Faced by these fractures, France has hesitated to question its system. The lone-wolf explanation of violence, its attribution to psychotic episodes rather than Islamist networks breeding in the Cités, spared the nation self-examination. It was easier to speak of a single delirious mind than a delirious anti-Semitic mind, even if the core of the delirium was often this: Jew as devil.
Weitzmann cites a psychiatrist who examined Kobili Traoré, the man accused of defenestrating a Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, in 2017. His report found that the sight of Halimi’s mezuza produced an immediate association “with the devil” that amplified “the frantic outburst of hate.” A judge recently classified the murder as an anti-Semitic act after French authorities had been hesitant to do so.
An exploration of the French intelligentsia’s cultural paralysis — its tendency to find excuses for, or alternative explanations of, anti-Semitic violence — stands at the core of the book. Weitzmann recounts in great detail the case of Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old killer of three Jewish children and a rabbi at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse, as well as of French soldiers in the preceding days. These soldiers happened, like Merah, to be of North African origin — testament to the fact that French integration can still work.
Merah, later killed in a shootout with police officers, came from a dysfunctional family, plagued by domestic violence, petty crime and drug trafficking. His father, born in Algeria, was unstable, a sometime supporter of Algeria’s radical Islamist Salvation Front, the father of 15 to 20 children (nobody knows precisely). Merah had the odds stacked against him.
That, of course, is also the case with plenty of people who don’t end up spraying bullets through Jewish children or young soldiers. Still, Merah is widely portrayed in French media as a victim of France’s social and racial prejudice. Neocolonial anti-Muslim racism and discrimination lie behind the killings. “Do not generalize!” becomes the watchword in the aftermath of the attacks, Weitzmann writes. Yet Merah had been in Waziristan, he had received training there, he had told police negotiators during the long siege leading to his death that in Waziristan, he was instructed to “kill everything,” but fearing he would be seen as just “another crazy terrorist,” he decided to “just kill soldiers and Jews” — the French soldiers who fight Muslims in Afghanistan, the Jews who oppress Palestinians and run the world.
“Hate” is at times a sloppy, frustrating and repetitive book. It aspires to reportage without much of the hard-won, on-the-ground reporting needed to undergird that ambition. It often reads as awkwardly translated French — “the souvenir of the guillotine.” It can veer close to psychobabble — “Any system that pretends to authenticity must give way to psychopathy and violence, if only because it is the best way to communicate.” But it is redeemed by often illuminating intensity as it grapples with an unresolved French and European quandary.