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Who Is Mehdi Nemmouche, and Why Did He Want To Kill Jews?

In the first of a five-part series on growing anti-Semitism in France, an intimate look at the alleged Brussels Jewish museum shooter

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Belgian Vice-Prime Minister and Interior Minister Joelle Milquet, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, and Brussels Jewish Museum president, Philippe Blondin, take part in a ceremony in honor of the victims of a shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, on June 4, 2014. (Photoillustration byErik Mace for Tablet Magazine. Original photo: KRISTOF VAN ACCOM/AFP/Getty Images.)
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This is the first of a five-part series, France’s Toxic Hate. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

***

Nine a.m., rue Carnot, one of the quietest, most opulent-looking streets of Versailles, and the terror choreography’s already in full swing: strident sirens, red flashlights, flashbulbs, and yelling of the press. Two black cars with tinted bulletproof windows and circled by a squad of motorcycle cops enter the paved rectangular courtyard of a venerable edifice. The Sun King Louis the XIV had it built in 1672 for his wife Thérèse of Austria; she housed her horses here. After her death, the queen’s stables went to Adelaïde de Savoie, Duchess of Bourgogne, then to Marie Leszczynska, Queen of France, and finally to Marie Antoinette. Then the revolutionaries used it as a jail, butchering 14 prisoners there during the 1792 September massacres. Now it houses the Court of Appeal, whose task today is to debate the fate of Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged author of the Brussels Jewish museum killings.

Faces hooded, M-14s in hand, .38 caliber pistols on the side, the mute black silhouettes of the RAID team—the French equivalent of the SWAT—check every one of us as we pass the freestone walls and, across the courtyard, take the wooden staircase leading to the first floor where the court hearing takes place.

France's Toxic Hate

Nemmouche, handcuffed and with three RAID men to guard him, enters the court’s glass cage at 9:43. He’s 29, midsize, with black hair. He wears a colorless pair of jeans and a shapeless pullover, and he bears no sign of the brutal determination so obvious on the picture that the authorities gave to the press—an image that was probably taken at the police station of Roubaix, his city of birth, near the Belgian border, back in 2005 or so, when he was just another juvenile delinquent. No signs of fear, embarrassment, or shame. No trace, either, of the scary militia aura emanating from the museum surveillance videos that showed a black-and-white, blurred, muscular man, cap on his head, sunglasses on his eyes, and—just like Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse killer, had two years ago—a GoPro camera attached to his chest so he could film his murders.

Inconsequential, almost transparent, as he voices his civil status, answering in an assured monotone voice the three female judges facing him, Nemmouche could be any of the unnoticed kids that wander in my neighborhood in Paris all day long, from some café-bar to one of the many temporary employment agencies and back to the bar for another espresso, another beer, another petty larceny, just to kill boredom and pass the time.

Last May 24, a Saturday, at 3:27 p.m., according to the accusatory file, a man appeared at the doorstep of the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Out of his bag he pulled a Magnum .357 and fired. The bullets hit Emanuel and Miriam Riva, a couple of Israeli tourists in their mid-fifties who had just entered the place. Each was struck in the back of the skull, and they died on the spot. (Later on, a witness showing up a few minutes after the killing would post on his Facebook page a picture of Miriam’ s body lying in her blood, her hand still carrying the museum’s pamphlet program; what her children, ages 15 and 16, living in Israel, thought of the photograph is not known.) Letting go of the Magnum, the shooter then took from his bag a Kalashnikov, aimed it at a 65-year-old woman by the name of Dominique Sabrier, and shot her, also in the head.

A retired art publisher of Polish descent, Sabrier had left France for Brussels only two months before. Her reason for moving, ironically enough, was, according to her friends, the anti-Semitic atmosphere that now permeates France. The Toulouse killing had scared her, as had the hate demonstration in Paris the previous winter—when, for the first time since World War II, anti-Jewish slogans were chanted in public in the French capital. In Brussels, a city Sabrier knew, she hoped to live a quiet retirement. She had registered for law classes at the Free University of the town and was volunteering as a tourist guide at the museum.

