The attack happened so quickly that most people in the school were unaware of what was going on outside until it was all over and the terrorist had gotten away.
Using ballistic evidence, French police quickly identified the gun which Merah used at Otzar HaTorah as the same one responsible for the killing of three French paratroopers of North African origin in two separate attacks the previous week. They then launched one of the most intensive manhunts in French history and quickly tracked him down.
As the manhunt was proceeding, the heartbreaking levayos for the innocent victims were taking place, attended by thousands of grieving Jews from all backgrounds.
The levaya stopped at Otzar HaTorah on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, from which the bodies were flown to Yerushalayim for k’vurah. Before the plane departed, a special memorial service was held at which French President Nocolas Sarkozy and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon were in attendance.
STANDING BEFORE SMALL GRAVES
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, and the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, were among the many dignitaries present at the levaya at the Har Hamenuchos cemetery in Givat Shaul.
The speakers included Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who said, “we cry but are strong. We will not let them break us.”
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger told grieving family members, “the people of Israel know how to appreciate your Zionism. I call on the French Foreign Minister, who is with us now, to increase security in all schools and do what ever has to be done” against criminals such as the Al Qaeda terrorist who carried out the murders.”
Juppe responded by promising that. “France will do everything to ensure nothing like this unbelievable tragedy ever happens again. France will not tolerate terror.”
Others who spoke at the levaya included Rav Reuven Loichter, Reb Shmuel Sandler and Rav Chaim Maloul. MKs Eli Yishai and Yuli Edelstein also spoke.
Knesset Speaker Rivlin said, “in Toulouse and Jerusalem, in New York and Buenos Aires, Jews of all factions stand with us with deep pain in their hearts and tears in their eyes. Again we stand before small, silent bodies, before small graves.”
He was referring to the Hezbollah terror bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people, and whose perpetrators were never prosecuted due to the corruption of local criminal justice officials. Two years earlier, the Israeli embassy in the same city was bombed, killing 29 people. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for that attack, although some believe that Iran and Hezbollah may also have been involved.
WILD BEASTS WITH HATRED IN THEIR HEARTS
Rivlin said that the attack on Otzar HaTorah was inspired by “wild animals with hatred in their hearts.”
There was an international outpouring of shock and condemnation over the attacks on the Jewish school in Tolouse and the French soldiers, as well as expressions of condolences. President Obama called French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who then issued a statement saying that “France and the United States are more determined than ever to fight together against terrorist barbarism.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also issued a statement “remembering young people and children who lose their lives,” comparing the attack in Tolouse to the terrorist attack in Norway last year and the humanitarian disasters playing out in Syria and elsewhere. However, she was criticized in Israel for including Gaza in that list.
REPAYING A DEBT OF KINDNESS
Rabbi Sandler had attended the same Otzar HaTorah school as a boy growing up in Tolouse. He became a rebbi there to repay the kindness the school did by taking him as a child and enabling him to become a shomer mitzvos.
His wife, Chava, who is now left with an infant daughter and is expecting the couple’s fourth child, said that her husband, “arrived in France with the goal to teach for two years. He traveled between Toulouse and Bordeaux in order to teach children with learning disabilities so that they could become well acquainted with the Torah. He gave his all to this mission. He wanted to bring people closer to one another, and he didn’t want to give up on a single student.
“People ask me how they can help me, and I tell them, ‘The only help I’m asking for is that you will keep mitzvos and become one with the words of the Torah.’ If this holy congregation will keep mitzvos, I believe that the souls of my children will be accepted in shomayim.”
In a more extensive statement in response to people around the world asking how they could help, Chava Sandler wrote, “My heart is broken. I am unable to speak. There are no ways for me to be able to express the great and all-consuming pain resulting from the murder of my dear Rabbi Yonasan and our sons, Aryeh and Gavriel, and of Miriam Monsonego, daughter of the dedicated principal of Otzar HaTorah Rabbi Yaakov Monsonego and his wife. May no one ever have to endure such pain and suffering.
“My husband’s life was dedicated to teaching Torah. We moved back to the country of his birth to help young people learn about the beauty of Torah.
“He was truly a good man, living, giving and selfless. He was sensitive to all of G-d’s creatures, always searching for ways to reveal the goodness in others.
“He and I raised Aryeh and Gavriel to live the ways of Torah. Who would have known how short would be their time on this Earth, how short would be the time I would be with them as their mother?”
In her grief, she added that she was consoled by her belief that, “the ways of Hashem are good, and He will reveal the path and give us the strength to continue.”
