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The brutal killing of a Holocaust survivor raises anti-Semitism fears in France

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, attend a dinner held by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France on March 7.
French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, attend a dinner held by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France on March 7. (Pool photo by Ludovic Marin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

PARIS — The Paris prosecutor’s office is investigating whether anti-Semitism was a motivation for the killing of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor that has outraged France’s Jewish community.

Mireille Knoll was stabbed 11 times and left in her burning Paris apartment Friday, French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux announced Monday afternoon on Twitter.

Authorities have taken two suspects into custody, according to a judicial official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the case and would tell The Washington Post only that one of the suspects was born in 1989.

Jewish advocacy groups were quick to put the case within the context of rising anti-Semitism in France and to point out the similarities to another high-profile case being investigated as anti-Semitic: the April 2017 killing of Sarah Halimi, a 66-year-old Orthodox Jewish physician and kindergarten teacher who was beaten in her apartment and then thrown out a window. Authorities suspect a Muslim neighbor.

“This was the same Paris arrondissement, several streets apart,” said Noémie Halioua, a French journalist with Actualité Juive and the author of a new book on the Halimi case. “And both victims were elderly women who lived alone and who had both previously complained of threats.”

Knoll and Halimi lived in the 11th Arrondissement (or district) on the eastern side of Paris, an area that has traditionally been home to immigrant populations but in recent years has seen large-scale gentrification.

“There is also the barbarity of the crimes and the fact that in both cases the victims were fragile women,” Halioua said.

In the Knoll case, French authorities announced Monday that they were investigating whether the suspects targeted the victim because she belonged to a specific religion.

That new line of official inquiry came amid mounting public pressure.

Speaking on French radio Monday morning, Francis Kalifat, the head of France’s largest Jewish advocacy organization, the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations, bristled at the suggestion that investigators should use caution before classifying the killing an anti-Semitic attack.

“Prudence? Obviously,” he said. “But prudence doesn’t mean we should exclude the possibility that this could have been an anti-Semitic act.”

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French authorities have often hesitated to formally ascribe a motivation of “anti-Semitism” to attacks on Jews in recent years. This has been a point of contention between Jewish leaders and the French government, even as French President Emmanuel Macron has recently sought to improve relations.

The Halimi killing became a national scandal when authorities initially declined to investigate it as an anti-Semitic attack, despite her family’s testimony that the suspect had confronted her with verbal slurs on a regular basis.

The same was true in the 2006 slaying of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cellphone salesman (no relation to Sarah Halimi) who was killed by the “Gang of Barbarians,” a band of immigrant criminals from the Paris suburbs. The gang had targeted Ilan Halimi because he was Jewish — and had even demanded massive ransom sums from his middle-class family, which the gang members assumed would be wealthy because they were Jewish.

In the Sarah Halimi case, public outrage reached such a level that Macron intervened.

“I took a stand by calling on justice to shed light on the anti-Semitic dimension of Sarah Halimi’s murder,” he recalled in a speech this month, “and I am glad that this dimension could finally be recognized. That is what an investigation must be used to do, to establish the circumstances of a crime and to qualify it precisely.”

But at a time when Holocaust survivors’ numbers are dwindling, the killing of Knoll proved a dark addition to a narrative that has provoked concern among many European leaders, especially as instances of historical revisionism take root across the continent.

As a child, Knoll escaped the “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of Parisian Jews in July 1942, according to Meyer Habib, a right-leaning French parliamentary deputy and confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Habib issued a statement on the case Sunday, drawing on a conversation with Knoll’s relatives.

Two years into Nazi occupation, French police forces in Paris carried out mass arrests of approximately 13,000 Jews, who were then deposited in the now-demolished Velodrome d’Hiver stadium near the Eiffel Tower. Most of those arrested were subsequently deported to Auschwitz.

Knoll’s killing raised anxieties over a troubling trend without a clear solution.

“There are two contradictory elements here,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, the prominent French writer active in Jewish causes, said in an interview. “On the one hand, it’s true that Republican institutions are exemplary and do everything they can in the face of a rising anti-Semitism. But on the other, I am obligated to say that Jews are again being killed on the streets of Paris by virtue of being Jewish.”

“Even in the 1930s, that was not the case in such an extent,” he said. “What we see today is new, horrible and intolerable.”

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