Two killings in Paris, one year apart, have inflamed the bitter French debate over Islamic antisemitism, the ‘Muslim race’ and religion.
The body landed in the courtyard, not far from the building’s bins. Shortly before 5am on 4 April 2017, a 65-year-old woman was hurled from the third-floor balcony of a social housing project in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a rapidly gentrifying area on the eastern side of the French capital. An hour earlier, that same woman – a retired doctor and kindergarten teacher – had been asleep in the small apartment where she had lived for the past 30 years. When she woke up, she saw the face of her 27-year-old neighbour in the darkness. The man, who still lived with his family on the building’s second floor, had first stormed into another apartment, whose tenants had locked themselves in a bedroom and called the police. By the time he climbed up the fire escape into his victim’s apartment, three officers were present in the building.
The autopsy would later reveal that the woman’s skull had been crushed, most likely with the telephone on her bedside table. Before and after his victim lost consciousness, the assailant beat her until the nightgown she was wearing – white, with a blue floral pattern – was soaked with her blood. He then dragged her body to the balcony of the apartment, and threw her over the railing – exactly the same way, he told prosecutors, as John Travolta does in The Punisher, the film he had been watching before the attack. “I killed the sheitan!” he yelled from the balcony, according to testimonies given by neighbours. “Sheitan” is an Arabic word for “devil”. Neighbours heard him repeatedly chant “Allahu Akbar”.
The victim was Lucie Attal, an Orthodox Jewish woman who sometimes used the name Lucie Attal-Halimi. The perpetrator, who confessed to the crime, was Kobili Traoré, a Franco-Malian Muslim. He later told authorities he knew that his victim was Jewish. According to her family, Attal had long felt afraid of Traoré. Her brother, William Attal, told me that Traoré had verbally abused her in the building’s elevator, and she had said she would only feel safe if he were in prison. In fact, Kobili Traoré may never go to prison for the killing: he has been in psychiatric detention since the night of the crime, and a French judge could rule that he is mentally unfit to stand trial.
In the immediate aftermath of Attal’s death, there was virtually no public discussion of her killing. With the upcoming presidential election dominating headlines, the defenestration of a Jewish woman in the 11th arrondissement of Paris was treated by the mainstream French press as a fait divers, the term used to describe a minor news story, which led to considerable outcry in the Jewish community. But after the victory of Emmanuel Macron, the case returned to the forefront, becoming a new frontline in France’s culture wars, among the most explosive in Europe.
The French Republic is founded on a strict universalism, which seeks to transcend – or, depending on your viewpoint, efface – particularity in the name of equality among citizens. In a nation that tends to discourage identity politics as “communautaire” and therefore hostile to national cohesion, the state not only frowns on hyphenated identities, but does not even officially recognise race either as a formal category or a lived experience. Since 1978, it has been illegal in France to collect census data on ethnic or religious difference, on the grounds that these categories could be manipulated for racist political ends.
But eliminating race did not eliminate racism or racist violence. In the case of Lucie Attal, the inescapable fact of the matter is that a Muslim killed a Jew in a society where those distinctions are supposed to be irrelevant. More than a year after the fact, exactly how to label Attal’s death remains a matter of bitter, and perhaps unresolvable, debate. To examine the case is to examine the fractures of the French Republic, the contradictions in the stories a nation tells itself.
Traoré has vehemently denied that antisemitism played a role in his crime, claiming instead that he acted in the throes of a psychotic episode triggered by cannabis. But for William Attal, the only way to understand his sister’s death is as an act of antisemitic violence. “He knew very clearly that Judaism was the motor of her life, that she had all the external signs of Jewishness,” Attal said. When we met in a cafe in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, he wore an anonymous red baseball cap instead of anything that might identify him as Jewish. “We have the obligation to cover the head, but we do not have the obligation to wear a kippa,” he said. “Understand?”
In February 2018, after considerable public outcry from Jewish organisations, who accused the criminal justice system of a cover-up, a French judge added the element of antisemitism to the charges against Traoré. But the case is far from closed. In July 2018, a second court-ordered psychiatric examination declared that the perpetrator was not of sound mind and was unfit to stand trial; a third examination is forthcoming. If he cannot be held accountable for his actions, Traoré cannot, legally speaking, be said to have had a motive. There is the possibility that Attal will have officially died in a random act of violence, as if she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
During the months of confusion, indecision and silence that followed the killing, people from every side of France’s political debate seized upon the case as evidence of whatever position they already held. In time, the story of Lucie Attal would become the inspiration for any number of politicised narratives, hardly any of which took into account the woman who had died, or even her actual name.