A MOTHER’S PLEA
In answer to those who asked how to bring consolation to her family and contentment to the souls of her husband and children, she said, “Let’s continue their lives on this Earth. Parents, please kiss your children. Tell them how much you love them, and how dear it is to your heart that they be living examples of our Torah, imbued with the fear of Heaven and with love of their fellow man.
“Please increase your study of Torah, whether on your own or with your family and friends. Help others who may find study difficult to achieve alone.
“Please bring more light into the world by kindling the Shabbos candles this and every Friday night… a bit earlier than the published times as a way to add holiness to our world.
“Pesach is approaching. Please invite another person into your homes so that all have a place at a Seder to celebrate the holiday of our freedom.
“Along with our tearful remembrance of our trials in Egypt so many years ago, we still tell over how ‘in each and every generation, they have stood against us to destroy us.’ We all will announce in a loud and clear voice: ‘G-d saves us from their hands.’
“The spirit of the Jewish People can never be extinguished; its connection with Torah and its commandments can never be destroyed.
“May it be G-d’s Will that from this moment on, we will all only know happiness.
“I send my heartfelt condolences to the Monsonego family for the loss of their daughter Miriam, and I pray for the speedy recovery of Aharon ben Leah, who was injured in the attack.
“Thank you for your support and love.”
MISSING THE SH’MA
A few days later, in an interview with an Israeli reporter, she advised mothers to be more appreciative of their children.
“Sometimes we get tired, hungry or nervous, and do not relate to our children or husband as we should, and we do not realize how important this is.”
She said that she felt a little guilty about being with her parents the previous Shabbos, which meant that she was not home to say “Sh’ma Yisrael” with her children at bedtime which she was careful to do every night when at home, even when she was busy with guests in the house.
Mrs. Sandler recalled: “That night I said: Well, tomorrow I’ll be back to normal and that I will not miss singing Sh’ma with them again.”
She added that she hopes that people will gain strength from this story, and that its impact will last for more than the first week or the first month. She asked everyone who wants to help to take a small mitzvah upon themselves so that, “in Shomayim Hashem will continue to take it into account and bring the Geulah Shleimah.”
GRANTING A LAST WISH
In the course of fulfilling their holy duties of chesed shel emes at the sites of various tragedies and terrorist attacks, the volunteers of the ZAKA organization are often witness to very difficult and tragic circumstances. But the chairman of ZAKA said he will remember an incident with Mrs. Yaffa Monsonego, just before the kvura for her eight-year-old daughter Miriam, more than most. Mrs. Monsenogo had a special request. She wanted to “say goodbye to her daughter and give her one final hug.”
As the others continued to the home in Bayit Vegan where the family would be sitting shiva, ZAKA head Yehuda Meshi Zahav took her to the Shamgar Funeral Home, where he granted the mother her wish. She then turned to him and said, “You’re from Yerushalayim, right? You do holy work. Say that I brought bikurim to Yerushalayim. That I brought the best of my children as a sacrifice to Hashem.”
President Shimon Peres paid shiva calls to the Sandler and Monsonego families. He listened as Yaakov Monsonego recounted his memories of the attack. “Yonasan Sandler and his two sons were waiting with my daughter Miriam outside the school. I was already in the shul located on school grounds when I suddenly heard screaming. I didn’t hear gunfire, just people screaming ‘we are being shot at.’
A MIRACLE IN THE MIDST OF TRAGEDY
“Then, after the terrorist escaped, we understood the enormity of the horror. At the same time, a great miracle occurred. A van blocked the progress of the scooter on which the terrorist had planned on riding into the shul, where dozens of children were waiting to be transported to their schools. Thus, an even greater massacre was avoided,” the grieving father said.
Yaakov Monsenego said that he and his wife will feel the loss of their daughter Miriam particularly keenly because “she gave our family the strength to continue our educational mission in France, given that her four brothers were far away in Israel.”
In his meeting with the Sandler family, Peres told Yonasan’s father, Shlomo, that “the madness and cruelty of the murder of an educator and three children at point blank range is difficult to comprehend. Israel will remember Yonasan as an educator who was murdered along with his children while on a mission of great importance.”
Before the levaya in Yerushalayim, Peres met with French Foreign Minister Juppe, and thanked him for the prompt action taken by French authorities following the attack.
Juppe said, “this was an abhorrent and unacceptable murder that can hardly be described. I came to express the solidarity of the French people with the people of Israel, which felt that its children were murdered. The blood of our two peoples was spilled in this murder.” Peres responded by saying that, “the people in Israel and in the Diaspora communities were moved by the expressions of grief and consolation that have been voiced in France and by the government’s actions.” He added that, “your arrival here and the actions of President Sarkozy in response to these harsh events prove that Israel and France are in agreement both in seeking peace and in the total war against terrorism.”
