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‘In the Beginning, the Brothers, They Told Me To Kill’

How did Mohamed Merah happen? In the third of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France, the roots of the Toulouse gunman.

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Mohamed Merah, in a screen capture from French television France 2, March 2012. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: AFP/Getty Images)
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This is the third of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

***

With some 20,000 residents, the city of Toulouse, in the southwest of France, boasts “the biggest of the small Jewish communities” of France. The Ozar Hatorah school, the community’s main educational establishment, with 200 students coming from all parts of the country, runs from grades 6 to 12. It is set in “La Roseraie,” a discreet residential neighborhood of detached houses fringed with flowers. Not much distinguishes the three low edifices of the school from the rest of this peaceful, silent area. Seen from the courtyard where children run and play, the modest synagogue could even be a small swimming pool or little administrative building.

Like the rest of the very assimilated Jewish community in Toulouse , the school’s remarkable feature is its lack of ostentatiousness. Indeed, until the killings of March 2012 that gave the place its instant worldwide fame—and made France the only Western country since World War II where children from 3 to 8 could be killed in the street, and in broad daylight, for being Jewish—the only thing the school was known for was its reputation of excellence. To this day, the Ozar Hatorah school still gives France each year 100 percent pass rate at the baccalaureat national secondary-school exit exam, 87 percent of which are scored grade A.

In the absence of Yaacov Monsonego the director, the school’s deputy Anne Werthenschlag receives me and takes me to lunch in the cafeteria. She explains to me how Ozar Hatorah’s success seemed anything but obvious when the school first opened in 1983, in a private apartment downtown, with no more than eight students. The school was conceived, she says, as part of the Ozar Hatorah network—an institution created after the war by Isaac Shalom, an American philanthropist of Syrian background. In 1910, Shalom emigrated from Aleppo to the Lower East Side of New York and, after making money in the shmatah business and contemplating the state of affairs of the Jews in 1945, dedicated his wealth to the creation of Jewish schools in the Orient—first in Israel, then in North Africa and finally in France, after most of the Jews from Maghreb were thrown out of the Arab countries and settled there, to slowly replace the traditional Ashkenazi population.

France's Toxic Hate

Toulouse was the third Ozar Hatorah school to open in France, after Lyon and Sarcelles. But for 10 years it barely deserved the name of a school. It took the charismatic Yaacov Monsonego (“Mister Monsonego,” as Werthenschlag calls him) to change that. A rav from a Moroccan family of well-reputed rabbis, Monsonego and his wife Yaffa had settled in Toulouse in the early 1990s. They were in their thirties, full of energy, and as soon as they heard of Ozar Hatorah, they set up the project to transfigure this nucleus of a school into an establishment that would be nationally recognized not only as a regular generalist school but also as a Jewish school and as a center of academic excellence. “This required determination, faith, and energy, of course,” says Werthenschlag, “but most of all it required good recruiting. To get the agreement of the state you needed to have more students, and in order to have more students you needed an excellent educational team. So, Mr. Monsonego looked for dedicated teachers regardless of their religious background. Teachers who believe in what they do, who think of their task as a vocation and have in mind, like us, the interests of the students above all. That’s always been the key.” Since the beginning, the teachers have been totally involved in the educational program—a curriculum that follows the Ministry of Education guidelines and to which 10 hours of Judaism are added. Freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion, are also welcomed and encouraged in the school.

How “religious” does that make the Ozar Hatorah school of Toulouse? “It is more like an experiment here,” answers Werthenschlag. “We provide the children with a kind of teaching and a kind of life they keep with them afterward. And it produces results. Let me give you an example. The school has a structural deficit that forces us to call upon the alumni for donations. We’ve been able to raise some 60,000 euros per year that way. From all over the world ex-students want to help, because they feel they should give something back. This mutual commitment: This is what helps to understand how Mr. and Ms. Monsonego succeed in waking up every morning despite what happened. It helps to understand how they walk through that gate. Their force is uncanny.”