Alexander Strens, 25, found the time to seek refuge under his reception desk—before the killer found him and shot him, once again in the head. Strens, hired at the museum’s communication department the previous year, was the only victim still alive after the shooting. Sent to the Saint-Pierre hospital of Brussels, he was declared brain dead there the next day. He died on June 6, raising the murder total to four. Although Strens’ mother is Jewish, his father is a Muslim Berber from Morocco and, in accordance with the wishes of both families, he was buried in the Muslim cemetery of Taza.

Then, with Strens—and with no more reason than it had when it started, the massacre ends. The surveillance video shows the shooter running away, bag in hand. He disappears.

***

Brussels is the capital of Europe. The day after the shooting, an election was held for a new European parliament. Xenophobic nationalist parties across the continent were predicted to win a lot of seats even before the killing, and as soon as the news broke the already perceptible tension among the continental political class was imbued with a new sense of frailty and paranoia: Was the scheduling of the massacre just a coincidence? Or was a message being sent—and by whom? Europe was under siege, no doubt, and humiliated, too.

The mayor and various members of the Belgium government showed up at the scene. King Philippe declared himself “outraged,” while the U.N. Security Council condemned “the terrorist attack” and its “probable anti-Semitic motivations,” and from Jerusalem, adding to the humiliation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the rise of anti-Jewish feeling on the continent. The president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and E.U. Foreign Secretary Catherine Ashton, denounced an “intolerable attack against the values of Europe,” while European Parliament President Martin Shulz, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and French President François Hollande all made the trip to the museum three days after the killing to pay homage to the victims.

In the meantime, though, on Sunday May 25, the people of Europe spoke, sending to the E.U. Assembly some of their worst representatives, like those of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, who had won some 26 percent of the Greek electorate, and Marine Le Pen’s National Front, who was now considered, with its 25 percent of the valid votes, the leading political party in France.

So, who was responsible for this disaster—the destabilization, the humiliation, and the shame? The Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir, in its coverage of the shooting, may have hinted at a one generally held answer when it used the word “settlements” to describe the real estate held by the Jewish community in town, of which the museum was a part—as if Europe was no more natural or suitable a home for Jews than the West Bank. (Never mind that the theme of the museum exhibition at the time of the attack was the antiquity of the Jewish presence in Belgium dating back to early Christianity.)

‘He’s nice kid, Mehdi, he’s a nice kid, how could he end up doing such a thing?’

That same idea seemed to animate the deranged response of the Belgian extreme-right deputy Laurent Louis, who, earlier in May, had organized with the French comedian Dieudonné an anti-Semitic rally in Brussels. When forced to issue a statement in order to exonerate himself from any connection to what had just happened, he implied that the massacre was nothing but a conspiracy carried on against him personally by his “enemies” (namely, the Jews) to discredit his action. And maybe not surprisingly in such a context, it fell to the esteemed Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan to openly express the view that the murders at the Jewish Museum were part of some larger Jewish conspiracy: “The two Israeli tourists targeted at the museum,” he tweeted on May 27—choosing the word “targeted” despite evidence that the victims had been chosen randomly—“worked for the Israeli services.” Ramadan’s sole ground for this statement, it seems, was that the Rivas were public accountants—that is, they worked for the state in which they lived. In Ramadan’s mind, anyone working for the State of Israel, apparently, was a spy and therefore a potential legitimate target for murder. The attack, he added, was “a diversion offensive to hide the true motives and the real perpetrators” of the deed: The Israelis, in other words, were sacrificing their agents in order to gain political propaganda points. Needless to say, Ramadan’s tweet made its way through the social networks, where it became a common meme and was integrated into news reports of the shooting as an interesting theory to explore.

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Who Is Mehdi Nemmouche, and Why Did He Want To Kill Jews?

In the first of a five-part series on growing anti-Semitism in France, an intimate look at the alleged Brussels Jewish museum shooter