FRENCH STUDENTS IN ISRAEL MOURN FOR THEIR TEACHER
Last year, to prepare himself for his assignment in France, Rabbi Sandler spent time teaching at Boys Town Jerusalem in its “Naale Zion” program for French immigrant students. News of his death and that of his two young sons at the hands of a terrorist was taken hard by his former students in Yerushalayim.
“He was a wonderful teacher, and he was quite determined to make a contribution to Jewish education in Toulouse,” recalled Natan Encaoua, 16. “We all tried to talk him out of going back to France, due to the danger there for Jews. But Rabbi Sandler told us, ‘I must return there. I must give back to the community that gave so much to me.’”
Rabbi Shimon Abiker, the head of the Naale Zion program, said of Rabbi Sandler, “He took his work here extremely seriously, intent on honing his teaching skills so that he could succeed in teaching Jewish youngsters in Toulouse.” Rabbi Abiker also expressed his concern about how the attack on Rabbi Sandler and the deaths of the three Jewish children might affect the other French students at Boys Town. “Around one-third of our French students are here alone, with their parents and families still in France,” Rabbi Abiker explained. “And 100% of them have family and friends there as well. Nearly all of them have been victims of varying degrees of anti-Semitism while they lived in France, and they are quite worried about their relatives there.”
For 11th grader Eliezer Lavie, who is from Toulouse, the attack was devastating. “Eliezer knew the principal’s daughter [Miriam Monsonego] quite well, and he is in shock,” Rabbi Abiker said.
FRENCH JEWS AFRAID TO GO HOME
“The situation for French Jews is a terrible one,” echoed Natan Encaoua, who immigrated to Israel 18 months ago. “They live in constant fear of Arab attacks, and the government does nothing. These latest murders will make life even harder for those who want to enrich French Jewish life and education, like Rabbi Sandler tried so desperately to do.”
Liora Zachary, another immigrant from France, now living in Israel, said that French “Jews are being attacked all the time. Children, in the buses, in the Metro, going to school, coming from school, couples in the street — this is just an unbearable situation. And we are talking about France, we are not talking about some kind of jungle. This is one of the main countries of Europe.
“The Jews of France have always been very active in the French community, in the French market,” Zachary said. “They have contributed tremendously to France. And I don’t think this is the kind of treatment they should receive.”
ANTI-SEMITISM GROWING AMONG EUROPEANS
Concern for the security of Jews living in France and elsewhere in Europe is not new. The ongoing Arab public relations campaign there to condemn and delegitimize Israel and its supporters over the Palestinian issue has been particularly effective since the Al Aksa intifada began in 2000.
At the height of the intifada, there was a disturbing upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents across the continent, raising real fears about the security of Jews still living there. In Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in the culture, while in France, and other Western European countries where Jews are more widely accepted in the larger society, much of the anti-Semitism is attributed to the large influx of poor Muslim immigrants from the former French colonies in North Africa and the rest of the Arab world.
Jewish defense groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have been monitoring public opinion throughout Europe to try to better understand the extent of the security problem that the anti-Israel campaign poses to Jews living in European countries. The group has just released its latest poll, comparing the answers given by 500 people in each of ten countries across Europe when asked about their opinion of Jews to the answers given in a similar survey taken in 2009.
It found that the French today are more likely to believe that Jews hold too much power and influence, and other “classic anti-Semitic beliefs” than they were three years ago. Specifically, nearly half of the French people surveyed thought that French Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France, and more than a third felt that Jews “still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”
SPAIN, HUNGARY AND POLAND ARE WORSE THAN FRANCE
However, the percentage of anti-Semitic responses to the same survey were even higher in Hungary, Spain and Poland.
Anti-Semitism “infects many Europeans at a much higher level than we see here in the United States,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. “In Hungary, Spain and Poland the numbers for anti-Semitic attitudes are literally off the charts.”
Even though anti-Israel bias in Europe and sympathy for the Palestinians is higher than ever, before the Tolouse attack the physical security problem for European Jews was not high profile. For example, the Protection Service for the French Jewish Community reported that the number of anti-Semitic attacks on French Jews fell last year, although the average level of violence of the incidents was higher.
Another reminder that Merah’s attacks may not have been an isolated anti-Semitic incident, was the desecration of more than 30 graves in a Jewish cemetery in the city of Nice in southern France over Shabbos, less than a week after the shooting in Toulouse.
A NEW KIND OF TERRORIST
Meanwhile, anti-terrorism experts suggest that Mohammed Merah is likely part of a new generation of home-grown Islamic terrorists who have been inspired by al Qaeda but taught to act more or less on their own, making them much harder to detect.