***

Anne Werhtenschlag is a tall, blonde woman of elegant distinction, feminine charm, and discreet but quite energetic authority that indicates a real strength of her own. A notary by trade, she found the job at the school by chance in 2010, after she’d left Strasbourg, where she was born. “The vagaries of life,” she soberly comments. “I had small children and was in search of a job that would leave me room to practice my Judaism. The opportunity showed up, I took it.” Of the killings, she speaks only reluctantly and when she does, refers to them as “what happened.” “What happened happened,” she says, for instance, with a controlled, reserved voice that keeps feelings at bay. “It was, of course, a shock. One’s never prepared. Even the police cars in protection at the gates of the synagogues at certain points in our Jewish history in France, even the fact that it has, in a way, always been here, this threat. You know? You go to the shul, you say to yourself, ‘Well the police’s here.’ So what? Surely, if it happens at all, it’ll happen elsewhere. Not here.

‘Surely, if it happens at all, it’ll happen elsewhere. Not here.’

“And I’ll tell you something else. Maybe 10 days after it happened, we had our first dinner at the school with the students, Mr. Monsonego, some professors, and me. And someone at this dinner made a speech. And he said, in essence, that after carefully studying the question his conclusion was that we should be very careful because it was in the three months after the attack that a second could most probably occur at the same spot. And I thought this man is crazy! This is an irresponsible statement to make in front of already-traumatized children to begin with, and secondly, it doesn’t make any sense! But if I was right on the first point, I was wrong on the second. You see, I was thinking, since we’ve been hit once, we can’t be hit twice, can we? But of course we can. Not in three months, but in three years—or 30. The truth of the mater is that we have as many chances to be hit as anyone else—and maybe a bit more because we’ve been exposed.”

Here, Werthenschlag refers to the many threats and insults that the school received, aside from the numerous words of sympathy, after the killings. Phone calls and letters. (The day it happened, in a quite bourgeois Parisian school, Jewish friends of mine had their children insulted because of the killing; as someone I knew told me, reflecting an expanded state of mind, “We make too much of all this and it’s just because the children are Jews.”) On Facebook, a man even took pains to post a picture of himself doing the infamous quenelle, the anti-Semitic gesture popularized by the comedian Dieudonné, in front of the school.

“But I refuse to give up,” says Werthenschlag, “I know the context does not help. I know the Brussels killing has reactivated the trauma among some children. But if we give up, if we do, what then? Are we going to run away and live in a foreign country? What about the ones who can’t? I know that as a Jew, and as an Ashkenazi even more, I have to wonder where the limit is. Where I reach the point of no return is a recurrent question. There’s danger in being Jewish in France today. But on the other hand I feel as French as anyone. So, you have to find the right formula. You have to work in order to make the children succeed the best they can. To make them dream the way they dreamed before it happened. This is the most important. We can’t let ourselves be demolished. We can’t let our educational project be demolished by what happened.”

After the attack, when new, higher walls had to be built and barbed wire installed over the gates of the school, Werthenschlag asked, out of discretion, if those wires and walls couldn’t be transparent. And of course they couldn’t. When I first heard of that detail I thought of it as a touchingly naïve trait, a slightly ridiculous excess of delicacy—but now, listening to her, looking at those gates and walls, I’m actually of a different mind. And I think of that other wall: the label “Orthodox” given by the press to the school in their coverage of the attack. “An Orthodox Jewish school attacked.” Yet 95 percent of the teachers are not Jewish. Some of them had even had no contact at all with a Jew before they came to work at Ozar Hatorah. And, despite some pressure from their families, all of them stayed at the school afterward. Isn’t “Orthodox” all but an innocent word in a country where laïcité, the French word for secularism, is as ideologically charged as ever? And I begin to wonder if this is not what the attack was really about. Not just killing people, but to lock up an original experiment into the walls of a restrictive identity—to assign those people to a fantasized “Jewish communalism” to which French opinion could regress to explain the killings and to distance them from France. And I wonder if the discretion of the school, its refusal of ostentatiousness, even Werthenschlag’s reluctance to tell the tale of “what happened”—if all this is not, in fact, a counter-assignment, an elegant resistance to clichés, a way to remain free, and in charge. “I close my eyes,” says Werthenshlag, “and I hear the children laughing in the courtyard and it is like I am in any other school.”

