4 decades later, new trial of alleged 1980 Paris synagogue bomber offers victims opportunity for closure

World News

PARIS (JTA) — The courtroom was crowded but the defendant’s seat was empty on Monday as a landmark trial in French Jewish history got underway, nearly 43 years after the synagogue bombing that Hassan Diab stands accused of orchestrating.

An arrest warrant in the 1980 bombing that killed four people and wounded 46 was first issued for Diab, a Lebanese academic who lives in Canada, in 2008. Only now is a trial getting underway — and he has chosen not to attend, prompting criticism from both prosecutors and French Jews who are hoping for a sense of resolution after decades of trauma. 

“Hassan Diab’s decision not to appear before your court is a great disgrace to your jurisdiction,” the attorney general said during the first day of the trial, during a discussion of whether an arrest warrant should be issued, a move that would require the trial to be dismissed.

“Which human would not make the same decision?” replied Diab’s lawyer, William Bourdon, about his client’s choice not to travel to France to stand trial. “This decision is humanly respectable. It is in no way a sign of cowardice.”

The Reform synagogue on Rue Copernic that was bombed is nested in the heart of a wealthy residential area, in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. A visitor today would not be able to tell that the ceiling had once been shattered into a million little pieces, that the floor had been spotted with blood. If not for the commemorative plaque at the entrance, nothing there would show the synagogue was once the scene of a deadly terrorist attack.

Yet the trial is freighted with the fear and anxiety that set in after what is now known as the Rue Copernic bombing on Oct. 3, 1980, understood to be the first fatal antisemitic attack in France since the Holocaust. Since then, a string of antisemitic attacks on communal targets and individuals have caused many French Jews to feel afraid, both about their personal vulnerability and about the state’s commitment to their safety.

But while the prosecution of some potentially antisemitic attacks has not always satisfied French Jews, the long ordeal to bring Diab to trial suggests great diligence on the part of many involved. 

Bernard Cahen, an attorney for the synagogue and one of the victims, who is now in his 80s, promised he would see this case through until the end.

“Whatever the outcome, this has been going on for way too long,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview, adding with a joke, “Everybody is surprised I’m still here to represent my clients.” 

Cahen represents Monique Barbé, who lost her husband in the bombing when she was 37. Now nearly 80 and living in the South of France, Barbé won’t be coming to the trial. 

“I don’t have the strength. But I can’t wait for all of this to end,” she told JTA. 

About 300 worshippers were attending the Shabbat service and celebrating five bar mitzvahs that Friday evening when, at 6:35 p.m., a bomb exploded right outside the synagogue. The door was blown up, the glass ceiling collapsed on the worshippers; wooden benches were projected across the room. 

Outside the synagogue the scene was even more gruesome. In his book about the case, the French journalist Jean Chichizola described “cars thrown on the road like children’s toys,” “flames licking the upper floors of adjacent buildings” and “shop windows blown up all along the street.”

In what looked like a war zone lay four bodies. Israeli TV journalist Aliza Shagrir, 44, was hit by the blast as she walked by. Philippe Boissou, 22, who was riding by on his motorcycle, also died on the spot. Driver Jean-Michel Barbé was found dead in his car, which was parked right outside the synagogue where he was awaiting clients attending the service. Nearby, a hotel worker named Hilario Lopes-Fernandez was seriously injured and died two days later. 

Investigators quickly established that the bomb had been placed in the saddlebag of a Suzuki motorcycle parked in front of the synagogue. It was meant to go off precisely as the worshippers left the building, which would undoubtedly have killed many more people. But the ceremony had started a few minutes late.

At first, a man close to a neo-Nazi group claimed responsibility for the attack, misleading investigators for months before confessing he had nothing to do with it. The attack was ultimately attributed to an extremist group in the Middle East, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Special Operations, and investigators alleged that Diab had planted the bomb. After an arrest warrant was issued in 2008, he was extradited from Canada in 2014, indicted in Paris and imprisoned. 

But in a surprise to many, Diab’s case was dismissed in 2018, allowing him to return to Canada a free man. Prosecutors appealed, leading to another surprising turn of events in 2021 as the court upheld the earlier decision, directing Diab to stand trial after all. 

“This is a gaping wound for the Jewish community and here in France people remember this horrible attack,” historian Marc Knobel told JTA. “Let us not forget how shocked and hurt we all were at the time.” 

Indeed, outrage in the immediate aftermath of the bombing was fierce. France’s major trade unions called for a nationwide strike as a gesture of solidarity with Jews, while government ministers promised a speedy response and deployed police officers to other Jewish sites. Meanwhile, Jews marched in the streets, some vowing to take security into their own hands, in a demonstration that presaged longstanding tensions within French Jewry.

Over four decades later, Monique Barbé reflected on the tragedy that has changed her life forever. 

“This has ruined my life. I was nervously wrecked for a very long time,” she said. “Imagine, I had to go identify my husband’s body. At the police station, they gave me back his half-burnt ID card and his damaged wedding ring. That’s all I was left with.” 

But she questioned exactly how much the bombing and trial should register for people whose connection is more distant than her own.

“I do believe this is a necessary trial but except for those who lost their loved ones, I don’t see why anybody would still think about it today, it’s been so long,” Barbé said. “Plus there have been so many terrorist attacks since.”

Jean-François Bensahel, president of the Copernic synagogue, thinks this trial is actually of great importance even to those who were not born at the time of the attack. 

“It’s engraved in our community’s history,” he said in an interview. “It’s difficult for us to understand why Hassan Diab has decided not to come to the trial but nothing is over yet. I want to trust justice will be served.”

The attack’s most lasting effects may not be in the trial but in the heavy security infrastructure that is now familiar to anyone engaging with French Jewish institutions, Bensahel said. 

“Sadly, synagogues in France (and many other places) are all under protection, even though it’s completely counterintuitive to have security measures in a place of worship where you usually aspire to peace,” he said. “It shows something is not right with the world.”