On 10 July, Kobili Traoré was formally interviewed by the judge investigating the case. Three months earlier, on the night of the crime, he had been taken into custody, and police discovered that he already had a considerable criminal record, having served time for aggravated violence and drug dealing. But when police tested him that night, the toxicology report showed a high level of cannabis in his bloodstream, and his behaviour was erratic enough that he was immediately sent to a psychiatric hospital. There he was examined by a respected psychiatrist, Daniel Zagury, who concluded that he was not of sound mind and was therefore not in a fit state to be interviewed by prosecutors. In the months that followed, Traoré remained in the hospital, under warrant but without being formally charged.
When the investigative judge finally interviewed Traoré in July, the young man insisted that antisemitism had not been his motive. “I have never had problems with Jews before,” Traoré said. He claimed that the killing had happened during a bout of temporary insanity. On the night of 4 April he had been with a friend, he said, watching The Punisher. Before turning on the television, the two had gone to evening prayers at the Omar mosque in the rue Morand, according to an investigative account by the French journalist Noémie Halioua. (Mohammed Hammami, that mosque’s former imam, was expelled from France in 2012, when Traoré was a teenager, for having allegedly incited hatred in sermons.) Traoré, who by all accounts was not a particularly observant Muslim, told the judge that he and a friend had gone to pray that night because he had not been feeling well. “I was feeling like I’d been oppressed by an exterior force,” he said in his interview, according to the transcript. “A demonic force.”
The young man defined that “demonic force” as a kind of delirium over which he had no control, induced by the several joints he had smoked. (According to Le Monde, Traoré smoked between 10 and 15 joints a day.) Asked why he had entered Attal’s apartment, he had no answer: “I still do not know,” he said. “It could have fallen on anyone – the Diarras, my family,” Traoré claimed, referring to the family whose apartment he had first entered, before climbing up from their balcony to the apartment of the woman he killed. Yet “it” did not fall on anyone else; it fell on Lucie Attal.
At one point in Traoré’s interview with prosecutors, he was interrogated about what he had said at the scene of the crime.
Investigator: Your family heard, and your sister and your mother have confirmed that you were not feeling well and that you were repeating “Sheitan, sheitan.” What does that mean?
Traoré: It’s “the demon”, in Arabic.
Investigator: Do you speak Arabic?
Investigator: Doesn’t it seem bizarre that you would designate [Attal] as the devil in a language you don’t speak?
In Zagury’s report, seen by Le Monde, the psychiatrist concluded that it was unlikely the killing was a premeditated antisemitic hate crime. However, the psychiatrist saw plenty of antisemitic mechanisms at work, including Traoré’s own confessions that he had somehow been triggered by the Torah and the menorah he saw in Attal’s apartment.
In his report, Zagury pointed out that the particular form delirious episodes take is always shaped by “society’s atmosphere and world events”. “Today, it is common to observe, during delirious episodes among subjects of the Muslim religion, an antisemitic theme: the Jew is on the side of evil, the evil one,” he wrote. “What is normally a prejudice turns into delirious hatred.”
This, he concluded, is precisely what happened once Traoré broke into Attal’s apartment. “The fact that she was Jewish immediately demonised her, and amplified his delusional experience … and caused the barbaric surge of which she was the unfortunate victim.”
Lucie Attal’s apartment block – No 30, rue de Vaucouleurs – is a classic habitation à loyer modéré, or HLM, one of the many social housing projects developed in this part of Paris in the early 1980s to provide residents, many of them immigrants, with affordable housing in a fairly central location. In recent years, the neighbourhood has become the kind of place where trendy cafes, natural wine bars and experimental restaurants with months-long waiting lists seem to anchor every block.