***

The killings of March 19, 2012, at the Ozar Hatorah school actually started one week earlier, on March 11, in the south of the town, with the murder of an officer of the 1st parachutist regiment named Imad Ibn-Ziaten.

Ibn-Ziaten, a French officer of Moroccan origin, had posted an ad on a website to sell a motorcycle. A buyer had declared himself, an appointment had been made, but when Ibn-Ziaten had shown up, instead of buying the bike the anonymous person shot him in the head with a .45-caliber bullet. Witnesses had seen the killer fleeing on a black scooter. Four days later, March 15, early in the afternoon in the nearby town of Montauban, three other soldiers—Abel Chennouf, a Catholic of Algerian descent, Mohamed Legouad, a Muslim, and Loïc Liber, were shot a total of 13 times, with the same weapon, in front of an ATM machine. (Although paralyzed, Liber was the only one to survive.) Again, the video camera had spotted a young man, face hooded by a black helmet, riding a black scooter. Since then, because all of the targeted soldiers were Parachutistes—a corps that is known to be right-wing oriented—and because most of the victims were originally from Maghreb, the authorities had been directing their search toward extreme-right racists circles—a lead that would later prove to be one of the many blunders of the investigation.

“My son was in 6th grade and my daughter was going to the Gan Rashi school—the annex of the Ozar Hatorah for small children,” says Werthenschlag. “So, every morning bringing my son to the school, I used to take Mr. Monsonego’s daughter Myriam, 8 years old, with me, to the Gan Rashi with my daughter, and Ms. Monsonego would bring my daughter back in the evening. But that day my daughter was sick so when I brought my son to the school and little Myriam made a move to get into the car I said, ‘No, sweetheart, I’m sorry, I can’t take you today, I’m calling your dad right away to arrange another car to pick you up.’ She stayed with Mr. Sandler and his children and two interns. And I left.”

What happened five minutes later, in the perfect silent morning of La Roseraie during the office in the synagogue where most of the children had already gathered, has been told and retold by the press and on the Internet: how the man on the scooter, helmet on the head and with a Go-Pro camera on his chest, parked his machine right in front of the gate; how he pulled out a Parabellum 9-millimeter and fired a range of bullets, hitting first Rabbi Sandler, then his sons Gabriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6 (and as the video surveillance would later show, one of the children was crawling toward his father when the killer shot him); how he chased Myriam Monsonego into the courtyard of the school, hitting in passing Aaron “Bryan” Bijaoui, 15, one of the two interns who was trying to help the little girl run from her killer; how he grabbed Myriam by the hair and put his weapon against her head and pulled the trigger, and how the weapon jammed, forcing the killer to give up his 9 mm for a .45 ACP with which he shot the child at close range. Then, the courtyard now empty, with no other target in sight (the synagogue’s lack of decorum probably saving the children gathered inside) he got back on his scooter and left, leaving behind one dead adult and three dead children. (Aaron Bijaoui, although seriously wounded, survived.)

Nicole Yardéni, the local representative of the council of French Jewish organizations, was home having breakfast when her cousin called to break the news. “He knew because he had his two children there,” she said to me. “But I actually had to make him repeat the sentence three times. ‘There’s been a shooting at Ozar Hatorah.’ I literally did not understand what that meant.”

Yardéni is a warm, strong, middle-aged woman with a deep voice. On the scene, she says that what she found the most striking was—again—the silence. Parents at the end of the street massed behind police fences, not allowed to get in, their faces grave, totally silent. Their attitude impressed her. They had no way to know then who was hurt and who was safe, because inside the school, the bodies still lying in the courtyard and everybody waiting for the investigative team to proceed, children had been gathered into the refectory and were not allowed out. Still, no hysteria, no crying. Just the silence—and the waiting.

‘Psychological explanations did not interest me, sociological explanations did not interest me. What mattered was what this tragedy meant for France.’

