Ilan Halimi, and the responsibility of society
March 30th, 2006

(French translation was published in Le monde, March 30, 2006), View French Article
by Judea Pearl

As public debate of the brutal murder of Ilan Halimi settles into the usual ideological patterns, it is instructive to step back and reflect on the role of society in this tragedy.


In particular it is important to critically examine the role of the media in creating a climate where criminal gangs would target Jews over other preys, and where it becomes possible to torture of a human being in such blatant defiance of natural empathy.


Empathy, or the identification with ‘the other,’ requires that ‘the other’ be deemed equal in human qualities, as reflected in the dignity and respect that society extends to its members.


Unfortunately, as a collective, Jews have not enjoyed standard norms of dignity and respect in French society — they have been defamed, villainized and dehumanized as no other group has.


Of course, only Israelis are dehumanized today in the French media, not all Jews, and French Jews are no longer resented for their religious belief, or for killing a deity; they are now villainized for one and only one crime: loving and caring for that “shitty little country,” as French Ambassador Bernard called Israel, a country that according to a 2005 survey, the majority of Europeans consider “the greatest threat to world’s peace”.


Ilan’s misfortune was that the gangsters of Bagneux were able to discover what every child in Europe knew all along — who causes the troubles in the world and who can be bashed with impunity.


By licensing unrestrained assaults against Israel and Zionism – two cherished symbols of French Jewry – and denying the Jewish community a fair opportunity to make the case for Israel, the media has effectively turned French Jewry into social outcasts.


This, coupled with classical anti-semitic broadcasts pouring over from middle east channels, offers some explanation for the barbaric and inexplicable inhumanity of Ilan’s abductors.


Indeed, how can the residents of Bagneux respect the life of Ilan, if he cherishes the Magen David (Shield of David) — the most despised symbol in all of Europe, barring the Swastika.


A symbol that, for over a decade, French media has refused to associate with any praise-worthy quality.


What empathy could Ilan expect from his abductors when the symbol of his identity evoked nothing but contempt in their Pavlovian brains.


How could they remain deaf, for 20 long days, to his infinite screams, blended with his mother’s pleas over the phone?


Unless they convinced themselves that this young man deserved subhuman treatment, either by virtue of belonging to the “despised,” or as a cousin to those “monstrous Israeli soldiers” they repeatedly saw on TV, portrayed as faceless killers of Palestinian children.


Or, perhaps they were reminded of that video (now suspected of being a forgery) of the dying Palestinian child Muhammad Al Dura that France 2 was so eager to air on September 2000. Images that were taken and re-aired everywhere day after day, night after night, with stubbornness and perseverance that only bigotry can sustain. So eager in fact that it found its way to the hands of Daniel Pearl’s murderers in Pakistan, and was used in their gruesome video to justify the murder — a grim reminder of the consequences of irresponsible journalism.


It is safe for us to talk about the gangsters of Bagneux, not so safe to talk about the anti-Israel media.


But, if the death of Ilan Halimi is to have a meaningful and permanent mark on our consciousness, it is vital that we examine all sacred pillars of society, especially those that mediate reality to us.


Those who spread combustible fuels knowing that lunatics are running around with lit matches cannot be totally exonerated from responsibility when fire breaks out.


Responsibility entails a conscious effort to stop the demonization of other societies, including Israel, to present their narratives with respect, and to genuinely portray the human face of their peoples. Current media practices are destructive to French society, not because they offend a large community of French citizens, but because the demonization of any collective unleashes the worst in society — barbarity is its first manifestation.


Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (>, named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan, in February, 2002.