A squat, angular structure plastered with grimy grey tiles on a short, treeless street, the apartment block is as far as central Paris gets from 19th-century grandeur. But the rue de Vaucouleurs is hardly an example of the “social and ethnic territorial apartheid” decried by then prime minister Manuel Valls in January 2015, as he lamented the rise of homegrown Islamist extremism following the Charlie Hebdo attack. It is also a remarkably diverse neighbourhood, which appears at first glance to be a testament to the success of the French social model of integration, not its failures. Local residents describe a far more complex reality than often appears in public discussions of the killing.
One of Attal’s neighbours, Faim Mohamed, 50, told me he had lived in the building since 1997. “Life was cool,” he said, insisting that the only tensions he has ever felt came after Attal’s death, not before. “Since the murder, everyone is suspicious. They’re worried if someone is following them when they enter the building.”
Another man, from Morocco, who declined to give his name, was Attal’s neighbour on the third floor. I met him as he was bringing in groceries one afternoon, and his eyes filled with tears when I asked him if he knew the woman who had been killed. “She was someone who was very good,” he said, adding that she had designated him her “Shabbos goy”, because he would do little household tasks for her on Shabbat that she could not do for herself. He said he had been on vacation when the killing happened, visiting family in Morocco. “If I were there, I would have intervened. But I was not,” he said. A Muslim himself, he was adamant on one point: “A Muslim would not do this.”
But one reason the case became so notorious is that it fit into what has become a common narrative. France is the only country in Europe where Jews are periodically murdered for being Jewish. No fewer than 12 Jews have been killed in France in six separate incidents since 2003: Sébastien Selam, Ilan Halimi, Jonathan Sandler, Gabriel Sandler, Aryeh Sandler, Myriam Monsonégo, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham, François-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab, Lucie Attal and Mireille Knoll.
In each of these cases, at least one of the perpetrators was from what the French call minorités visibles, or “visible minorities”, which typically refers to those of north African or west African descent; in most cases, the perpetrators have been linked with some form of fundamentalist Islam. In nearly every case, the victims have been either identifiably Jewish or personal acquaintances of the perpetrator. Almost all perpetrators and victims have been lower middle-class, residing in the same diverse neighbourhoods, the same streets, or even the same buildings.
In 2006, for instance, there was the notorious murder of Ilan Halimi, in which the so-called “Gang des barbares” – a band of French-born children of Muslim immigrants from west Africa and north Africa – lured the 23-year-old Halimi, who sold mobile phones off the boulevard Voltaire, on a date with a pretty girl. They had hoped to extract €450,000 in ransom money from Halimi’s parents, whom they assumed to be rich because they were Jews. But the Halimis lived in Bagneaux, the same low-income banlieue as the gang members themselves. Ilan Halimi was imprisoned and tortured in the basement of a public housing project for three weeks. He was found on the train tracks in Sainte Geneviève de Bois, to the south of Paris, his body naked and burned.
For Rachid Benzine, a scholar of Islam and a well-known French public commentator, these killings are best understood in the context of what he calls postcolonial antisemitism. “For me, this is a holdover from the colonisation of Algeria, linked to the treatment of Algerian Jews compared with Muslim natives,” he said. In 1870, for instance, the so-called Crémieux decree secured full French citizenship for all Jewish subjects residing in Algeria, whereas Arab Muslims remained under the infamous code de l’indigénat, which stipulated an inferior legal status, essentially until 1962. The legal disparity continued even after Algeria won independence, when hundreds of thousands of former colonial subjects from North Africa continued to arrive in metropolitan France. Jews like the Attal family, originally from the Algerian city of Constantine, arrived in France as citizens. Muslims, however, had to apply to the government for the privilege of citizenship.
Benzine also noted “the unfortunate reality that the Palestinian tragedy fuels the perception among many Muslims that we somehow have the Jews of France to blame”. Another factor, he said, is the so-called concurrence des mémoires. “We have this competition of who’s suffering most,” Benzine said. Many French citizens of west African origin, for instance, argue that while the French state has invested fully in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, it has made little effort to preserve the memory of Islamic slavery. “The disparity is a fact, and it’s true that many black people say, ‘look what they do for Jewish people, and there’s nothing for us,’” Louis-Georges Tin, an activist and the former director of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN), told me recently. Paris is home to one of the world’s premier Holocaust museums and research centres, and a black plaque adorns the façade of nearly every building in the city from which a Jewish child was deported during the second world war. All that commemorates slavery in Paris, the capital of a former slave-trading nation, are two small nondescript statues. The thousand years of Islamic slave raids into black Africa are treated as a footnote to history. The only museum that documents this history is in the overseas department of Guadeloupe, nearly 7,000km from mainland France.