She says that when she entered the refectory—the police had let her pass because of her status—she faced the children not knowing what to say and that the first thing that came to her mind was a sentence in Yiddish, “Schver zu sein a yid,” she knew from her father. (Her father is one of the last German Jews who actually witnessed Kristallnacht, before his family fled the country.) She said it in French: “You’re very young to learn how difficult it may be to be a Jew.” (Reference to past history was inescapable. In the dignified, strong press conference she gave that same evening, Yardéni said she had a thought for her mother-in-law, who lost a son and a daughter in the Shoah—a mention she says she regretted afterward.)

She says exiting the refectory she saw Monsonego unable to stand, carried by someone, and that is when she understood that her task, in the coming days, as local head of the council of the French Jewish organization, would be to be “a screen” between the school and the general public, constituted by the press, the police, and the many politicians threatening to flood in. The presidential campaign was in full swing, and the two main candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, already were on their way to the school. (They would soon be followed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Among the French, Marine Le Pen, from the National Front, was the only one not to call.)

“When Mr. Monsonego flew to Israel to bury his children,” says Werthenschlag, “he gave me the keys of the school—he put me in charge. That freed me from all the questions I could’ve asked in my mind. It all became about logistics. What to do with the interns? We had to send them back home in terrible conditions, one of them was wounded, others had heard, sometimes seen, what had happened. Fortunately, the rectorship sent a psychological team to help, and by and large, all the authorities came to help.” Messages of sympathy were received from all over the world. And two energetic women were in charge. “My only concern,” says Yardéni, “was to inscribe that tragedy in the national context. Jewish children had been killed, for sure, and I had no doubt as to the anti-Semitic motivation either. But who had done this did not interest me the slightest. I thought if we ever knew, I’ll never pronounce his name. Psychological explanations did not interest me, sociological explanations did not interest me. What mattered was what this tragedy meant for France.”

***

But what did it mean for France, exactly? A transcript of the four-hour-long conversation between Mohamed Merah—the 23-year-old killer of Algerian descent raised and born in Toulouse—and a Muslim police negotiator nicknamed “Hassan,” provides a chilling account of the young man’s state of mind in the years prior to the attacks. The dialogue took place in the morning of the 30-hour-long siege of Merah’s apartment, set in a residential neighborhood of La Côte Pavée, two days after the school killings, and one day after he’d been identified. An assault by the RAID team at 3 a.m. had been answered through the door by Merah’s shotguns, two police had been wounded, and the rest of the force had had to retreat, forcing the embarrassed authorities to declare a siege. At 9:20 a.m., in exchange for one of his guns, a walkie-talkie had been given to Merah, and the dialogue ensued.

After a childhood in what the police called “an Islamo-delinquent family,” in the heavily populated Toulouse neighborhood of Les Izards, Merah radicalized himself in prison but, as he says in the transcript, “Before prison I was already OK with what they [the Islamists] were doing in Algeria.” In April 2010, he tried to get in touch with local Islamists. Failing to do so, he went to Syria in July 2010, starting an astonishing trip that took him to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, even Israel, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, where he visited the ruins of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, waiting, as incredible as it sounds, “to be kidnapped by them so I could convince them that I am sincere and they could train me.” But he was not successful. (Where he found the money to travel is still a mystery today; as is the fact that he was all this time under surveillance by the French police who debriefed him upon his return to Toulouse only to apparently buy his false version of his travels, in which he was only a tourist.)

It was during a second trip, in August 2011, that he finally met “the brothers” who would initiate him into terror. And here’s the credo (retold in a French that challenges a translator): “In the beginning, the brothers, they told me to kill. A brother from Arab origin. He said I should kill everything—everything that is civilian and miscreant, everything. The gays, the homosexuals, the ones that kiss each other in public. He said, ‘Shoot them down,’ see? But me, I had a message to carry. And, er… I knew that by killing only militaries and Jews, the message, it would carried better. Cuz if I were to kill just civilians, the French population they’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just another crazy terrorist.’ Even if I had the right. But now the message’s different. Now I just kill militaries and Jews, see?”

