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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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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.

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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.