’24 Days’: Because He Was Jewish

“24 Days: The True Story of the Ilan Halimi Affair” is not an easy film to watch. Based on a memoir written by the victim’s mother, the movie chronicles in excruciating detail the 24 days in 2006 between the abduction, torture and death of a 23-year-old Parisian Jewish cell phone salesman by a group of African and North African immigrants known aptly as the “Gang of Barbarians.” More shocking and disturbing than the physical violence, most of which occurs off camera, is the refusal of the French authorities to even entertain the possibility that Ilan was kidnapped solely because he was Jewish. 

The film opens with Ilan’s mother, Ruth (the superb Zabou Breitman), unflinchingly addressing the audience. “If my son hadn’t been Jewish, he wouldn’t be dead. It happened to me and my family, but it could have happened to others,” she says, leaving no doubt as to Ilan’s fate. Nonetheless, Director Alexandre Arcady skillfully manages to maintain a level of suspense and hope for the next 110 minutes as the events chronologically unfold, no easy cinematic feat.

The story is horrifying. Under the leadership of the savage Youssouf Fofana (a terrifying Tony Harrisson), a gang of multi-racial thugs operates out of a suburban public housing complex, plotting the kidnapping and ransoming of Jews under the theory that Jews are rich and the Jewish community would unite to rescue one of its own. In Ilan’s case, the bait is a sexy leather-clad girl who walks into his store, flirts with him and asks for his phone number. Later that night, she calls, asking him to meet her in a caf. While walking to her apartment, a gang ambushes Ilan and throws him into the back of a van. The girl was paid 5,000 euros.

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Fofana (Tony Harisson), leader of the “Gang of Barbarians,” made nearly 700 calls with ransom demands, insults, threats and photos.

When the Halimis receive a ransom demand for more money than they could possibly raise, they go to the police. (Arcady filmed all these scenes in the actual 36th Precinct Police Headquarters, the first
time a film crew received permission to shoot in that building.) The detective in charge of the case enlists a psychologist who specializes in negotiation. The two peg Ilan’s father, Didier (an understated Pascal Elb), as the more cooperative parent and enlist his help in negotiating for his son. He alone will have direct contact with the blackmailers, but the authorities will be calling the shots.

For the next three weeks, he and his ex-wife Ruth field over 650 vile and abusive phone calls, many of them anti-Semitic rants. Despite Ruth’s gut recognition that this is an anti-Semitic crime that does not fit into the government’s cookie-cutter approach, the police stubbornly stick to their conception of the case. Their failure leads to the sad, but predictable, result.

The film’s focus seamlessly shifts from police activity to the Bagneux ghetto where Ilan is held. In scenes eerily reminiscent of the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder (where 38 people heard her cries for help and did nothing), the kidnappers act in broad daylight in clear sight of the hundreds of onlookers who go about their business as if nothing is amiss.

Director Arcady said in a press release that after reading the line, “I would like Ilan’s death to serve as an alert” in Ruth Halimi’s memoir, he knew he was meant to make “24 Days” to bear witness to the martyring of her son, the first young Jew to be killed in France simply because he was a Jew since the Holocaust.

“We return to the old schemas we thought disappeared with the Nazis and the final solution. All the elements were there: a Jew, who is locked away and starved and tortured, before having his head shaved, being disinfected, and thrown into a forest with passing trains, who is later burned… All the themes of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust were reproduced during the abduction and assassination of young Ilan Halimi,” he said.

The epilogue provides the film’s one bright moment. After Ruth went public on a radio broadcast, the case sparked a national outcry against anti-Semitism and forced the government to treat it as the hate crime it was. Of the 29 suspects brought to court as implicated in the crime, 19 are serving prison sentences, including Fofana whose life sentence is without possibility of parole for 22 years.

Pictured at top: Ilan Halimi (Syrus Shahidi) kisses his mother Ruth (Zabou Breitman) for the last time. Menemsha Films

Celebrating the Miracle of Israel

The emergence of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust is no less miraculous than the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus.

Starting today, we celebrate a week of holidays that, like Passover, afford an opportunity to reflect, remember and reconnect to our Judaism. They also link that Judaism to the land of Israel. With Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), we commemorate how and why Israel came to be, and recommit to ensuring the survival of our homeland.

