‘L’affaire Sarah Halimi’

Sarah Halimi. (Courtesy of the Confédération des Juifs de France et des amis d’Israël)

French writer Noémie Halioua’s book, ‘L’affaire Sarah Halimi,’ dives into the vicious homicide of a Jewish woman that French authorities resisted calling a hate crime

16 September 2018 | No attribution | The Times of Israel

PARIS – Journalist Noémie Halioua’s life hasn’t been the same since she answered an unexpected call last year in her office at Actualité Juive, a Paris-based Jewish weekly where she works as culture editor.

On May 18, 2017, as she was about to eat lunch at her desk, the phone rang. An unfamiliar male voice asked Halioua if she were a journalist and if she recognized the name Sarah Halimi.

Six weeks earlier, during France’s presidential election campaign, Halimi, a 65-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman, was savagely murdered in her Paris apartment by a neighbor. Kobili Traoré, a 27-year-old Muslim immigrant from Mali, beat Halimi repeatedly before throwing her off the balcony into a courtyard three floors below. Neighbors reported hearing her screams for mercy while Traoré shouted verses from the Quran and “Allahu Akbar,” the Arabic phrase Islamic terrorists often holler when carrying out attacks.

Initially, the murder was largely ignored by France’s non-Jewish media. A brief item in a Paris newspaper had reported an elderly woman died after falling off her balcony in a tragic accident. Critics charged this lack of objective coverage arose out of fear of encouraging popular support for the anti-immigrant National Front’s election campaign.

Halioua listened attentively to the plaintive voice of the man on the other end of the phone, who identified himself as William Attal, the younger brother of Halimi. He said that a few days earlier while consulting the police dossier on his sister’s murder, he had learned more about the anti-Semitic nature of the crime.

Halioua’s phone conversation with Attal led to a 11-month journalistic probe resulting in her recently published book, “L’affaire Sarah Halimi.”

Accusing the media and public authorities of, at best, indifference and, at worst, a cover-up, in that first phone call Attal told Halioua that when he contacted other journalists to tell them of the murder, no one believed him. Had it happened as he claimed, they said, the media would have already covered it.

For their part, the police initially dragged their feet in their investigation. They refused to classify the murder as anti-Semitic, suggesting it was an isolated crime, albeit lurid, committed by someone mentally unstable.

Attal was aghast, saying everyone seemed intent either on suppressing the story or refusing to acknowledge it as a hate crime. He claimed there were incriminating details showing the murderer targeted Halimi because she was Jewish. Even worse, police and neighbors, he insisted, could have saved her during the protracted assault, but failed to act.

Attal appealed to Halioua to get the facts out, saying Traoré, who had confessed to the murder, might never face trial. After claiming insanity, he was promptly sent to a psychiatric hospital without being investigated by the police.

“When William Attal called me, he was understandably upset,” says Halioua, 28, during a recent interview with The Times of Israel in a Paris café beside Place de la République. “As he spoke, I told myself not to assume everything he said was accurate. I know very well that someone who’s in mourning and suffering can’t be both judge and jury. It was the brother of the victim of a terrible crime. I took what he said for what it was, but still his allegations disturbed me.”

The conversation with Attal made a strong impact on Halioua. His despondent but combative manner touched her as much as the murder and lack of media interest angered her. She wondered if it wasn’t yet another in an awful series of anti-Semitic attacks by Islamic radicals that had tormented France’s Jewish community over the past 15 years.

Halioua set aside the novel she’d been writing in her spare time, and switched to nonfiction, which eventually became “L’affaire Sarah Halimi.”

Painful echoes

For Halioua, and for other French Jews, the name of this latest victim harked back to another notorious Halimi affair. In 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Paris resident, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a criminal gang, led by a radical Islamist, that targeted their victim because he was Jewish. Only later, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, did French authorities finally acknowledge the anti-Semitic motivation of the killers of Halimi (no relation to Sarah).

French authorities also needed much persuasion to label this new Halimi case a hate crime.

In Halioua’s book, the first chapter is devoted to the phone call that started her investigation. Halioua describes the homicide and subsequent twists and turns in Attal’s quest for justice. She doesn’t hide her disillusionment with the French media, political class and judiciary due to their tepid response to what, in her mind, was an obviously anti-Semitic murder.

On the book’s first page, Halioua writes: “When William Attal called me and recounted the details of his sister’s murder, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of indignation that I transformed into a book. The barbarism of the crime and the indifference it received from neighbors, the media and politicians were scandalous. I felt the need to break this glass ceiling and restore dignity to the victim.”

Born into a Sephardi family just east of Paris, Halioua grew up in a suburb north of the city. She’s the third of four children whose father was born in Morocco and whose mother was born in Paris to parents from Algeria.

After earning a degree in psychology from Paris Descartes University, Halioua went to India to volunteer with a humanitarian organization involved in community programs. She did volunteer work for a local newspaper, including writing articles which gave her an appreciation of journalism. After returning to France, she interned at the Le Figaro newspaper and the Jewish magazine l’Arche. In late 2016, she joined Actualité Juive.

Today, after her work on the book, she sees Halimi’s murder as a significant event in French Jewish history.

“I don’t think it will be forgotten,” she says in French. “Psychologically, it was such a shock. Of course, it’s not the first horrific attack against Jews in France. What’s different was the attacker sought out his victim in her home. So now Jews no longer feel safe even in their homes. The murder triggered a new level of fear.”

The real-life plot of a horror film

As Halioua recounts in disturbing detail in her book, Halimi suffered a frenzy of sadistic violence which, months later, the Washington Post described as “resembling the plot of a horror film.”