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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.

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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.”

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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.