Yom Hashoah (April 16) reminds us that people are capable of unimaginable evil and cruelty. The lessons of the Holocaust and the dangers of passivity are unfortunately still relevant today. A global wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment has spilled over into dangerous acts of violence and intimidation against Jews. Life in the Diaspora remains difficult for Jews. What is different today is that we now have a safety net and its name is Israel.

Yom Hazikaron (April 22) acknowledges and laments the many who died to create and maintain the Jewish state. In Israel, where military conscription is mandatory, many families have suffered losses. For them, the holiday is neither abstract nor remote. They have paid, and continue to pay, the price to keep Israel free so that the world’s Jews have a place they can call home.

Yom Haatzmaut (April 23) commemorates the birth of Israel, the one place that unconditionally welcomes all Jews. On this day, we rejoice that we survived as a people and remember those who sacrificed and perished on our behalf. We forget the contemporary political and religious differences of opinion that may divide us and collectively marvel at the week’s journey from Holocaust to sacrifice to homeland.

What will we take away from this week? Perhaps a sense of responsibility and duty to safeguard Israel’s existence will inspire us to take action to contribute to her legacy. Perhaps awareness that we are all survivors will rekindle an image of a global Jewish family that can cherish Israel’s existence while acknowledging her faults. At the very least, we are reminded that Israel’s existence is nothing less than a miracle that should never be taken for granted.

Last week we ended our Seders with the words, “next year in Jerusalem.” This week we give thanks that, for us, that is a real option.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 16, 2015.

Younger Generation Speaks Up for An Infrastructure of Hope in the Middle East

Last summer, Ohad Elhelo received a phone call while he was home in Israel after volunteering to serve in the Protective Edge military operation in Gaza. The Israeli-American Council invited him to address a Combined Jewish Philanthropies-sponsored August 14 “Stop the Terror” rally in support of Israel that was expected to draw 3,000 people in Boston. The 25-year-old Israeli Brandeis University economics and business major wasn’t sure he wanted to accept.

“I believe in delivering productive messages — those that have added value. To go on stage and tell people ‘You must support the IDF’ didn’t seem productive because those people already supported the IDF. That’s why they attended the rally,” he explained.

“I thought, ‘If I am going to speak at this event, I want to give my own message, which is more complicated.’” And more liberal.

Elhelo believes military means alone will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It must be paired with a joint Israeli- Palestinian- American effort to rebuild the broken social and economic foundation of Gaza.

He calls this an “infrastructure of hope.”

Elhelo delivered a powerful six-and-a-half minute speech at the rally that went viral almost immediately, reaching over two million viewers http://www.ohadelhelo. com/#!video-gallery/cw47.

“Every round of violence in Gaza weakens the moderates and empowers extremism.

We say Hamas does not want peace and we are right. But being right is not enough. To succeed, we must be smart,” he told the crowd.

“The terrorist infrastructure is not just Hamas. It is also poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, desperation and a lack of political horizon. It is up to all of us — Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Americans — to build an infrastructure of hope,” he said, summoning the thousands gathered to rise to the challenge of building this joint Israeli-Palestinian organization.

Hundreds of people waited to greet him offstage, many to tell him that they could relate to his words.

“I love Israel and there is no arguing that,” the IDF Special Forces veteran of three military operations said. “Even when I spoke about some sort of criticism for the Israeli government, people were supportive.”

After the rally, he realized he had been given an opportunity to pursue a unique trek.

Right after the Boston rally, Elhelo was interviewed by major TV stations and newspapers in Israel and the United States. He also received invitations to speak at such high-profile fundraising events as the International Lion of Judah Conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, where 1,400 top female contributors of the world donated $27.2 million, and the CJP Major Gifts event in Boston.

At those fundraisers, many people expressed their support for what he was saying. “I came with a message that is slightly different from what some of the peace organizations are doing,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t believe in the “kumbaya” approach of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to talk about their feelings. “That is basically asking them to do what we want instead of what they want.”

Nor does he think about the leaders when he thinks about role models who can carry a message of collaboration and coexistence. “The current leadership on both sides cannot get along. That is a fact,” he stated.

