Murder of 85-year-old Holocaust survivor in Paris underscores the loneliness of the Jewish community in the face of rising antisemitism

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 12:08pm

Mireille Knoll managed to survive the Nazis during the Holocaust, but antisemitism is ancient and tenacious, and its tentacles finally caught up with her last week at her home in Paris.

The 85-year-old Knoll was stabbed 11 times and burned after attackers – a neighbor and a homeless man – tried to set her apartment ablaze. The men, both in their 20s, were later arrested for a crime that is being investigated as an antisemitic attack.

“She’s a Jew, she must have money,” said one attacker to the other, according to Gérard Collomb, the interior minister of France.

That the woman was alone at the time of her death makes the tragedy all the more reprehensible. It also symbolizes a wider truth about the scourge of contemporary antisemitism: There is a profound loneliness in the Jewish community as it calls attention to the escalating crisis.

In 2014, physical attacks and threats against Jews jumped by 100 percent, according to the Interior Ministry of the French government. Last year, though the number of threats went down, violence targeting Jews rose again.

Many non-Jews on the left and the right have been slow to acknowledge the depth of the problem.

Nearly a year to the day before Knoll was murdered, 65-year-old Sarah Halimi thrown from her balcony by an assailant who beat her while reading passages from the Quran and cried “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) during the assault. And yet it took until last month – nearly a year – for Halimi’s murder to be reclassified as an act of antisemitism.

Demonstrations in the aftermath of Halimi’s killing drew a few hundred people, “most of them Jewish,” noted Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the European chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), in an op-ed.

By contrast, when vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery in 1990, as many as 200,000 demonstrators flooded the streets in southeast France. Participants included an impressive cross-section of ethnicities. France’s six major television networks canceled their programming to air a documentary about the Holocaust.

The reluctance to decry the current wave of hate clearly has to do with how much of it stems from Islamist quarters, and French liberals are reluctant to fan the flames of Islamophobia.

But hate is hate, and in France it is coming at Jews from all directions: radical Islamists, the far left that equates all Jews with their hatred of Israel, and the far right that has brought notoriety to the likes of National Front leader Marion Anne Perrine "Marine" Le Pen.  

But a failure to directly confront antisemitism in all of its forms only gives permission for it to flourish and spread.

Steps are being taken, but they are not enough. In 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance drafted a new definition of antisemitism that, among other things, makes a clear distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and criticism of Israel that implicates all Jews. It has since been adopted by eight countries.

Last week, Yad Vashem – Israel’s state memorial to the victims of the Holocaust – held its sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, where the central message was clear: "Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem."

One of the panelists, Professor Dina Porat – Yad Vashem’s chief historian – rightly stressed the importance for Jewish organizations to cooperate with one another and to form coalitions with other minorities and persecuted moderates. Her second point is much more difficult than it sounds. How do you know if you are successful?

There are no hard and fast rules, but if you are sitting in a room of people whose ideology makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably in the right place. This isn’t about getting a choir together.

We at USC Shoah Foundation have launched a program to give voice to people who have witnessed contemporary acts of antisemitism. Interviewees include the mother of a girl from Denmark whose 2015 bat mitzvah was cut short when a terrorist opened fire on the party at the synagogue, killing a guard and wounding two police officers.  They also include a member of the Copenhagen Muslim community, who – a few days after the attack – helped organize a “peace ring” of people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds around the same synagogue.

I have to say I found hopeful signs in this week’s rally in honor of Knoll. Rather than hundreds, it drew thousands. Among them were numerous politicians, even Le Pen – who was booed.

Taken together, these efforts communicate a simple message: the world is watching, but there is a lot of work to do. Resistance to the current strain of antisemitism is slowly but surely coalescing. And you are not alone.

Stephen Smith