But the concurrence des mémoires has also become a trope in contemporary French antisemitism, with those such as the Franco-Cameroonian “comedian” Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala engaging in Holocaust denial supposedly as a means of attacking “Jewish power” and insulting what they see as establishment narrative of the past. Tin said he could understand that frustration, but not its expression. “The anger should not be targeted toward Jewish people,” he said, “but against the state.”
The battle over antisemitism in contemporary France often comes down to a war of words. Few would dispute the existence or even the virulence of Muslim antisemitism. According to statistics announced by the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht earlier this month, antisemitic incidents in France have increased by 69% in the first nine months of 2018. Among those incidents were the torching of two kosher shops in the Paris suburbs and a Jewish teenager being slashed in the face with a utility knife. For Philippe, this significance of the problem is not up for discussion: “Every aggression perpetrated against one of our fellow citizens because they are Jewish resounds like a new shattering of glass,” the prime minister wrote. But when it comes to naming the perpetrators, or labelling particular acts, this certitude collapses. Much of the French government and the French press can seem at a loss for words.
For many on the political right, antisemitism is essentially a straightforward problem, which the left strategically ignores, downplays or denies. “It’s very simple,” Alain Finkielkraut, one of France’s most prominent public intellectuals, told me earlier this year. “The new antisemitism is an import. It comes to us from the exterior. It’s among the gifts, the contributions, of immigration to French society.” (This is not entirely accurate: if the perpetrators in antisemitic crimes are often from Islamic immigrant backgrounds, they are almost always also French citizens, a distinction often lost in the public debate.)
Finkielkraut, now 69, is himself the son of immigrants, Polish Jews who came to France to escape persecution and who eluded the roundups of the early 1940s. A member of the Académie française, France’s most elite literary circle, he is now something of a public contrarian, a former leftist who uses his bestselling books and radio presence to bemoan what he sees as a nation in inexorable decline. What particularly aggravates Finkielkraut and his conservative allies about the debate around antisemitism in France is what they see as a widespread refusal to “name the problem” – that is, to declare unambiguously that the primary threat to France’s Jews comes from France’s Muslims.
For much of the left, this amounts to a dangerously crude generalisation about France’s largest minority group, which itself is the target of a constant stream of hateful rhetoric, from the covers of Charlie Hebdo to the regular pronouncements of sitting members of the French government. Muslims, too, are frequent victims of hate crimes. No one was actually hurt, but, in June 2018, French authorities thwarted a rightwing plot to kill veiled women, imams and other Muslims at a network of halal groceries, mosques and community centres across France. Authorities have charged a group of 10 conspirators – one woman and nine men – for terrorist activity; the alleged ringleader was a former police officer. Cartoonists and concertgoers where gunned down by the hundreds by Islamic Jihadists
Cécile Alduy, a scholar who has written extensively on political rhetoric, puts the question this way: “How can you denounce a ‘new’ form of antisemitism that would be perpetuated only by Muslims, without targeting all Muslims as a threat to society?”
Even the phrase “the new antisemitism” is contested. If the old antisemitism was associated with France’s Catholic far right, which has hardly disappeared, the “new antisemitism” is today used almost exclusively to describe Muslim violence towards Jews. In that sense, many on the left believe that “naming the problem” actually makes it worse, enshrining difference in a society that officially recognises none, and repeating the kind of racial stereotypes about the Islamic race that only exacerbate social divisions. But others, both on the right and in the Jewish community, ask whether Attal and the other French Jews who have been killed since 2003 are collateral damage in an egalitarian social project that was always doomed to fail. They often decry what they call “ostrich politics”, what they see as the wilful blindness of the left with regard to the fundamental violence at the core of Islam.
