Roving thoughts and provocations

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More on the Toulouse Murders and Anti-Semitism

Franck Prevel/Getty Images
The Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim and the President of the French Council of Muslim Faith Mohammed Moussaoui after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris, March 21, 2012

More may be said about the Toulouse murders and their aftermath. Abraham Foxman, the director of the National Anti-Defamation League, a specialist in identifying anti-Semitism, has described my recent NYRblog post on the killings of Jewish children, one of their parents, and several French soldiers, in and around Toulouse, as “a classic instance of ‘blaming the victim.’” This phrase also occurs in several hostile comments that followed and private communications via my website.

I would think that thoughtful members of the international Jewish community would recognize that the indiscriminate use of such accusations debases them, and that their use in attempting to discredit political critics of Israeli settlement policies, Palestinian relations (or recent efforts to promote an American attack on Iran), undermines debates that for Israel’s own sake should be taken seriously. Anti-Semitism, with its long and terrible history, ought not be trivialized.

In murdering the children, Mohammed Merah acted ruthlessly and despicably. We do not know enough about him to be sure he killed principally out of anti-Semitism, which is an irrational hatred with historical origins not to be gone into here. I would presume that he acted—in the case of both the children and the soldiers—out of what to him was a rational motive, to kill, or punish, those he believed or had been told were enemies of Islam.

The Toulouse and Montaubon murders were committed by an individual, not by an anonymous international anti-Semite. Baroness Ashton, head of External Relations for the European Union, speaking to a gathering of young people in Brussels on the same day as the school murders and expressing horror at these atrocious crimes as instances of the innocent sufferings of young people elsewhere, and mentioning in comparison children killed in Syria and by Israeli actions in Gaza, was not giving expression to the international anti-Semitism that some Americans think is rife in Europe.

I wrote the original comment because I was intrigued by the news report of a shooting of three French paratroopers, seemingly of North African origin, just outside their base at Montauban near Toulouse. Two were killed and a third gravely wounded. Four days earlier a French soldier of Moroccan origin had been killed with the same weapon (an old US Army Colt .45 automatic, one of many circulating in France after the war). It was suggested in some of France’s anti-Sarkozy press (it is election time in France), and subsequently in the international press, that the killings, and the school murders that followed, may have been committed by an anti-immigrant rightist, and that the presidential debate on immigration may have contributed to the political climate in which they took place.

What originally had interested me was why a presumed rightist would kill soldiers, especially North African soldiers (one actually was not), who were volunteers in an army fighting Muslims in a NATO war against Muslim radicals and terrorists in Afghanistan? Why wouldn’t a rightist French fanatic kill supposedly Muslim young men in French ghetto suburbs, wearing hoodies? Or prominent French Muslims?

On March 19, a man on a motorbike killed three Israeli children and the father of two of them as they arrived at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish School in Toulouse. According to Sarkozy’s intelligence advisor, Ange Mancini, the killer said he had not sought out the school but had actually intended that morning to kill more soldiers. He said he decided to attack the nearby school on an impulse, having arrived too late for the soldiers; he told police he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children in Gaza. (Toulouse, as France’s major center of aerospace and other high-technology industries, has a sizable Israeli expatriate community; the school victims apparently all had joint French-Israeli citizenship.)

The story suddenly changed. The killed soldiers were dropped from what now was a story about an anti-Semitic assault of international dimensions.

Thanks to the school’s security cameras, the police rapidly identified the motorbike and its possessor, and tracked him to where he had fortified himself in an apartment. The police unit involved is trained for hostage dialogue and taking prisoners unharmed. Mohammed Merah, identified as the murderer, spoke with them until late at night, describing his actions and motives, and repeatedly promising to surrender. Then he abruptly fell silent, and police monitoring devices could not tell whether he was dead, sleeping or still awake. He was awake and heavily armed. In the middle of the night, the police tried to enter, were met by a barrage of fire, and two policemen were slightly wounded.

The following morning, the assault was ordered, but again with orders to take him alive if possible. He resisted, and was finally shot from outside while trying to get out a window.

Political dignitaries congratulated the police. The children and the teacher were sent to Israel for burial. The French, who pride themselves on “solidarity,” staged citizen marches, led arm-in-arm-by rabbis, imams, priests, pastors, and political notables. Military funerals or ceremonies followed for the soldiers. The presidential campaign, which had been suspended, with both presidential candidates visiting Toulouse, was resumed. President Sarkozy announced that the government had banned six speakers who “maintain or who would like to take positions that are incompatible with the republican ideal” from attending a Paris Islamic congress this month.

A letter Tuesday afternoon from the president to French Muslim groups reiterated that no challenge would be tolerated to the principles of equality between the sexes, treatment in hospitals of both men and women by the same doctors, simultaneous access to swimming pools of girls and boys, and identical school canteen meals served to students of all religions. Anyone opposing these measures would, he said, be expelled from France.

Mohamed Merah killed Muslim, or supposedly Muslim French soldiers (the one survivor was Christian, and remains in a coma), because they betrayed Islam by joining the enemy army. He told this explicitly to the police negotiators who talked with him. Yet he had twice applied to join elite units of the French army (described in my original article), whose recruiters had met young men like him before, and they turned him down. Barred from military service abroad, he would seem to have chosen to affirm his undemonstrated manhood by becoming a jihadist at home, killing Muslim “traitors” in the French army — as he had himself proposed to become. (Or had he thought he would undermine the army from within? An unlikely proposition.)

I myself do not think he was directly influenced by any coherent ideology, given his lack of education and sophistication, evidently confused motivations, and the influence of the people with whom he associated. He killed because he was the individual he was. A banal conclusion; but the truth is often banal.

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