Eye on the News

Stefan Kanfer
Jew Tortured, Times Fiddles
Paper puts peaceful imam on page one.
7 March 2006

Five years ago, New York Times readers were shocked to read an indictment of the paper by one of its chief editors, Max Frankel. Entitled “Turning Away from the Holocaust,” the article looked back to the genocide of World War II, noting that “only six times in nearly six years did the Times’s front page mention Jews as Hitler’s unique target for total annihilation.”

Frankel continued, “No article about the Jews’ plight ever qualified as the Times’s leading story of the day, or as a major event of a week or year. The ordinary reader of its pages could hardly be blamed for failing to comprehend the enormity of the Nazis’ crime.”

Alas, despite honorable sympathies for victims in Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the same evasions and willful myopia still afflict the paper when it comes to crimes against Jews. On January 21st of this year, for example, a gang of mostly Islamic youths abducted a 23-year-old cell phone salesman, Ilan Halimi, a French Jew. They held him prisoner in the rundown Paris suburb of Bagneux, a Muslim ghetto. From time to time neighbors entered the apartment where the young man was captive, either to watch him being tortured or to participate in his mutilation. Many in the area knew of the crime; no one said a word to the gendarmes.

Sporadically, Halimi’s family got calls demanding a high ransom. They could not make the payment. A voice on the phone barked, “Then go to the synagogue and get it.” Three weeks later, passers-by found Halimi slumped near a train station, naked, his ears and fingers amputated, his body covered with burns and stab wounds and eaten away with acid to remove all traces of the perpetrators’ DNA. He died en route to the hospital.

At first, the French government refused to recognize the mutilation-murder as a hate crime. Giving an excellent imitation of a foreign minister looking over his shoulder at some 5 million French Muslims, Dominique de Villepin reportedly reprimanded Justice Minister Pascal Clément, who made the mistake of quoting one of the accused kidnappers: Halimi had been abducted “because he was Jewish and Jews are rich.”

But after a large outcry from horrified and frightened Jewish groups, and from other French citizens concerned with justice, French officials went into reverse gear. It had indeed been an instance of lethal anti-Semitism, they acknowledged. Investigators almost immediately cracked the case. The ringleader—who had fled to the Ivory Coast, his parents’ homeland—was arrested and extradited. Officials rounded up another 19 suspects. Demonstrations and marches in support of French Jews took place. President Jacques Chirac attended a memorial service at the Grand Synagogue in Paris and spoke to the Halimi family. Intoned France’s Grand Rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, “From now on, in France, there will be the period before Ilan and after Ilan.” The story wound up all over the European papers: Agence France-Presse mentioned it on February 17th; so did the London Times. The Net and the blogs did not neglect the horror and its aftermath.

But readers would have difficulty finding any mention of Halibi in the Times. The paper first mentioned the story, briefly, on February 23rd, a full ten days after the victim’s death. It did not run a lengthy piece until March 5, when an account (on page four) went over the ground long trod days before by competing reporters. Yet over the same period, the Times found a lot of space—on page one—for a deeply sympathetic, cloyingly sentimental three-part series on a Brooklyn imam, Sheik Rada Shata, and his congregation of young people in search of love and understanding. Although 9/11 came up several times, the Ilan story went unmentioned. It seemed to have taken place not in another country but on another planet. “Imams like Mr. Shata—men who embrace American freedom and condemn the radicals they feel have tainted their faith—rarely make the news,” wrote Andrea Elliott.

Almost as rarely as the victims of their co-religionists an ocean away.

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