It is not too much to say that Merah became in France, to the detriment of the easily-forgotten victims, an object of true fascination. Invited twice on the National Radio France-Culture that fatal week on an unrelated theme, I remember the first show took place the morning of the murder and I was the only one at the mic to mention what had happened; as for the second show, two days later, coincidentally the day Merah was killed, everyone in the studio was debating about him. Le Monde’s literary supplement, a few weeks later, went as far as commissioning and publishing a front-page short story authored by a French writer of Algerian background, Salim Bachi, titled “I, Mohamed Merah.” The story, which purported to get “inside the head” of the killer and presented Merah as no more than “a little brat” victim of France’s social and racial discrimination, was a justification of the crime in the name of fiction, in a bad copy of Jean Genet’s style. The debate on the left—where France-Culture and Le Monde politically stand—was not so much to exonerate Merah—that was just a cumbersome by-product—as it was to save the rest of France’s Muslims from any prejudices that might result from his actions: The words were “Do not generalize!” Even though Merah had his sociological reasons to act—so went the somewhat incoherent rhetoric—he’s a special case. There will be no more Mohamed Merahs.

The theory of the loner, remarkably enough, was even more popular on the right, with the head of the Central Interior Intelligence Administration, Bernard Squarcini, defending, against all evidence, the point of view that Merah was “a lone wolf.” In fact, after Merah’s death, his father tried to sue France for murder, from Algeria where he returned to live after being convicted in France of drug trafficking; Merah’s stepfather is known for being an Islamist; his son (Merah’s half-brother) Sabri Essid was arrested in Syria on his way to jihad in Iraq; his sister Souad was taped saying she was “proud” of Merah’s deed and according to recent intelligence has since moved to Syria; and Merah’s brother Abdelkader, today in prison for abetting his brother, a few years ago tried to stab Abdelghani, the only son of the Merah family who has apparently tried to escape the grip of Islamist ideology. (The reason for the stabbing, according to a book Abdelghani, 38, wrote, was his marriage to a woman whose grandfather was a Jew.)

Yet Squarcini had good reason to cover up the failures of the investigations. Toulouse Police had identified Merah before the school attack but had been forbidden to move by the Parisian team under Squarcini’s direct order. The rationale was administrative constraint—France is a notoriously centralized country—but politics may also have played a role. Squarcini had been appointed by Nicolas Sakorzy, who was president at the time. Sarkozy was running a populist campaign for his reelection and badly needed results in the area of security. The whole siege, in that regard, had been a media circus, with Interior Minister Claude Géant on the field in front of the camera non-stop, half PR for Sarkozy and his men and half journalist. The disorganization that ensued among the police force left Merah free to actually leave his apartment in the middle of the night, while he was under surveillance, to set up a future hide-out and call a journalist at France 24, the international TV channel, to whom he claimed responsibility for his action and mentioned the videotape of his murders soon to be aired, he said, by Al Jazeera. Then he quietly went back home. (Al Jazeera had indeed received the tape. Tellingly, the journalists in Doha had decided to wait for the emir’s decision on whether to air it. One imagines with dread what would’ve happened if France and Qatar had not been on good terms. To this day, no one knows if copies of the tape were made.)

The result of all this ideological and political turmoil was, again, to place Merah at the center of public life. He became a star. A minute of silence declared for the victims in all French primary and secondary schools was countered in at least three cases by teachers who felt they should list the killer among the victims. Walls were tagged with graffiti here and there in his memory. He was inspirational for Mehdi Nemmouche, the Brussels killer, and is regularly named by the “pro-Palestinian” demonstrators rioting in Paris these days.

Today, everybody remembers his name. As for the children, they’re just three unlucky kids from an Orthodox Jewish school. As someone told me in the aftermath of the murder, “What do they need special schools for, anyway?”

***

Part four of France’s Toxic Hate will appear in two weeks, with a look at the rise of the National Front.

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‘In the Beginning, the Brothers, They Told Me To Kill’

How did Mohamed Merah happen? In the third of a five-part series on anti-Semitism in France, the roots of the Toulouse gunman.