In winter 2006, a young Jewish-French man, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped, held prisoner for 24 days, tortured and brutalized, then murdered and dumped handcuffed and naked near a railroad station outside Paris. He had been seized for ransom, allegedly because, as a Jew, he would have easy access to money. His captors were led by an emigre from the Ivory Coast, a Muslim warlord wannabe named Youssuf Fofana.
Was this a hate crime or a particularly brutal murder motivated by greed and astonishing stupidity? That question has nagged at the French, particularly the Jewish community, since the crime took place, and is at the center of Lewis Cohen’s film “Jews and Money,” which will be shown at the JCC in Manhattan Oct. 8.
“Jews and Money” has a bifurcated structure that its modest 94-minute running time can only barely support. Cohen, who both wrote and directed the film, is clearly drawn to the inevitable drama of trial and punishment, and he follows the events surrounding the crime itself assiduously and, for the most part, with intelligence. But he is also concerned, as the title says, with the mythology that has historically linked Jews with the accumulation of great wealth, usually by what are assumed to be sinister means, for heinous uses.
To that end, the middle of the film is preoccupied with interviews with an all-star team of historians, including Jacques Le Goff, Sarah Lipton, Robert Chazen, Derek Penslar and Joshua Halberstam, who trace the rise of capital and the slow growth of a global economic system and the place of the Jewish people within it.
This is a story that is frequently told in academic books and journals. In the United States, at least, people like Le Goff seldom speak to a popular audience, so this part of the film is particularly valuable and endlessly fascinating. Cohen deftly traces the advent of anti-Semitic stereotypes associated with usury in the medieval period and the growing success of (some) Jewish businessmen at the birth of capitalism. The prohibition on Jews owning land or serving the professions meant that they were excluded from the agrarian economy and educated classes. What remained were urban life and work as artisans, merchants and moneylenders. And the possession of cash liquidity, the result of the concentration in such employment, made the Jews ideal targets for the local aristocracy and royalty. If you have trouble collecting taxes from Christians, you can squeeze the Jews who lend them money; when the Jews can’t be bled any more, you scapegoat them, expel them and let Christian moneylenders take over at even more usurious rates.
As Penslar notes, being kicked from nation to nation makes it necessary for Jews to be able easily to transport what little wealth they have, so they gravitate to the diamond trade or cash-based industries. They become proficient merchants because they are willing to travel (not always by choice, of course) and, because they don’t own land against which to secure investments and debt, they are forced to take more risks than their agrarian non-Jewish neighbors.
Cohen is particularly good at linking these historical trends to the myth-making processes by which the Jews become known as blood-sucking capitalists bent on world domination. The link of that process to the formation of a psychopath like Youssuf Fofana is also made abundantly clear early in the film.
Therein, I think, lies the film’s only real weakness. To really make the complexities of the Halimi case clear, Cohen would need to have made a much longer film, one that spent more time following the trial and exploring the murky world of the banlieues, the high-rise suburban neighborhoods that are breeding grounds for despair, poverty, the drug trade and the rage that made it possible for Fofana to find 26 accomplices. At the same time, the film would probably benefit from more time spent with its historians, or with someone who could make the relationship of old prejudices with modern barbarities more explicit while factoring in the effects of the Israel-Palestine troubles on the large Muslim populations of the banlieues. New York Times reporter Craig Smith covers some of this ground quite efficiently at the end of the film, but it is a subject that demands more discussion.
Still, Lewis Cohen is to be applauded. The taboo against discussing the “cash nexus,” as Karl Marx called it, in terms of Jewish history is formidable, as Joshua Halberstam notes wryly. To make a film that addresses the subject of Jews and money takes a considerable amount of nerve and, despite its shortcomings, this is an admirable effort both in terms of intent and results.
“Jews and Money,” written and directed by Lewis Cohen, will be shown at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Ave.) on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Joshua Halberstam will be present after the film for a discussion. For information, call (646) 505-5708 or go to www.jccmanhattan.org/film.