Friday, March 10, 2006

What is an anti-Semitic murder?

A few weeks ago a young man was kidnapped near Paris and retained hostage over 10 days while his family was asked to pay a large amount of money. One morning he was found agonizing, unable to speak and he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He had suffered knife wounds to the neck and 80 % of his body was severely burnt. A few days later the police was able to identify and arrest most of his kidnappers. It appears that the kidnappers formed an amateur group of which the leaders had tried over the last few years to ransom several individuals identified by them as being “rich”. It is believed that a mix of amateurism, stupidity, cruelty and fear on the part of the group’s members brought about the death of their victim. However, the initial intention seems to have been financial.

The victim was Jewish. While the group was still being dismantled a large part of the French Jewish community manifested its pain through spokesmen of important associations and organized a march in Paris. Some of the previous victims of the criminal group were Jewish as well and a part of the Jewish community now believes that the death of the last victim was the result of anti-Semitism. The judges that are instructing the case have so far adopted that point of view as well.

This has raised a debate about what anti-Semitism is. In this affair, the criminals have explained that they chose their victim because he was Jewish, believing that a Jew would probably be rich and that even if he wasn’t, coming from a united religious community, his family would be able to collect the money. It is very clear that they acted on the belief that Jews are rich. However it hasn’t been shown that their cruel behaviour had anything with him being Jewish. In other words, according to them at least, they would have behaved the same with any man believed to be rich. Of course it should not be ruled out that for instance they didn’t feel bad being cruel because he was a Jew; it would not be surprising. But it can’t be assumed either.

The reaction of a part of the Jewish community is in my opinion easily explained by the anti-Semitic climate we have in France. I don’t want to discuss the reaction which is probably the result of the feeling that racism against the Jews, amongst others, is surely growing.

What I find troubling is the idea, dominating in the media, that the sole fact that the victim was chosen on account of his Jewish identity is in itself anti-Semitism. It is surely stupid to think that Jews are rich and I’m well aware that this idea traditionally played an important role in anti-Semitism. It is also still a broadly shared idea in French society as a whole, one that people assert all the time without thinking about it. In my mind it fits in the same category as saying that black people have rhythm in their blood, that somehow it is easier for them to dance. It’s the same as believing that southerners are rednecks, or (a common one in France) that Americans are hillbillies, or (a common on in the US) that French people are pretentious. Stereotypes are one of the bases of racism and they can hurt in themselves as people act on them every day, saying things, interpreting behaviours etc. But it is a different thing however to deliberately try to hurt someone for the sole reason that the individual belongs to a given group: refusing to rent an apartment to an individual because he is Muslim, refusing to shop in a store because its owned by an homosexual, insulting someone because he is a Jew, putingdown a person because she is a woman or even fighting a hostile takeover because it will benefit a foreign company.

I think that every one understands the difference between thinking with stereotypes and hating individuals that are seen through those stereotypes. It can be said that stereotypes are racist in themselves, but then we must make a distinction inside racism between the one that is stupid and the one that is stupid and hateful.

However broadly accepted this distinction seems to be forgotten in the context of the tragic death I began with. In the media the stereotype used by the criminals is associated with the worst type of racism when it may well belong to the plainly stupid one. In my mind we shouldn’t be more severe with people who say that Jews are rich than with people who say that blackmen have larger sexes. In this case what needs to be punished are the crimes not the stereotypes, the criminals should pay because they killed a man not because, just as a large part of the French population, they believe Jews to be rich. What should be punished is cruelty not stupidity.

1 comment:

Biagio Mazzi said...

In what you say there is some truth, although you break down the situation in such small parts that after a while one loses the focus point. Is your main point that A kidnapping and torturing B because he thinks that B is rich as a Jew is different from A kidnapping and torturing B becuase B is a Jew? I agree there is a difference in degree, but at the end the substance remains, a bit like laundering the proceedings of crime: you can pass them from bank account to bank account, but the essence remains. I gather that what you say is that in the first case the act is filtered through stupidity (the stereotype) and therefore loses some of its racist nature. Again I think the conclusion is a bit jesuitic. One should not be punished for being stupid in general, but if this stupidity leads to a crime it should be punished and it should be shown that society does not accept this stupidity. After all, we need to grow.