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Jewish community draws solace from France's response to killings

Since a gunman killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, French Jews have been bolstered by the universal national revulsion over the attacks.

By Staff Writer / March 21, 2012

Mourners attend a joint funeral in Jerusalem on Wednesday for the victims of Monday's shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Nir Elias/Reuters

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Paris

Rabbi Ariel Messas was up early teaching Torah to children at a Paris synagogue Monday when his phone lit up with text messages of an attack: Four orthodox Jews murdered at a school in Toulouse that he knew. In a book-lined study room off the temple sanctuary, Rabbi Messas says he tuned his iPhone to a Paris Jewish radio station; all three sub-channels carried the news, and set the device on a heavy wooden table to listen: “It was just past belief.”

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Messas, whose father was a chief rabbi of Paris, and whose grandfather was chief rabbi in Morocco and then Jerusalem, draws a breath, and says through a well-trimmed beard, “you cannot say how you felt.... it was très, très mal, very bad, and it raised some dark memories of the past in Europe for Jews.”  

The gunman – a 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian heritage who claims to be part of Al Qaeda – was surrounded by police and died in a firefight this morning. But the question remains whether the shootings are part of a single cell or part of a larger team. “We hope it is just one person, one lone and crazy person … not something, you know, organized,” Messas notes quietly.

In the two days after the gunman methodically killed a rabbi and three children at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, attacks that followed the killing of three French soldiers, Jews have joined together in support, solace, and some fear. In Paris, every synagogue is holding special services and meetings during the week. At Ahavat Shalom temple, where Messas is chief rabbi, a half mile from the Eiffel Tower, for example, two blue-clad policemen with walkie-talkies monitor the entrance. 

The French Jewish community, at 550,000, is the largest in Europe, and many Jews say the targeting of their children represents an attack on the future. But many Jews say if there is any silver lining to the horrific tragedy, it is the universal solidarity and revulsion shown by all of France and its communities.

Gilles Bernheim, the grand rabbi of France, said Tuesday, "We are first of all French, Jewish or Muslim, attached to these [French] values​​, and when a religious community is attacked, as was the case in Toulouse through its school, it is also France that is being attacked.”

“My wife was crying when she told me, and I could not at first believe,” says Immanuel, a recent immigrant who was waiting outside a synagogue and said his wife was Israeli. “I don’t care if it is a Jew, a black, any person, it is shooting a child. Your children are everything. Who touches a child? Who grabs a girl by her hair with a gun? Who shoots? What kind of man is that?

“We’ve had a Muslim killed, a black, and now the Jews…it seems like we have a French Breivik,” he says, referring to Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who claimed to be a new crusader in killing more than 60 youths at a summer camp run by a center-left Norwegian party that promoted multiculturalism.

Messas says the most heartening thing in the aftermath is the overwhelming condemnation, the public marches and the cessation of the political campaigns in France, out of respect. “All the people of France are shocked … they have spoken about it all the time. Everyone, Sarkozy, all the [political] parties, have stopped campaigning.”

"It's a terrible personal tragedy. A family torn, a stunned Jewish community, we are all in shock,” says Richard Prasquier, president of the Representive Council of Jewish Institutions in France. “But what I would say is that I have seen in our country a national admirable response."

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