Monday, July 13, 2009

Two Anti-Semitisms?

An extraordinary thing: Philippe Bilger, the prosecutor in the "Gang of Barbarians" case, has reacted publicly, on his blog, to the latest developments in the affair. As you undoubtedly know, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has ordered an appeal of all the verdicts in the cases of defendants who received sentences inferior to those requested by the avocat général. But the family of Ilan Halimi, the victim, had already protested, through its attorney, Me Szpiner, that the sentences sought by Bilger were too lenient for the accomplices. Bilger further provoked the ire of la partie civile by distinguishing between two types of anti-Semitism, one associated with "violence, torture, and death," the other "banal, ordinary, widespread, and worrisome but in no way comparable (sans commune mesure)" with the former. Bilger, in additional comments to the press, expressed his belief that the outcome of the case was "balanced" and succeeded in sanctioning the great evil of the crime while respecting the individuality and humanity of each defendant.

I don't know the facts of the case well enough to comment on the severity of the sentences, but Bilger's remarks do raise an important issue. The point, in my mind, is not whether "banal" anti-Semitism is "comparable" to the lethal variety but rather whether it is an enabling condition. Fofana apparently found any number of people in his neighborhood sufficiently persuaded of the truth of the "banal" prejudice that "all Jews are wealthy" that they were willing to go along with his kidnap-for-ransom scheme. Some number of the defendants knew where the victim was being sequestered and what was being done to him yet did nothing to stop it. Perhaps it wasn't "lethal" anti-Semitism that made them indifferent to his suffering but "merely" a generalized moral callousness. Call it what you will. Its prevalence in at least one Paris suburb seems to me to warrant an adjective slightly more censorious than Bilger's préoccupant.

If the prosecutor hadn't offered his distinction between two kinds of anti-Semitism, many people would probably still have been disturbed by the sentences in the case. It may indeed be true that the sentences requested by the prosecutor were appropriate, but to justify leniency by introducing an invidious distinction between two kinds of anti-Semitism seems to me to beg all sorts of questions that would better be posed in some place other than a court of law.

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