(March 20, 2012 / JNS) Three children and a rabbi were killed in a Jewish school shooting on Monday in Toulouse, France, sending shockwaves throughout the global Jewish community.
The gunman—Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin—stopped on a motorcycle near Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school as students were entering around 8 a.m., and opened fire on them with an automatic rifle.
Merah—a member of al Qaeda—is dead after police stormed his apartment Thursday. French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah was seeking revenge “for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign intervention.”
“The risk of fundamentalism has been underestimated in our country,” said the National Front party’s Marine Le Pen, a challenger to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “Certain political and religious groups are developing in the face of a certain laxness.”
French law enforcement on Wednesday first cornered Merah, suspected of killing a total of seven people (three French paratroopers in addition to Monday’s four victims) in three attacks that took place in Toulouse and the nearby town of Montauban over a two-week period. Then, the dramatic standoff between Merah and police dragged on until Thursday.
The victims of the attack on Otzar Hatorah were Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, 30, from the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, along with his two sons Aryeh, 3, and Gavriel Yissacher, 6, and the 8-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, Miriam Montesango. Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said the victims are being buried in Israel.
Sarkozy said Monday that the attack was an “abominable drama” and a “frightening tragedy.”
Jewish leaders react
Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said the shooting “is indicative of a society where intolerance is allowed to fester.”
Prior to the identification and capture of Merah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a “strong murderous anti-Semitic motive” for the attack could not be ruled out, and added that Israel would “do everything” to help Sarkozy and his government find the killer.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) dispatched extra patrols to more than 50 locations around New York City following the news of the school shooting in France, the Associated Press reported. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told JointMedia News Service that the Jewish community’s relationship with the NYPD “is extremely strong.”
“Synagogues could not have better protection,” he said.
Potasnik said the New York Board of Rabbis sought an immediate meeting with French officials to express its “outrage.”
Speaking on behalf of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, President Richard Stone and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said, “We are outraged at this savage act against schoolchildren who were waiting outside their school building at the beginning of the day. Not only did the shooter attack children at the entrance to the building but he also chased them inside…. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community of Toulouse and the entire Jewish community of France.”
The Orthodox Union (OU) also expressed solidarity with the French Jewish community, saying, “All Jews feel responsible for each other, and never more keenly when any of our brethren come under attack for no reason except that they are Jews. The horrific murders today of four Jews in Toulouse, France, were an attack on all Jews everywhere. “
In an interview with JointMedia News Service, OU Managing Director Rabbi Stephen Burg said, “To see something so cold-hearted done to children scares us. It makes you realize that there are those capable of doing something like this. Nothing is off limits.”
Burg said all OU-associated synagogues and schools have safety protocols in place. The greatest threat, he said, is that of “copycats.”
“It is the greatest fear in the world,” he said. “The lone wolf is the most dangerous—anyone can pick up a gun.”
Security in Toulouse
The Jews of Toulouse in southern France had so little to fear that six months ago, they decided they did not need a guard at the entrance to the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school, where Monday’s shooting took place.
“Everyone thought the security cameras and the iron door were enough,” a Jewish resident of the city told Israel Hayom on Monday. “A little after 8 a.m. that day, their confidence turned out to be exaggerated, and gave way to deep shock.”
The OU’s Burg cautioned that, “People need to be vigilant and to know what security measures are in place. Keep asking: What are we doing to keep our communities safe?”
In that vein, the Jewish Federations of North America-affiliated Secure Community Network (SCN)—which partners with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and 56 major Jewish organizations—provides free security training at www.scnus.org (click the “Enter” section on the homepage).
SCN’s 24/7 online training includes information on how to respond to an active shooter, security awareness, how to handle a suspicious package, and how to answer a bomb call.
—With reporting by Maxine Dovere and Israel Hayom