newsJewish Diaspora

Bereaved father from 2012 Toulouse attack: ‘We’re not safe but life goes on’

Yaacov Monsonego, director of the Ohr Torah (formerly Ozar Hatorah) school in the French city, lost his daughter Myriam to the terrorist shooting.

The four Jews whom Islamist Mohammed Merah murdered outside the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse in March 2012. Credit: CST_UK/X.
The four Jews whom Islamist Mohammed Merah murdered outside the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse in March 2012. Credit: CST_UK/X.

On March 19, 2012, Mohammed Merah, a French-Algerian supporter of al-Qaeda, carried out a shooting attack on the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two sons, Gabriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6, and an 8-year-old girl, Myriam Monsonego, and seriously wounding Aaron “Bryan” Bijaoui, 15.

Eight days earlier, Merah shot and killed a French paratrooper of Moroccan origin in the city.

Then on March 15, he murdered two French soldiers of Algerian origin in Montauban, north of Toulouse. A third soldier was seriously wounded in the head while withdrawing money from an ATM near the barracks where they were stationed.

Merah was eventually killed when police stormed his apartment in Toulouse after a 32-hour siege.

Ozar Hatorah has since been named the Ohr Torah school.

Yaacov Monsonego, father of Myriam and director of Ozar Hatorah/Ohr Torah for over 30 years, spoke to JNS on the sidelines of the Yael Foundation International Conference on Jewish education in Paphos, Cyprus, on Tuesday.

Yaacov Monsonego speaks to JNS at the Yael Foundation International Conference in Cyprus, Feb. 20. Photo by Amelie Botbol.

“After the 2012 terror attack, security was significantly reinforced. After October 7, we strengthened our efforts even more with constant surveillance. We reinforced the three-meter-high safety barriers with barbed wire.

“Prior to 2012, we slept with our doors open. We are a boarding school, the gate was always open. We were never worried about anything. We now have 50 cameras on at all times, we hired security agents and an Israeli security company that intervenes privately to ensure the security of our students,” explained Monsonego.

He stressed the persistent feeling of insecurity experienced by the Jewish community in France, where more than 1,000 antisemitic incidents were recorded and some 500 related arrests made in the month following Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre of some 1,200 people in Israel.

“Before the 2012 terror attack, more than 200 students studied at our school, then we experienced a wave of aliyah and today we teach 140 students,” said Monsonego.

“We allocate a huge part of our financial budget to security,” he continued. “In addition, we often have the army and the police come to do rounds during the day. When parents drop their children off at 8 a.m., there are seven soldiers armed to their teeth and our security agents at the door.

We do not lose sight of the fact that at any moment, there could be another attack,” said Monsonego. “While I am convinced that the French government and the Ministry of Interior are doing everything they can, they themselves are surprised and overwhelmed. It is a situation which has been imposed on us.”

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a ceremony at the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris’s 7th arrondissement to commemorate the French citizens whom Hamas terrorists murdered on Oct. 7.

“It is four months exactly since 68 million French were bereaved by the October 7 attacks, 68 million minus the 42 lives stolen away,” said Macron at the event.

Another six French citizens were among those wounded in the Hamas invasion while another three are currently missing and believed to be captive in Gaza. Four others were freed in November as part of a weeklong ceasefire agreement.

After Oct. 7, France was rocked by acts of antisemitism, including the stabbing of a Jewish woman in her apartment in Lyon. Dozens of Stars of David were graffitied on the homes of Jews in the 14th arrondissement of Paris so as to “mark” them, and a bomb threat forced the evacuation of 20 Jewish schools in the city.

“What I told the children is that while we are not in Israel to show our support, we can still pray and our prayers will reach the Land of Israel,” said Monsonego. “It’s a way of showing our solidarity not only by acknowledging that the situation is serious while watching the news but by taking action, reading Tehillim [Psalms].”

Serge Dahan, vice president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), recently told JNS that authorities mobilized 10,000 police to protect some 950 Jewish sites across the country in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

“Another threshold was crossed,” said Monsonego. “There were things we believed could not happen, things that we told ourselves were impossible and yet. We are afraid that it will give ideas to these people who are stripped of any sense of humanity.

“We are at war, we know what we must fight against and protect our children from, and yet too many people remain ambiguous,” he added.

Monsonego visited Israel in December, when a “very heavy atmosphere” pervaded the country. He was there again right before attending the Yael Foundation conference in Cyprus.

The Yael Foundation currently supports 65 projects involving 10,000 children around the globe in 31 countries throughout Europe, South America, North America, North Africa and Asia-Pacific. 

“I’m going back to Israel once the event ends. It feels that life has somehow returned to normal,” Monsonego told JNS, adding that all his children live in the Jewish state.

“Fifty percent of our Ohr Torah high school graduates move to Israel. The sensitivity is there. It is a Jewish school with a soul,” said Monsonego. “Two of my students, Lior who studied economics and Sarah who studied medicine, decided to move to Israel after October 7.”

Sarah had been studying at the University of Toulouse, where in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks students wrote the words “Dirty Jew’ on her notebook. At that point, said Monsonego, she decided to make aliyah.

While France’s Jewish community at 500,000 is the third-largest in the world after Israel and the United States, this could change. Israel’s Aliyah and Integration Ministry recently noted “a jump of 149% in the opening of cases of those interested in aliyah from France.”

Aliyah and Integration Minister Ofir Sofer predicted that “the number of immigrants will increase significantly this year,” adding that “the situation is now an emergency.”

Despite taking every possible security measure, Monsonego said that his community has never been able to rebuild the same sense of security.

We know that we are potential targets, we just live with it, we are not safe but life goes on,” he told JNS. “We protect ourselves. Our children do not leave the school wearing their kippahs, those who wear the tallit katan put it away, they also take off their Magen David symbols. Even if they want to keep it on, we tell them that it’s too dangerous.”

Monsonego believes the powers that be in France could do more to counter Muslim extremism.

“I believe that we are not fighting terrorism and these fundamentalists enough. In the name of democracy, we allow things to happen that lead to this horror,” he explained.

“Even though this evil [Hamas] was there, it is this massacre, this genocide, which gave Israel the ‘right’ to act. But why did we let evil take over?”

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