PARIS—On April 4 of last year, a 67-year-old Jewish woman in Paris named Sarah Halimi was beaten to death and thrown off the balcony of her third-story apartment in a public housing complex by a neighbor who shouted “Allahu Akbar.” It took 10 months and a public outcry that began with France’s Jewish community, the largest in Europe, before prosecutors officially called the attack an anti-Semitic hate crime. Last Friday, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was stabbed 11 times and set alight by a neighbor and a homeless man. This time, authorities immediately, perhaps even prematurely, called it an anti-Semitic attack. Gérard Collomb, France’s interior minister, said this week that before killing Knoll, one of the two men arrested for the murder had told the other, “She is a Jew, she must have money.”
A lot took place between the death of Halimi and the death of Knoll. It may seem cynical to point it out, but one of them is an election, whose winners and losers seem freer to call out anti-Semitism when they’re not trying to win the support of Muslim voters in the banlieues, or the working-class suburbs that are home to generations of France’s immigrant underclass. Another is a growing sense, one that has been compounded by every terrorist attack here in recent years, that something has gone wrong in France, and its institutions are struggling to keep pace. While there have been concerns about new strains of anti-Semitism in Sweden and Britain, to say nothing of Poland and Hungary, France’s challenges are unique. It is a nation founded on deeply held universalist republican ideals, on the notion that citizens are citizens, not members of individual ethnic or religious groups—no intersectionality, no American-style identity politics, no interest groups—and it has struggled to develop a vocabulary for religiously motivated violence, let alone a solution. The problem defies Cartesian logic and transcends traditional divisions between left and right.