TOULOUSE - One of the many contradictory remarks made by French Interior Minister Claude Gueant during the protracted saga of the shootings and siege in southwest France this week was that the terrorist Mohamed Merah "wanted to kill another soldier, but did not find anyone so he turned to the Jewish school and killed the teacher and three children."
It reminded me of the old joke about the man walking up a street in Northern Ireland during the time of the Troubles. Someone sticks a gun in his back and demands "are you Protestant or Catholic?"
"It's OK" answers the man with a sigh of relief, "I'm Jewish."
To which the gunman responds, "I must be the luckiest Palestinian in Belfast tonight."
Perhaps I should apologize for writing jokes during the week of the worst anti-Semitic attack in Western Europe for nearly three decades, but having seen the Ozar Hatorah high school in Toulouse this week and after interviewing some of the eye-witnesses to the attack, the idea that Merah just turned up at the school on the off chance and killed a rabbi and three young children is so ridiculous as to be laughable. The Jewish high school is in a small, sleepy side-street in a quiet neighborhood, and there are no signposts indicating it. Despite high security fences and surveillance cameras, there was no guard at the gate and Merah arrived on his motor scooter exactly at the hour when parents were dropping off children, men were arriving for morning prayers and younger children were waiting for their bus to the Jewish primary school.
There is no way that such an attack could have been carried out unless Mareh scouted out the target in advance, observing it at length to find the most advantageous timing for his purpose.
I don't know to what purpose Monsieur Gueant tried to portray the murders at Ozar Hatorah as a chance attack. Perhaps Merah just succeeded easily in hoodwinking him or maybe he was clumsily trying to portray the failures of the security establishment under his responsibility in a more favorable light. It didn't seem to work in any way. I did not meet anyone in Toulouse who believed that the rabbi and three children were anything other than deliberate targets of an anti-Semitic terror attack.
But should the deaths of Jewish citizens be regarded any differently than those of other creeds? And the safety of those living? Ultimately, the security of any citizen, of any religion, age or ethnicity, is the responsibility of the state.
It's not surprising that around the world, Jewish communities have developed exceptionally sophisticated systems of protecting themselves - in many places they have had little choice. Sometimes this is with aid and advice from Israel; most often they work very closely with the state security services themselves - another example of successful (while regrettable ) Jewish integration into mainstream society.
In Britain, for instance, the Community Security Trust enjoys an immensely cooperative relationship with the police and intelligence services, and because of basic trust in the security system, anti-Semitic attacks are likely much more often reported than attacks against other ethnic minorities who have less faith in the state's interests in protecting them.
But Jews also like to do it for themselves, having experienced not infrequent examples throughout history where supposedly friendly societies have failed to look out for their interests.
So could more have been done to protect the school in Toulouse? It's too early to say, before all the evidence has been collected and collated, but one painful irony is that it was the community members themselves who actually reduced security measures recently. They made the reasonable calculation that doing this would save money that would allow them to make the school fees cheaper to attract more Jewish families, as currently only 30 percent of Jewish kids in Toulouse go to Jewish schools. And that is certainly not irrational, because one could very plausibly argue that increasing the number of children able to access a Jewish education was a more sensible investment than security guards and hi-tech wire fences, especially in a pleasant south-of-France city almost entirely untroubled by anti-Semitic incidents.
Had there been more security - another barrier perhaps - it may have made the gunman think twice and choose a more vulnerable target. It is also important to note the psychological effect security measures have on the people they are supposed to protect, serving not only as a deterrent to terrorism, but also a boost to those who feel vulnerable to attack. The problem is getting the balance right.
One paradox Israelis like to note is how at home, shopping centers have heavy security while synagogues have none. In the Diaspora, the opposite is true, with places of prayer often more heavily protected than banks.
Do we want Jewish children to attend school in buildings akin to fortresses? Do we want them to wear baseball caps over their kippot in case some malevolent element spots them as a potential target? Is the best security to be invisible, to blend into the landscape? What does this mean for the status of Jews as integrated citizens with equal rights?
This is not a solely Jewish concern, of course. Think of the U.S. high schools occasionally swept by murderous gun rampages by disgruntled former students, a phenomenon that now seems to have become a peculiar part of modern American life. How do you ensure safety for students without instilling paranoia and installing metal detectors in every corridor to protect them against an appalling (but still exceptionally rare ) outcome?
Ultimately, the most effective form of security is the hidden one - a heightened awareness on the part of intelligence and police services of the sources of hatred, and the potential threats and willingness to take measures preventing the threats from materializing. This is what Jewish leaders around the world should be pushing their government to emphasize. Not only would it guarantee more safety than armed gendarmes at school gates and barricading children in fortresses, it would also be for the good of all children, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jewish.
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