PARIS (JTA) — When Arie Bensemhoun, a Jewish community leader in Toulouse, woke up on the morning of Tuesday, March 20, he thought for a moment that the horrific shooting of three children and a rabbi at a local Jewish school might have been just a bad dream.
“Then the reality hit and I knew it was true and it had really happened,” Bensemhoun told JTA. “We are living a nightmare. It’s hard to describe the shock felt by our whole community. It’s worse than you can imagine.”
Despite their grief, Bensemhoun and other Jewish leaders in France lost no time in mobilizing their community after southwestern France went to a scarlet terror alert, the highest possible, shortly after the shooting, which occurred just after 8 a.m. on March 19 at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse.
Working in concert with emergency protocols put in place by the French government in the event of a terrorist attack, security was increased at Jewish synagogues and schools all across the country. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Interior Minister Claude Gueant called for a stepped-up police presence at Jewish institutions in France, particularly in the southwest.
Guards were stationed at all religious schools and outside Jewish and Muslim institutions.
David Ben Ichou, the social welfare director at the Fonds Social Juif Unifie, the country’s main Jewish welfare organization, said the Jewish community in France also has a Jewish community protection service consisting of volunteers who guard Jewish institutions in time of crisis.
“They were mobilized within two hours of the shooting,” Ben Ichou said.
The main suspect in the shooting attack was killed in a standoff with French police early on March 22. Mohammed Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian descent who claimed ties to al-Qaida, was reportedly known to French intelligence for many years. Merah’s brother was arrested, and has since had murder and terrorism charges filed against him.
Merah allegedly told police that he carried out the murders to “avenge Palestinian children.” Israeli officials confirmed Monday he had visited Israel in 2010.
Dozens of French police and anti-terrorism investigators were involved in the manhunt for the gunman and any accomplices.
On the morning of March 19, a gunman with a video camera around his neck pulled up on a black Yamaha motorbike and fatally shot three Jewish children and a teacher who were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two young sons, as well as the 7-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, were killed in the attack.
Thousands attended the funeral of the victims on Wed., March 21 at Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery.
“Your grief, your pain is ours too,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at the funeral. “All of France is in shock.”
Schoolchildren all over France stood and paused for a moment of silence the morning after the shooting to remember the victims.
Also that day, three former French
soldiers accused of having neo-Nazi ties who had been suspected of possible involvement in the shooting attack were questioned and released by French police.
Jewish community leaders had wasted no time in making sure frightened students at the Ozar Hatorah school and their parents received psychological counseling and help, according to Ben Ichou. The government automatically deploys counselors to schools after such an event, but the students and families at Ozar Hatorah also will have the chance to speak with Jewish social workers, he said.
Sarkozy, who suspended his presidential campaign for two days and flew to Toulouse after the attack, called the tragedy “obviously anti-Semitic,” and the interior minister called for heightened security at all Jewish schools and institutions in France. France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, has an estimated 600,000 Jews.
On the night of the shooting, thousands of Jews and non-Jews, including politicians, gathered in Paris for a silent demonstration organized by the French Union of Jewish Students. One banner among the many French flags held aloft by the marchers read, “In France, Blacks, Jews and Arabs are killed.”
“It could have been anyone’s child,” said Jacques Benichou, the executive director of the FSJU, in a phone interview as he was boarding a plane for Paris on the night of March 19 after spending a large part of the day with Jewish leaders in Toulouse. “Even if the killer was targeting other minorities, there’s no escaping that he targeted Jewish children as well. We all feel deeply sad and very alarmed.”
Nicole Yardeni, one of the leaders of the Toulouse area branch of the CRIF, France’s main Jewish umbrella organization, said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support after the shooting.
“What I’m focusing on is how we feel about the outpouring of support from our neighbors, the country and beyond the country that came so quickly,” she said. “Even the Jewish community of Istanbul has called us. And not just Jews. Many people all over the world have reached out. It has been such a great help. We never expected such an outpouring of support.”
Yardeni’s son attended Ozar Hatorah a few years ago and she, like many in the roughly 20,000 to 30,000-strong Jewish community in Toulouse, knew parents and teachers at the school.
She said that the Paris-born Sandler was an enormously well-liked teacher who had just begun work at the school in July. Not everyone knew he was an alumnus of Ozar Hatorah and, after 10 years of study and training in Israel, had decided to return.
“He wanted to give back to this school who had given him so much,” Yardeni said.
She spoke to reporters through tears after viewing the surveillance tape of the shooting.
Witnesses described the gunman as “calm” and “determined” as he pulled up to the school, dismounted without taking off his helmet, and started shooting. He first shot Sandler along with his two young sons, Aryeh and Gavriel, as they waited for a minibus to take them to their nursery.
When the first of the killer’s two guns jammed, he reached for a second and continued shooting as he chased pupils into the schoolyard, witnesses said. He cornered 7-year-old Miriam Monsonego, the daughter of school principal Yaacov Monsonego, and shot her in the head. He also shot a 17-year-old boy, who remains hospitalized in critical condition.
Police say the killer used the same weapon used in the shooting the previous week of three French paratroopers of North African and Caribbean origin in the Toulouse area.
Official reaction around the world to the attack was swift. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack had a “strong, murderous anti-Semitic motive.” The Vatican called it a “heinous” crime, and the White House said it was “outrageous and unprovoked.”