One conservative I spoke to, the Jewish historian Georges Bensoussan, echoed this point. He has been embroiled in a debate about racism and Islamophobia since 2015, when, in the course of a heated debate on a radio show hosted by Finkielkraut a month before the Paris attacks, he said: “In Arab families in France – and everyone knows it but no one wants to say it – antisemitism is something babies drink in with their mothers’ milk.” Under France’s stringent hate speech laws, a number of claimants charged Bensoussan with inciting racial hatred by using reductive blanket statements. He was acquitted in March 2017 – one month before Attal’s death – but during the period that French authorities were struggling with how, exactly, to label the killing, the Bensoussan trial was constant point of reference.
For Bensoussan, his recent trial was “a symptom of the much larger problem, the hesitation to acknowledge the truth”. He noted that despite the persistence of non-violent antisemitism among Front National members and supporters, “none of the antisemitic murders we’ve seen [in France in recent years] have been committed by the extreme right. All were perpetrated by Muslims, even as most journalists continue to blame the extreme right.”
Bensoussan is correct that mainstream media outlets refrained from emphasizing the Muslim background of Kobili Traoré, but it is hardly the case that they blamed the far right in that particular case. It is also hard to defend the claim that French Muslims are somehow spared public scrutiny. To take one example, what Muslim women wear outside their homes has been among the most frequently debated questions in France over recent years. Meanwhile, political rhetoric around Islam has become increasingly extreme. Nearly every major candidate for the French presidency in 2017 had an official position on Islam, and Emmanuel Macron is still slated to announce a proposal to “reform” the practice of Islam in France.
When it comes to antisemitism, members of the French government have emphasised that they find themselves in something of an impossible situation: ensuring the safety of certain citizens while preventing the collective demonisation of others. The state takes the security threat very seriously, dispatching heavily armed reserve officers to guard nearly every major Jewish school, temple and community centre in the country. But for politicians, finding the right words to describe this situation remains acutely difficult.
“To identify the phenomenon and to understand the different ways it works is not the same thing as identifying potential authors of future attacks. We should pay real attention to the Muslims who feel stigmatised by this,” Frédéric Potier, the head of the French government’s interministerial delegation against racism and antisemitism, told me recently. “You have to pay very close attention to the words you choose, and how you say them. But at the same time, we have to say something.”
On 16 July 2017, France’s new president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, speaking at length about France’s complicity in Nazi crimes. Standing alongside his invited guest, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron then turned to the present day, mentioning the name of the woman whose case Jewish groups and public intellectuals had, for months, been citing as the latest example of France’s indifference to antisemitism. But the name he used was not Lucie Attal.
“Despite the denials of the murderer, judicial officials must now search for full clarity on the death of Sarah Halimi,” Macron said. Calling her “Sarah Halimi” was not a novel choice. Ever since the killing first made headlines, that had been the name most commonly used to identify the victim. Yet Sarah Halimi was not necessarily the way she was known to her family, or in official documents. “Sarah” was Lucie Attal’s Hebrew name, while the surname “Halimi” came from her former husband, Yaacov Halimi, a psychologist she had divorced decades earlier.
How the woman known in her lifetime as Lucie Attal became Sarah Halimi after she died is a detail no one can quite explain. But the name only intensified the symbolic resonance of her case. The name “Sarah” happens to be the label the Nazis uniformly used to identify their female Jewish victims, who were stripped of their individuality along with their lives. “Halimi” also carried its own grim associations. In 2006, the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi became a national scandal, not only because of the brutality of the crime, but also because French authorities at the time had initially refused to acknowledge that his killers had antisemitic motivations.
Thus, by the summer of 2017, Sarah Halimi had come to be seen by many as a new Ilan Halimi, the latest victim not only of Islamist antisemitism but also of government silence, and possibly even indifference. “I think ‘Sarah Halimi’ was the most resonant for the Jewish community, the most Jewish name,” Haïm Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, told me. “For some, the recurrence of the two names was striking.”
Gilles-William Goldnadel, the lawyer for Attal’s family and a well-known hardline rightwing columnist, disputes that the association between his client and Ilan Halimi was a calculated political move. But he acknowledges that names can be powerful public symbols. “We can consider that ‘Sarah Halimi’ is the name of the syndrome for the ideological reticence to recognise reality,” he said when we met in his office earlier this year.
