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.”
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."
Toulouse is home to the largest Jewish community in France. The Ozar Hatorah school complex was established in 1983 and means “treasure of Torah” in Hebrew. The school is distinguished for a 100 percent graduation rate and is part of a network of 13 orthodox Jewish schools in France, stemming from educational institutions founded in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, in 1945, in what is modern Israel, partly with US Jewish contributions.
The slain north African French paratroopers spurred the Muslim community to swing into action with plans for special prayers on Friday, and calls for an end to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Muslim Council, admonished political candidates not to use the tragedy for electoral gain: "Although we are in an election campaign where some may be tempted to exploit," he said, "I think it would be a shame for those who travel this path to do so."
The issue of Islam and Muslims had already been raised in recent weeks via a debate on halal meat, which meets Islamic rules. How the issue will now play, with a serial killer claiming jihadi credentials, is unknown.
According to Claude Gueant, France's Interior minister, the three French paratroopers shot by Mohammed Merah, identified as the killer, were attacks on the French Army, and not motivated by the soldiers' North African heritage.
Over the years, there have been Paris neighborhood clashes between Jewish and Arab youths, with offensive graffiti and bullying, and a constant sense among Jews of often anti-Semitic persecution. But, says Messa, “Jews have a good life in France, overall. You can’t say the life of a Jewish person is difficult here. A taxi driver today told me, ‘The Jews have many enemies,’ but I said to him that this has always been true. But the Jews remain strong after all their enemies for centuries have passed. If we have enemies, it is because we have strong values, and our future is strong.”
Unlike the US, France has a traditionally intimate relationship with Arab states, and public sympathy had long leaned in an Arab direction in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, though in recent years France and Europe have closed something of a gap with Israel. However, some fundamental differences remain. For example, European leaders were far less accepting of the Israeli military action in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in 2008 and 2009, than the United States.
This view surfaced and reflected a European perspective in comments made by Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief this week. Speaking about “what happened … in Toulouse,” Ms. Ashton said, “when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria when we see what is happening in Gaza and parts of the world, we think about young people and children who lose their lives."
The statement was dismissed by Israeli president Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called it “not appropriate," with Netanyahu noting that Gaza was a defensive military operation.
Mr. Merah said he was "avenging the deaths of Palestinian children" in his murderous rampage, according to Interior Minister Gueant.