Sarah Halimi and George Floyd: After Their Deaths…
One of the things that American Jews, especially Jews born after World War II, take for granted is that Jewish life is not cheap here. Jews in America are considered equal citizens with the right to protection by the government and when Jews are harmed, our government will respond and protect us as it should for any other American.
We take that as a given. But in many countries in the world, it never was and is not still.
Sadly, in Europe… enlightened, first world, cultured Europe, it never was and is not still. Only 76 years after Nazis and their many collaborators massacred one third of the Jewish people, there is still antisemitism. And lots of it.
This week’s parsha is a double one—Acharei Mot (“after the death of Aaron’s sons”) and Kedoshim (“be holy”) together—and sometimes we find that their arrival in the Torah reading cycle coincides with a major current event that links the past to the present. I’ll explain that statement in a bit.
This past week, a high court in France’s justice system ruled that a lower court was correct in its verdict to declare a murderer not criminally responsible, because he had consumed cannabis before committing the murder, which his defense lawyer claimed had induced a state of temporary psychosis.
Several leading French thinkers have pointed out that this defense means any drunk driver, any weed smoker, or any drug user could effectively also claim “temporary psychosis” following their arrest for a crime. A definite flaw in the French legal system.
But isn’t it interesting that this excuse wasn’t used successfully or upheld by a court for drunk drivers or other drug users?
However, when Dr. Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, a retired physician, teacher and mother of three children, was beaten bloody and thrown off her 3rd floor apartment balcony by her attacker, a Muslim immigrant from Mali, while he shouted Allahu Akbar during the attack and then afterward proclaimed "I killed the Shaitan" (a word for an evil demon in Islamic belief), that is exactly the excuse that kept him from being prosecuted for murder.
And once again, after French police bungled their handling of the kidnapping and torture/murder of Ilan Halimi (say his name) eleven years ago and the siege of the Hypercasher kosher supermarket in Paris resulting in the murder of 4 Jews (say their names-- Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, François-Michel Saada and Philippe Braham) five year ago, French Jews believed that their government would finally wake up and realize that they were under attack and make it a national goal to protect them.
No such luck.
Three years ago, Mireille Knoll had managed to survive the Holocaust, only to be murdered in the same neighborhood as Sarah Halimi, by her neighbor.
And after Sarah Halimi was murdered, for several months This is following, what is obvious to any sentient being, a clear pattern of anti-Semitism directed at French Jewish citizens.
Eventually, the French government acknowledged an anti-Semitic motivation for the killing, probably because of the public outcry by the Jewish community and others, but in 2019, the assailant was declared to be not criminally responsible because he had consumed cannabis, which the court ruled had induced a state of psychosis. How convenient! And how strange that I’ve never heard of cannabis-induced psychosis here in the United States!
Why am I telling you about these horrible events? Why am I pointing out murders of Jews that happened in another country?
Because I want you to feel the injustice, the outrage, the unfairness, and the helplessness of the Jews still living in France. Depending on where they live (safe neighborhoods or not so safe neighborhoods) and whether people know they are Jewish or not, French Jews feel like prey, waiting to be the next victim of horrific, anti-Semitic violence.
We in the United States are blessed to live in a country that (so far) still sees its Jews as citizens, worthy of equal protection and justice under the law. The vast majority of government officials in all our political parties protest anti-Semitic acts, decry violence against Jews and support prosecution of those who do us harm.
Yet, that same equal protection and justice under the law is not the case for all American citizens.
The murder of George Floyd and the recent conviction of his killer, a veteran police officer, have galvanized many of us to finally grasp how African Americans might feel living in the United States, where far too often they are targeted by the very people sworn to protect and defend them, namely, our justice system.
If you feel the injustice, the outrage, the unfairness and the helplessness of French Jewry living under a legal system that at times seems hostile to them, then you are capable of also feeling the injustice, the outrage, the unfairness and the helplessness of our fellow African American citizens living under a legal system that at times seems hostile to them.
Acharei Mot—After the death… when we experience the death of someone we know, it often wakes us up and helps us perceive things we didn’t perceive before or feel things we didn’t allow ourselves to feel before.
Kedoshim—Holiness. Holiness happens when we are deeply committed to our own personal path of Jewish living and simultaneously, are deeply committed to loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We Jews are commanded by Torah to ‘be holy’ and ‘keep G!Ds sabbaths’ and ‘not turn to idols’ as well as to ‘leave the gleanings for the poor and the stranger’ and ‘not deal falsely with one another’ and ‘not favor the poor or show deference to the rich but judge your kinsman fairly.’
And if one is supposed to behave that way to a non-citizen, how much the more so should we be treating our fellow citizens justly!
One of the things we Jews pride ourselves on is the ability to think with complexity, to understand issues-- be they in the Talmud or in the newspaper-- with shades of gray.
The situation right now is not an “us OR them” situation. It’s an “us AND them” situation.
We must stand up for Jews here and everywhere and protest anti-Semitism vigorously as well as protest injustice against our fellow citizens vigorously. That is what the Torah teaches.
May It Be Our Will. As well as The Holy One's!