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Ohad Elhelo and Lidor Cohen served in the Golan Heights, in 2011.

“I think about the entrepreneurs, the students, the young professionals. This is where I want to focus. What do young people care about? What prevents them from working together?” he asked. The answer, Elhelo believes, was they lacked a platform that interested them, one that focused on business startups, entrepreneurship and networking, rather than “coexistence.”

“My message was pragmatic and I needed to pursue this idea with pragmatic people,” he said.

He met with business executives and senior politicians, enlisting them to use their talents, experience and resources to help a younger generation make their voices heard and their constructive energy felt in the region. Brandeis’s senior administration was the first to sign on.

Elhelo explained his idea of setting up a foundation to bring outstanding Palestinian and Israeli students to American campuses to develop their leadership skills and build their own ventures with the goal of developing a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian leadership that will share a powerful vision for a common future. President Lawrence was one of the first to sign on and the Brandeis venture was born.

The cost for the program of two cohorts is $5.4 million, of which Brandeis is committed to contributing $1.4 million. The planning stage is completed and fundraising is in full swing. Projected launch date is either Spring or Fall 2016.

The Board of Advisors and list of mentors includes leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the U.S.

Under the  program, ten Palestinian and ten Israeli students will come to Brandeis each year for a 15-month Masters program in public policy and business that will focus on negotiations, mediation and leadership skills. Each student will have a mentor who has agreed to participate, including American, Palestinian and Israeli business executives and politicians, including parliament members, heads of security services and senior business executives.

The students will propose and establish their own ventures, up to three per year, from Brandeis and then bring those ventures back to their communities in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Elhelo gave an example of how the program is meant to work.

“If you go to a Palestinian community and ask the students, ‘What do your people care about?’ sometimes the answers will be fascinating. They might tell you, ‘We don’t really mind about the Israeli army but in our village there are no light bulbs on the road and there are many car accidents and that bothers us,’” he said.

If one of the  student ventures were to equip that village with light bulbs, then the single  fellow who returned to his village would be bringing change that the community wanted and needed. “That fellow will be seen as a leader. He is a change agent,” Elhelo said.

In the meantime, the recipient of the prestigious Brandeis University Slifka scholarship is a change agent in his own right. “Collaborative ventures are the answer. They are cheaper than rockets and have greater implications in the long run,” he said.

Pictured at top: Ohad Elhelo addressed the CJP Major Gifts event last fall.

It’s a Good Friday for a Seder

Passover and Easter are highly charged religious holidays. This year, the first Seder falls on Good Friday and it’s a perfect opportunity to reflect on some surprising similarities between the Jewish and Christian springtime commemorations.

Both memorialize important historical events central to the identity and belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, the Passover tradition is a powerful link that defines us and binds us as a people to each other and to God. We share the retelling of our Exodus from bondage in Egypt when God promised to save us and we were delivered from slavery to freedom. For Christians, the week of important historical events leading to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the backbone of their narrative as a people. Both stories are full of pain; both stories transform that pain into salvation.

Like Passover, Easter centers on the family and food. The Seder and Easter dinner are sacred times for families to gather, share a meal and renew their connection to their heritage through ceremony. Both holidays transform bread into ritual symbols. We eat unleavened bread, or matzah, to remember our ancestors who fled so quickly they did not have time to let their bread rise. Matzah is both the bread of our affliction and the sustenance of our freedom. For Christians, too, bread is both sacrament and sacrifice in the form of the Holy Eucharist, a wafer that represents Christ’s body.

Finally, both holidays acknowledge reverence for springtime, the season of renewal and rebirth. The egg, symbol of fertility and new life, plays a prominent role at the Seder as we dip a hardboiled egg in salt water to symbolize both new life and sacrifice. After the meatless (and eggless) Lenten fast, eggs became a staple of the Easter meal to celebrate the end of the privation of Lent. Today, dyeing Easter eggs celebrates rebirth through rededication of faith.

While we are certainly aware of the stark religious differences between Jews and Christians that Easter crystallizes, perhaps this year when we sit down to our Seder on Good Friday, maybe even as an interfaith family, we might focus as well on the commonalities that transcend those distinctions. We all cherish freedom, we all love God and, especially this year, we all revere spring.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 2, 2015.