Police got their first solid lead on Merah shortly after the attack on Otzar HaTorah. A scooter repair shop in Toulouse reported that he had asked there how to remove a GPS tracker device from his motor bike.
Rather than trying to conceal himself, Merah sought to claim public credit for his terror attacks. On Tuesday night, March 20, when police were already on his trail, he phoned a French reporter to tell him that he had recorded the murders using a camera and microphone strapped to his chest, and was posting the gruesome videos online. The most disturbing scene was of the attack on Otzar HaTorah, which showed the terrorist grabbing 8-year-old Miraim Monsonego by the hair and shooting her in the head just before he escaped.
The video of his first killing on March 11 showed him shooting a French soldier of Muslim origin in the head at point-blank range after telling him, “You kill my brothers, so I am killing you.”
On March 15, Merah shot and killed two more French soldiers, both of them Muslims, and critically wounded a third, a black Frenchman from the Carribean islands known as the Lesser Antilles. He attacked them while they were withdrawing money from an ATM machine at a shopping center in Montauban, around 30 miles north of Tolouse. The video of that attack shows Merah pushing aside an elderly woman who was also standing on line to use the cash machine, and shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he opened fire.
OUT FOR REVENGE
Merah boasted to the French reporter that he was affiliated with al Qaeda and that the seven murders he had already perpetrated were “only the beginning.” He said that he was taking revenge against the French law passed last year banning the wearing of the burqa traditional Muslim head covering, in French public schools; against the French army for its involvement in the war in Afghanistan, and “against the Jews who have killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”
About two hours after his conversation with the reporter, a heavily armed French police “RAID” anti-terrorist team raided Merah’s apartment on the ground floor of a five story building in the Cote Pavee neighborhood of Tolouse. Merah was heavily armed and prepared for the initial assault. He shot through the front door to his apartment, wounding two of the French police officers outside, launching a 30-hour shootout and siege.
About 300 French police cordoned off the neighborhood, evacuated nearby buildings, and tried to talk Merah into giving up. He initially seemed to be cooperative, telling police that he did not want to die and would surrender at 10:45 Wednesday night. But when the appointed time came, he changed his mind and told police that he intended to fight and die “like a Mujahideen”, weapon in hand, and would not go to prison. Merah boasted to police negotiators he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out his plans for more killings.
“If it’s me (who dies), too bad, I will go to paradise. If it’s you, too bad for you,” Merah told police.
THE FINAL SHOOTOUT
The standoff continued for another 12 hours, with police trying to distract and exhaust the terrorist before launching another frontal assault. At 10:30 Thursday morning, they decided to rush the apartment, entering simultaneously by the front door and through the windows. Police searched the apartment with video cameras, and when Merah was about to be detected hiding in the bathroom, he jumped out, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his black djellaba robe, and opened fire on police.
He then attempted to flee by jumping through a sliding window leading to a balcony while still shooting. Francois Molins, the chief Paris prosecutor heading the investigation, said that in his final attempt to escape, the terrorist fired so many rounds from his Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol that it sounded like an assault rifle. During this exchange, a bullet fired by a police sniper hit him in the head, and he was found dead on the ground about 5 feet beneath the apartment’s balcony.
While his death ended the immediate threat to the Jews of Tolouse and all of France, it also deprived police of the opportunity to interrogate him, leaving many important questions unanswered. These include whether he was working alone or as part of a larger terrorist plot, and who helped the unemployed gunman to acquire the weapons, including two automatic rifles and several pistols, and the vehicles he used in his attacks.
FRENCH MUSLIMS FEAR A BACKLASH
The attacks generated fear of a backlash against France’s estimated 5 million Muslims, out the country’s total of 65 million residents. The Muslim immigrants are already being blamed for much of France’s violent crime. Immediately after Merah was killed, President Nicolas Sarkozy went on national television to appeal for calm and unity among France’s ethnic and religious groups for the sake of the country.
“Today the French people must overcome their indignation and avoid giving free rein to their anger,” he said.
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, and Gilles Bernheim, France’s chief rabbi, issued a joint statement expressing “relief” that the perpetrator of the terrorist attacks had been stopped and calling on the French people to “reflect” on its meaning.
Sarkozy also met with Richard Prasquier, the national head of the Crif, the official national French Jewish organization. Prasquier also issued a statement saying: “It is absolutely excluded that we confuse this character – and the Islamist, jihadist, Al Qaeda-linked movement he represents – and the Islam of France, which is a religion like all other religions.”