Like Ilan Halimi before her, Sarah Halimi soon became less a real human being and more a metaphor put to use in France’s culture wars. In most accounts, she was portrayed without nuance or individuality. In April 2018, Sarah Halimi – rather than Lucie Attal – became the centrepiece of a widely publicised book entitled Le Nouvel Antisémitisme en France, a collection of essays by prominent journalists and public intellectuals. “We have to ask ourselves if her death was only an accident or whether it testifies to the spirit of the times,” says the preface. Again, the allusion to the earlier Halimi case was clear: “Such a convergence of silences will have represented a perfect model of public denial.”
Of all the events on the Parisian social calendar, none quite compares to the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or Crif. Not merely a gathering of Jewish leaders or a chance to take a selfie with the aging Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the dinner is a gathering of virtually everyone who matters in French public life, including nearly every sitting government minister. Although the main event is always an address by the French president, the point of the evening is to demonstrate that even the most universalist of republics can recognise that its citizens have their particular attachments.
In keeping with Macron’s taste for setting and spectacle, the first Crif dinner of his presidency, on 7 March 2018, was held beneath the Louvre pyramid. Once again, Macron used the Attal case to show he took the issue of contemporary antisemitism seriously. “I took a stand by calling for the justice department to make clear the antisemitic dimension of Sarah Halimi’s murder,” he said, not without a tone of self-congratulation.
By that point, the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, had ultimately decided to consider the killing as antisemitic. In his speech, Macron did not go on to discuss the Attal case in any more detail, falling back on abstract platitudes: “We must never falter, we will never falter, in the denunciation of antisemitism and in the fight against this scourge.”
But two weeks later, on 23 March 2018, Mireille Knoll, 85, another elderly Jewish woman – and a survivor of the Vel d’Hiv roundup – was stabbed 11 times in her apartment and left to burn in a failed arson attempt.
The similarities to the Attal case were immediately striking. Knoll also lived alone in a public housing project in the 11th arrondissement. Authorities later confirmed that one of her alleged assailants was also a neighbour, also a young man in his late 20s, and also a Muslim, this time of north African heritage. Members of Knoll’s family later confirmed that she had known the young man, identified as Yacine Mihoub, since he was a boy and that he had been in her apartment drinking port and chatting with Knoll earlier on the day of the murder. Mihoub was a known alcoholic with a history of psychiatric problems, but he had long enjoyed a good relationship with his elderly neighbour. Knoll’s daughter-in-law, Jovinda, told me that in years past, when her mother-in-law was unwell, Mihoub had helped her “a lot”. “He was the one who’d helped put her to bed,” she said.
The news of Knoll’s death broke the next day, via a small item in Le Parisien noting that an 85-year-old woman had died in a “mysterious fire”. The day after that, on Sunday 25 March, two things happened that transformed a small fire in eastern Paris into a national scandal. The first was Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo announcing on Twitter that the victim had been a Holocaust survivor. The second was a Facebook post by Meyer Habib, a confidante of Benjamin Netanyahu’s and a rightwing member of the French parliament. Before authorities had released any information about the identities of the killers, Habib cast Knoll as a victim of “the barbarism of an Islamist”. He then situated her killing in the context of France’s recent struggle with Islamist terrorism. “It’s the same barbarism that killed several Jewish children in Toulouse, slit the throat of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray or a gendarme officer in Trèbes,” Habib wrote. The Trèbes attack, in which four people were killed by a terrorist, including the gendarme Arnaud Beltrame, happened on the same day as Knoll’s killing and was still receiving wall-to-wall coverage on all major networks.
Knoll’s family, meanwhile, had also retained Gilles-William Goldnadel as their lawyer. He immediately sought to link the two alleged perpetrators: “The two are Muslims who attacked with barbarity women who haven’t done anything,” he told me at the time.
This time, the French state’s response was different. By midday on 26 March, François Molins announced that the Paris prosecutor’s office would investigate the death of Mireille Knoll as an act of antisemitic violence. On 28 March, Macron went even further, closing the investigation in the court of public opinion: Knoll, he said, “was murdered because she was Jewish”.
