marine Le Pen presidency was a serious threat to Jewish life in the country, given her opposition to shechitah, among other things. Despite her efforts to distance herself from her openly anti-Semitic father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen — who famously called the Holocaust “a detail of history” — her continuing appeal to her father’s former constituency leaves many French Jews concerned.
Tayb echoes those warnings. “I’m worried that if Macron doesn’t act strongly, the far right could be in a place that we don’t want it to be.”
Justice in Israel?
Shortly after news broke that the Halimi family had lost their last appeal against the prosecution’s decision to dismiss the case against Kobili Traoré, an eye-catching headline appeared in the BBC: “Sarah Halimi: Frenchwoman’s sister seeks trial in Israel over killing,” it read.
Behind the initiative are Gilles-William Goldnadel, the high-profile lawyer who represented Sarah Halimi’s sister in the French legal process, and Tel Aviv lawyer Mordechai Tzivin, who specializes in international law and cases involving citizens of Arab countries. In a pro bono effort, the pair are attempting to utilize a sweeping but obscure provision in Israel’s legal code that allows the country to try a crime committed against a Jew anywhere in the world.
What law gives Israel jurisdiction on any crime committed against a Jew anywhere?
Mordechai Tzivin: In 1994, an amendment to an existing law came into force that was designed to enable Israel to protect Jews anywhere who didn’t receive justice under local law. It read that “Israel’s penal laws will apply also to crimes committed overseas against the life of a Jew, his body, health, freedom, or possessions because he is a Jew.”
In submitting the bill to the Knesset in 1992, then justice minister Dan Meridor acknowledged that the law would be unprecedented in its international application, but he argued, “There is no country like our country, which is that of the Jewish People.”
Has the law ever been used before?
MT: No one has ever attempted to apply it, and in the case of France, which doesn’t extradite its citizens, the point of a trial would be symbolic. It will highlight the injustice of the Sarah Halimi ruling, and will have a deterrent effect in those countries that do have extradition treaties with Israel.
But surely the obvious route to justice lies in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which France is bound by?
MT: The ECHR will only rule on whether human rights have been violated, but in this case, since due process was followed, there was no violation. The issue was the psychiatrist’s assessment, and that could well change if Traoré were reviewed by other experts, as indeed happened when the first psychiatrist assessed him.
Gilles-William Goldnagel: It’s important to add that despite taking this path, the legal system in France itself is not tainted by anti-Semitism.
Think about how this legal attempt sounds. Does it not reinforce the dual-loyalty charge against French Jews, that they run off to get justice in Israel?
GWG: I think that if we put on the scale the fact that French Jews are in danger, we need to add whatever deterrence is possible. Additionally, Charles de Gaulle accused the French Jews after the Six Day War in 1967 of having dual loyalties, but ultimately, that charge didn’t hurt the Jewish community.
So how long will the process take?
MT: If we take into account that legal proceedings in Israel are usually lengthy, due to the burden of lawsuits in the courts, I assume this procedure won’t be short. But this is a sensitive issue concerning Jewish life in the diaspora, and it must be assumed that the court will take this into account.
GWG: The bottom line is that we’re pursuing this because if a Jew is harmed because of anti-Semitic motives, it’s unacceptable that they don’t receive appropriate legal treatment.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)
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