But feelings within the French Jewish community still ran high, particularly over the brutal killing of the three young children. Olivier Athouel, whose child attends the same Otzar HaTorah school in Tolouse, but survived the terror attack unhurt, told a television interviewer that he was glad that Merah had been killed. He added that it would have done no good to put the terrorist on trial because he was not even human. “His life is gone, and so much the better,” Athouel added.
TERRORISM AN ISSUE IN THE FRENCH ELECTION
The terrorist threat is also a political issue in France’s ongoing presidential campaign between Sarkozy, who is running for a second term, and Marine LePen, the candidate of the right-wing National Front. The two-stage election will be held in April and May.
Sarkozy’s main challenger is Francoise Hollande, who hopes to become France’s first Socialist Party prime minister since 1955. Sarkozy has been virtually tied with Hollande in the polls for the first stage of the election to be held on April 22, but trailing him in the polls for the runoff to be held on May 6. However, since the shootings began, Sarkozy’s ratings have been rising in response to his strong leadership during the crisis.
While Merah was still at large, Le Pen condemned Sarkozy and the entire French political establishment for ignoring warnings about the danger from the growing number of Muslims and other immigrants now living in the country. Sarkozy responded on the night after Merah was killed by telling a political rally in Strasbourg that from now on, anyone in France caught visiting jihadist Web sites regularly or traveling abroad for jihadist training would face criminal prosecution, as would anybody who preaches violence to Muslims in French mosques or prisons. “France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil,” Sarkozy declared.
Le Pen countered by promising to drastically reduce the number of immigrants coming to France and warned that more such attacks were inevitable if France did not stop taking in outsiders. “How many Mohamed Merahs are in the planes and on the boats that arrive each day in France filled with immigrants? How many Mohamed Merahs are among the non-assimilated immigrants?” she asked to a chorus of cheers at a rally in western France Sunday. Later, she promised to bring “radical Islam to its knees” if elected president.
COMPLETING THE PICTURE
Investigators are trying to complete their picture of the terrorist. He was born in a Toulouse suburb, one of the several million French-born Muslims who feel culturally out of place in their own country. His acquaintances insisted that he did not seem to be particularly religious before he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan starting in 2010 for what he later described as his military training. Since that time, his name has been on a watch list maintained by the French Interior Ministry, and on the US government’s list of known or suspected terrorists who are not permitted to fly into the United States. However, French officials were not keeping him under surveillance.
Before he started visiting terrorist training grounds, Merah had tried to enlist, once in the regular French army and again in the Foreign Legion, but he was turned down because of his long record of juvenile offenses such as purse snatching and dealing in stolen goods. According to a regional French prosecutor, he had been convicted of petty crimes 15 times, and served two short prison terms in 2007 and 2009.
Israeli sources confirm that before visiting Afghanistan, Merah crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan in September 2010 and was allowed to enter Israel after being investigated and cleared by the Shin Bet. Based upon the stamps in his passports, Merah also visited Syria and Iraq.
WAS HE A LONE WOLF?
Previously, he had worked as a garage mechanic. He boasted to police during his 30 hour standoff that he had been trained by al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan, a part of the world where there are many terrorist training camps. He gave no indication he was following anybody’s orders or working as part of a larger group.
On Monday, French President Sardozy declared that Merah was acting as a “lone wolf,” without outside direction. “There is no (terror) cell,” Sarkozy said in a radio interview. “To our knowledge, there is no network.”
However, it was clear that he was getting help from some source to carry out his attacks, and French authorities suspect that it was the immediate members of his family, including his older brother, Abdelkader, 29, and his mother.
Abdelkader was known to have a long history of associations with radical Islamists. He was detained for questioning this week and explosives were later found in a search of his car. Preliminary charges have been filed against him.
Under interrogation, the Abdelkader told police that he is “very proud” of his brother for murdering his victims. “I regret nothing for him and approve of what he did,” he told investigators.
Police also say that the first victim, the French soldier who was killed on March 11 was lured to a meeting with Mohammed Merah by an e-mail sent from his mother’s computer with regard to a motorbike that the soldier had offered for sale online.
Police were initially uncertain which of the two brothers was the terrorist, but that was immediately resolved when Mohammed opened fire on them when they tried to enter his apartment. Police negotiators had also hoped that his mother would help to persuade him to surrender during the long standoff, but she refused to speak him, claiming that her son had refused to listen to her in the past.
While there is still no clear indication that the shootings in Tolouse were part of a larger plot, the fact that there are potentially so many more “lone wolf” Islamic terrorists like Mohammed Merah throughout the world, capable of launching such deadly attacks without warning, is a cause of deep concern for everyone.