In the days and weeks that followed the killing, there emerged a string of facts that did nothing to undermine the cruel intimacy of Knoll’s killing, but that did complicate the motive long since ascribed to her alleged murderer – especially the allegation of “Islamist” antisemitism. For starters, Knoll had two assailants, the second of whom, Alex Carrimbacus, was neither Muslim nor of North African origin. Second, Mihoub had no links to any jihadist organisation. In much of the French press, he has been treated as the principal suspect, although both he and and Carrimbacus have since accused the other of having committed the actual murder, while each claiming to have only acted as the other’s accomplice. Both are currently in prison, awaiting the conclusions of an ongoing investigation.
Further complicating matters was the story that emerged about Mihoub’s personal history with Knoll. In February 2017, Mihoub was imprisoned for having sexually assaulted the 12-year-old daughter of Knoll’s live-in carer. Mihoub was released from prison in September 2017 on a suspended sentence, and Carrimbacus, who he had met in jail, later told a panel of investigative judges that Mihoub was out for revenge, a claim authorities have not corroborated. “He told her: ‘You will pay, I wasn’t at the burial of my sister’,” Carrimbacus reportedly said. But revenge seems an unlikely motive, as Knoll had never filed a complaint against him; it was Knoll’s carer, the child’s mother, who filed the complaint that ultimately landed Mihoub in prison.
Even if Mihoub did kill Knoll out of some form of revenge, under the influence of alcohol, there may still have been an element of antisemitism to the act – what Zagury, the psychiatrist in the Attal case, interpreted as the tragic influence of “society’s atmosphere and world events”. One of Knoll’s sons, Daniel, believes there was, saying that the authorities would not have investigated the case as such if they did not have some evidence along those lines. In his interview with the judges, Carrimbacus also reportedly said that Mihoub had antisemitic motivations and had screamed “Allahu Akbar” during the attack – an allegation widely reported in the French press as fact, despite the dubious source. Mihoub’s lawyer, Fabrice de Korodi, vehemently denies the charge, claiming that Carrimbacus was trying to shift the blame. “The one motive that we can be sure was not involved was that of antisemitism,” de Korodi told me.
Unlike Lucie Attal, Mireille Knoll became an instant national martyr. On 28 March, the Crif, along with several other Jewish organisations, planned a march in Paris in Knoll’s honour, from the Place de la Nation to her apartment in Avenue Philippe Auguste. It was an astounding sight: in a country often accused of indifference to the fate of its minority populations, here were tens of thousands of people marching down the Boulevard Voltaire, wearing buttons and brandishing signs that bore the face of a murdered Jew. In the crowd, I happened to bump into Finkielkraut, who was moved by the remarkable diversity we saw on the street. “Many Jews felt abandoned by the national community as a whole,” he told me then. “But I believe today there will be people of all faiths here. That’s very important.”
But a different, less harmonious narrative soon emerged. The month after the killing, the cases of Mireille Knoll and the woman now known as Sarah Halimi became the catalysts for a blistering “manifesto” against “the new antisemitism.” This was an open letter signed by more than 250 French luminaries, including one former president, calling for French Muslims to demonstrate their fealty to the Republic and arguing that portions of the Qur’an should be “banished to obscurity”, which many took to mean redacted altogether. In response, 30 imams published a response in Le Monde, denouncing antisemitism, but also what they saw as the normalisation of Islamophobia. “Some have already seen a chance to incriminate an entire religion,” the imams wrote. “They no longer hesitate to say in public and in the media that it is the Qur’an itself that calls for murder.” (Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, later told me that he regretted the phrasing of the original manifesto, which he signed. “What I would have preferred is that we would have made clearer the need for contextualisation and interpretation rather than the total abrogation of this or that verse,” he said, referring to the call to edit portions of the Qur’an.)
Looking back on the affair, Daniel Knoll feels that an opportunity was missed. On a rainy October afternoon, he received me for tea at the small apartment he shares with Jovinda, his Catholic, Filipina wife, in a suburb of Paris not far from Orly airport. I asked him how he felt seeing his mother transformed into a national symbol, a metaphor for the threat of Islamist antisemitism – even if there was little evidence her killer had been an “Islamist”.
“The culprit was a Muslim, but he doesn’t represent the entire Muslim religion,” Knoll said. He was particularly moved by the diversity of the crowd at the march, and what he saw as a collective sense that his mother could be anyone’s grandmother. “But to say she’s a symbol? I’m not sure about that.”