Ten months after her son was kidnapped and tortured to death by young Muslim gang members in Paris (after her son became a symbol of anti-Semitic violence, and she began making public speeches about the type of hatred that took her son’s life) Ruth Halimi brought her message of tolerance to New York City.
"Ilan’s tragedy was a humanitarian tragedy," not just a Jewish tragedy, Ruth Halimi told a lunch reception last week at the Anti-Defamation League headquarters in Midtown, her first appearance here.
Halimi, a receptionist, said she has taken a new job since Ilan’s murder: one that requires less interaction with other people. "Now I am a ghost" of her former self, she said.
Police guard her home every night, she said. "They say, ‘You are in danger.’" When she makes public appearances, she requests that no photographs of her be taken, to protect her anonymity. "There is latent and there is blatant anti-Semitism" in France, she said; many of her friends have left the country.
Will she leave too? "I don’t know," she said.
Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old cell phone salesman born into a family of Jewish immigrants from Morocco, was taken as a hostage by the "Barbarians" gang last January, held for ransom for three weeks, and released, badly bruised and bleeding, near railroad tracks in a Paris suburb. He died on the way to a hospital.
Ilan’s kidnapping and death, and his funeral, attended by high-ranking French officials, was the latest (and most brutal) example of growing anti-Semitism in France; most of the attacks on Jewish individuals and Jewish sites are the work of young, mostly unemployed members of Muslim emigre families, most from northern Africa.
French police at first said the motive behind Ilan’s kidnapping was simple extortion, not anti-Semitism. The kidnappers, in repeated calls to his family, demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars; his middle-class family could not meet the demands. "Go to the synagogue," the kidnappers reportedly said.
An anonymous detective in Paris was quoted as saying that "It’s simple that, for those criminals, Jew equals money."
The stereotype of rich Jews "is the very definition of anti-Semitism," ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in introducing Halimi. "The stereotype that all Jews are rich killed Ilan Halimi. Ilan Halimi was assassinated because he was a Jew."
Ilan became a victim of Muslim gangs, his mother said, "mostly because he was Jewish."
Speaking in French, her words interpreted into English, dressed in a simple brown sweater and a brown skirt, she was barely audible, no expression on her face, little in her voice. She spoke for only a few minutes, then sat down to a standing ovation, and a hug from Foxman.
In her speech, and in a meeting later with reporters, she spoke of her son as "a present for 23 years" and the growing fear felt by French Jews, of their migration to Israel and the United States and other Western countries, and of the messages of support she has received from Arabs and Christians both in France and overseas.
"Jewish people are optimists. I am an optimist," she said. ‘We have to never give up."
"Ruth and [Ilan’s sister] Yael are here while kaddish is still being said for Ilan," Foxman said. "We understand that they are still mourning. How difficult it must be for them to relive publicly their personal pain."
Halimi, who has preached a message of mutual acceptance and vigilance against hate, was honored by the ADL during its 12th annual Concert Against Hate last week at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Other recipients of the Ina Kay Award were Ruby Bridges, a veteran of the civil rights movement; Simon Deng, who was taken into slavery in his native Sudan and is a leader in this country of the fight against slavery and genocide; and the late Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was murdered in Detroit in 1982 by two autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese.
Anti-Semitic attacks against Jews in Europe, especially in France, home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, have escalated since Israel’s month-long battle against Hezbollah forces in Lebanon this summer, the World Jewish Congress reported last week.
In a letter to French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, following a series of assaults on Jewish men around Paris after Ilan’s murder, Foxman urged the French government "to remain resolute, to tackle this problem." Foxman said last week he will call on Sarkozy to open an investigation into the police handling of Ilan’s kidnapping; according to subsequent reports, at least three dozen people took part in the actual abduction and torturing of Ilan, and several hundred residents of the largely Muslim suburb knew that "a Jew" was forcibly being held in a building there, Foxman said. "There are a lot of questions that need to be answered."
Halimi, in interviews with the French media, accused local police of mishandling the case. She said police downplayed anti-Semitism as a motive in order to placate France’s large Muslim immigrant population.
French Consul General Francois Delattre, in remarks at the ADL event, pledged his government’s "zero tolerance policy" towards anti-Semitism. "What happened to Ilan Halimi is something that all we all take personally," Delattre said, his voice breaking. "What is at stake is an existential threat to all of us."
Each Sunday Ilan’s family visits his gravesite in Paris. Each Sunday, Ruth Halimi told Foxman, they see flowers, apparently left by non-Jewish mourners.
In February, on the first anniversary of Ilan’s death, Ruth Halimi will travel again, accompanying his body to Israel for reburial in Jerusalem.