January 8, 2020
Five years ago, this week, Frenchman Amedy Coulibaly stormed the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket in eastern Paris, murdering four people inside. The attack capped three days of terror across the city of Paris, including the massacre of 17 at the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo and the murder of a French policewoman.
Fourteen perpetrators accused of aiding and abetting the attacks on Hyper Cacher and elsewhere that week will go to trial starting in May. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the Paris-based AJC Europe Director, looks back on that turning point in January 2015 when many in France came to understand that their destiny was intrinsically linked to that of French Jews and French Jews were once again reminded that their safety was in jeopardy.
What do you recall from that week in January?
The whole week is very blurry. We were going through this painful, scary period and at the same time trying to stay level-headed and really explain what’s going on, what’s at stake, and the lessons learned from it. The entire nation was in shock. Many were afraid for their personal safety and very much aware that France was about to change. I personally worked 24/7 the entire week, giving interviews to all major TV and radio stations, explaining why this antisemitic jihadist attack was part of a wider attack against the very essence of the French Republic.
Then on the 11th of January there was this incredible march and demonstration where we had 3.5 million people in the streets of Paris with heads of state present from all over the world. That was a very important moment when France came together. We called it the ‘Spirit of the 11th of January.’ The French have a tendency to always complain about everything all the time. That was a moment when people started to understand that something deep down very important to them, the very values of France, the symbols of the French Republic had been attacked: the Jews who are an integral part of the French Republic; the journalists and caricaturists who have taken the freedom to laugh and criticize everything, even religion, and then, of course, the policemen and policewomen who are there to protect the country who were also from minority backgrounds. I think that’s why we had so many people in the streets of Paris that day willing to stand up and defend the spirit, the values, the essence of the French Republic.
Since the Hyper Cacher attack was the last in a string of violence in Paris that week, was its antisemitic nature downplayed?
It wasn’t necessarily downplayed as such. Actually, AJC Paris was the one who managed to turn the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ online campaign into including ‘Je Suis Juif,’ bringing the antisemitic element of the attacks to everyone’s attention. That being said, if I am entirely honest, many French Jews asked themselves the question ‘what if it had only been Hyper Cacher? Would we have had millions of people in the streets demonstrating?’ I think the answer to us is probably not. So, while I don’t think it was downplayed, nevertheless, let’s be honest with ourselves.
What was the effect on the psyche of French Jews?
The destabilizing thing about antisemitism in France is you don’t know where it comes from. You go to a synagogue and it can be firebombed when something happens in Gaza. In Toulouse (where a Frenchman killed seven three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in 2012), it happened in a school. You go shopping in a supermarket and something like that happens. Sarah Halimi happened. (Halimi was a 65-year-old kindergarten director who was brutally beaten and thrown out of the window of her apartment by her neighbor in 2017. A court recently ruled that her killer was ruled not criminally responsible because he had been “delirious” due to the fact that he had smoked marijuana before killing Halimi.) Even in people’s homes, you’re not protected. There were many French Jews who simply said I can’t feel safe here.
When almost the exact same crime happened in Jersey City, did it rekindle fears?
Absolutely. It feels like a déjà vu and many of us are afraid it’s not going to stop there. Many of us feel this is just the beginning. For us, European Jews, this represents our worst nightmare. We have suffered from contemporary antisemitism for years and while the situation on both sides of the Atlantic is of course different, many of us feel that we recognize the signs and know how this scenario will play out.
When the perpetrators go on trial later this year, do you believe justice will be carried out?
Despite the very disappointing decision by the judges in the Sarah Halimi case, I continue to have faith in the justice system. I also believe that this trial is very important. It will, I hope, allow for France to look a little bit in depth into what happened, how it could happen, and look once again into the past eight years because it really started in 2012 with the murders of Toulouse. The reality is all the terrorists who committed the attacks, whether it was Hyper Cacher or Charlie Hebdo, or before that in Toulouse, they’re all French. They’re not some foreigners who came here and committed those attacks. They were born in France, raised in France, went through the French school system. I think it’s important to spend some more time thinking about how this could happen, how radical Islamism was able to spread the way it did on French soil. I think it’s also going to be very difficult and painful, but I also think it’s an important moment for the victims to get some form of justice.
What are the lessons to be learned from Hyper Cacher?
We have to understand that antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine. The people least surprised by Charlie Hebdo were the Jews because we knew when Toulouse happened in 2012, when the Jewish school was attacked, we knew at some point or another this cancer would spread. It might start there, but it’s not going to end there. It is the prelude of a societal problem. It’s the revelation of a national crisis (and I would argue is turning into an international crisis) Antisemitism therefore is not the problem of Jews, it is not the problem of a community, it is that of a society as a whole and needs to be dealt with as such.