PARIS (JTA) — When Arie Bensemhoun, a Jewish community leader in Toulouse, woke up Tuesday morning, 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. Monday 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 over France. 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 being stationed at all religious schools and outside Jewish and Muslim institutions.
David Ben Ichou, the social welfare director at the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU), 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. He said more of the volunteers will be concentrated on Jewish schools and synagogues in the Toulouse region. “Until they catch the killer, they will be out in force.”
The main suspect in the shooting attack was in a standoff Wednesday with French police. Mohammed Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian descent who claims ties to al-Qaida, reportedly has been known to French intelligence for many years. Merah’s brother was arrested, and two police officers were injured in a shootout outside the home, according to reports.
Merah allegedly told police that he carried out the murders to “avenge Palestinian children.”
Gueant was quoted as saying that Merah “has made trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past … and says he belongs to al-Qaida and says he wanted to avenge Palestinian children and to attack the French army.”
Dozens of French police and anti-terrorism investigators were involved in the manhunt for the gunman and any accomplices.
The Ozar Hatorah school reopened Wednesday for the first time since the attack two days earlier, when 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 Wednesday morning 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 Tuesday morning to remember the victims.
Also Tuesday, 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 until Wednesday 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 Monday night, 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 Monday night 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.
Yardeni said there will be counselors and social workers inside the school to help the children and their parents. Police had been stationed outside the school since Monday’s shooting; Yardeni said they would remain there until the killer is found.
“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 Tuesday. “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 that 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 on Monday 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 remained hospitalized in critical condition Tuesday.
Police say the killer used the same weapon used in the shooting last week of the three French paratroopers of North African and Caribbean origin in the Toulouse area.
Gueant said Tuesday that surveillance tapes at the school showed the killer wore a video camera around his neck but said they do not yet know if he was recording his own carnage.
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.”
However, remarks by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the attack angered some.
“The days when we remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances — the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, 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 Sderot and in different parts of the world — we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the statements “inappropriate” and asked Ashton to re-examine and retract them. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak also criticized Ashton.
Ashton said her remarks had been “distorted” and that she drew “no parallel whatsoever between the circumstances of the Toulouse attack and the situation in Gaza.”