Ari Afilalo
Ari Afilalo

They killed our mama: A tale of two verdicts

On April 4, 2017, Kobili Traoré, 27, brutally killed his neighbor Sarah Halimi, of blessed memory, in the mixed ethnic Belleville neighborhood of Paris.  Sarah was a retired Jewish grandmother.  She had been a doctor and the principal of a kindergarten.  Kobili, a marijuana addict and drug dealer, kidnapped Sarah, locked her up in her own apartment, beat her ferociously, and then defenestrated her.  The police, on arrival at the scene, lost precious time figuring out whether the Muslim-on-Jew assault was a terrorist attack, and wound up with Sarah’s tortured, lifeless body on the pavement.

On May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer, cruelly choked George Floyd to death by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. George, an African American man, pleaded for his life. “I can’t breathe,” we all know he cried. And he called for his “Mama,” as life left his body.  Officer Chauvin was unmoved and, with depraved indifference, let George die on the pavement.

Both killings were heinous hate crimes.  French prosecutors and judges ruled that Kobili, a notorious anti-Semite feared in the housing project, had killed Sarah in a bout of racist rage.  “I killed the Sheitan [devil],” Kobili hollered repeatedly after the murder. He punctuated his horrifically brutal blows with screams of “Allahu Akbar,” as he recited Koran verses.  And he would later explain that the mezuza on Sarah’s doorpost and the “Torah” that she supposedly kept at home fueled his ferocious attack.

George Floyd’s murder was yet another tragedy in a sickening series of African American deaths at the hand of police, and another symbol of racial injustice in the United States.  The killing sparked country-wide protests and demands that, at long last, “Black Lives Matter.”  The president of the United States himself called for racial justice as soon as the jury sequestered.  Outrage at the brutal and slow death of a pleading Black man calling for his “Mama,” ignored by a callous killer, echoed throughout the collective memory of the country.

On April 20, 2021, the Minnesota jury sitting in judgment of Chauvin rendered a resounding guilty verdict on all charges. While America is still deeply divided on racial issues, there was widespread relief and sentiment that, at the very least, the public trial of a bigot who was held accountable might signal a historical watershed.  Congress passed, days after the verdict, the COVID-19 Hate Crime Acts, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told all bigots that “we are coming after you.”  We still fear, many African American friends have expressed, but we dare to hope.

On April 14, six days before the Chauvin verdict, the Criminal Chamber of the French Cour de Cassation, the highest judicial instance in the land, rendered a decision that did the exact opposite, and choked the hope of the Jews of France.

The high court ruled that Kobili would not even stand trial for the killing of Sarah Halimi.  The Court concluded that Kobili, who smoked weed all day long, did not have a culpable state of mind because the drugs caused him to suffer from an “acute delirious episode.”  Too high to think, the court ruled, Kobili did not recognize right from wrong or, even if he did, he acted under uncontrollable compulsion.  His case called for treatment rather than punishment.

While the Minneapolis jury expressed our collective outrage at ignoring a young man’s desperate plea for his Mama, the French high court, and the entire judicial system it leads, threw OUR Mama out of the window.

As my friend Emmanuelle Berdugo wrote in yesterday’s Tribune Juive, in France, we may not know Sarah Halimi z’l but we all know who she is – the quintessential Jewish grandmother.  And we all know that this is not about addiction and mental illness; it is about the ancestral hatred that killed her.

Americans recognized that Chauvin’s knee was an extension of racist, murderous hatred, rooted in centuries of ignominy.  We Jews know that Kobili Traore’s brutal killing of Sarah is another episode in a series of lynching episodes to which French society is becoming, by the day, emotionally immune: The kidnapping, torture and killing of Ilan Halimi; Mohammed Merah’s murder of our school children; Amedy Coulibaly’s massacre at the Hyper Cacher supermarket; and, in addition to all the other home invasions, knife attacks, and other violence, the daily harassment and insecurity that the Jews live with in France, in the same streets where Nazis chased us.

So our hopes are dwindling.  Soon, as Jacob said of Lavan, the France of yesterday will be wholly unrecognizable.  But, as Emmanuelle wrote, we are armed with our infallible memory and we will not forget Sarah Halimi and what they did to her:

“We will remember for a very long time the cops hidden behind the door without lifting a finger, despite the screams and the heart-rending calls for help.  We will remember the judges, the experts, the reports and their findings, we will remember the trial and the appeals, the justifications, the television interviews of those doctors in inhumanity who purported to give us lessons in justice, the “yes-but” of the indifferent, of the cowards, of the meek, of the haters, of the miserable, and of all those who made a pact with Evil by feeding it excuses, justifiable circumstances, and unforgivable indulgences.

Our infallible memory will be the courtroom, boundless and eternal, which you thought you could escape for these crimes.

And one day, believe me, these crimes will be punished.

Because we, the Jews, have an endless faith in Justice….of the Divine kind.”

Amen.  May Sarah Halimi’s memory be for a blessing and may Hashem avenge her spilled blood.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Ari Afilalo ( is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.
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