Analysis |

In the Wake of London Attack, Some Lessons From Toulouse

Five years after terrorism struck a Jewish school in France, one thing is clear: Jews are on the frontline of Europe's war against democracy.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A police security cordon remains around the Houses of Parliament in London on March 23, 2017.
A police security cordon remains around the Houses of Parliament in London on March 23, 2017.Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Toulouse five years ago, just a few hours after an unknown gunman had murdered a teacher and three children outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, felt nothing like a city that had just experienced the first major terror attack on French soil in 15 years. Beyond the police cordon on the side street where the attack had taken place, the city continued its comfortable life, the magret de canard in its restaurants as excellent as always and the Jewish waiter who served us a more reliable source on what local Jews were thinking than any of the town’s politicians and communal leaders.

Two days later when it emerged that the killer Mohammed Merah lived only 15 minutes walk from the school and police besieged his apartment, the local brasserie up the street continued a brisk trade. The cheerful proprietress was not only Jewish, but had spent eight years living in Israel — ironically on a street at the edge of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood which, for months at the start of the second intifada, was under fire from Bet Jala across the valley. Despite the attack and tense relations with the local Muslim community, the Jews of Toulouse weren’t planning on leaving.

Few remembered the Toulouse killings this week. Their bodies were flown to Israel for burial and they will be remembered on the Hebrew dates of their deaths. They would be joined three years later by the four Parisian Jews killed in the attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, who were also buried in Israel. It was perhaps fitting that they were brought to rest in the Jewish state, since many French Jews felt at the time that despite the politicians’ statements, they weren’t seen by the wider society as French victims. Just Jews. When after the Hyper Cacher attack, armed French soldiers were stationed outside every synagogue and Jewish school and community center, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur told me that “for the first time we fully felt like children of the Republic.”

But in some ways this was still not regarded — at least not by all the French — as a battle against France. It was Jews, it was soldiers and police, it was the irreverent journalists of Charlie Hebdo. They were being targeted, but not ordinary French citizens. Only when ISIS attacked the Bataclan Theatre, the national football stadium and the restaurants and bars in the 11th arrondissement in November 2015, did they realize that anyone could become a target. Today the attack on Ozar Hatorah is barely remembered, but it is clear that first they came for the Jews, then they came for the journalists and then they came for everyone else.

Each of the murderers of European Jews over the last five years, Merah in Toulouse, Amedy Coulibaly at the Hyper Cacher, Mehdi Nemmouche at the Jewish Museum of Belgium and Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein at the synagogue in Copenhagen had killed non-Jews elsewhere as well.

Jewish people link arms in a silent march to honour the victims of a shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school, where a rabbi and three children were killed, in Toulouse March 25, 2012. Credit: Reuters

Glib American pundits wrote in 2015 that Jews don’t have a future in Europe. You don’t read that kind of stuff anymore. Jews are no longer the main targets because they are no longer the most vulnerable targets; their synagogues and neighborhoods are protected like never before by the police and local security services. For the first time Europe is protecting its Jews and there hasn’t been a successful attack on them for over two years. It’s a bit more difficult to protect the entire population from ramming attacks in markets and on promenades and on the Westminster Bridge leading to parliament in London. And anyway, where would the Jews of Europe escape to?

People hold French and Israeli (L) flags as they attend a silent march in Paris March 19, 2012, to pay tribute to the four victims killed by a gunman at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday. Credit: Reuters

The United States is undergoing a wave of anti-Semitism of its own. Latin America was the scene of the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust when the Argentina failed to protect its Jews from an Iranian attack in 1994. Israel may be the ultimate haven but statistically, an Israeli Jew has a greater chance than a European Jew of being murdered in a terror attack. There’s nowhere to run to — and this isn’t a pessimistic conclusion.

The exodus of Jews from Europe, predicted for the last two years, has failed to materialize. The number of Jews emigrating from France has actually gone down and is proportional to the number of middle-class French citizens leaving due to high taxes and lack of employment prospects. The only European countries from which the number of Jews leaving has grown significantly over the last two years are Russia and Ukraine. Jews are fleeing Putin, not Islamic terror or anti-Semitism.

As Wednesday’s attack outside London’s Parliament proved once again: Attacks against Jews in Europe are part of a much wider war being waged against European democracy. In that struggle the Jews are often on the frontline as victims, but they are also those standing up for all that is good in the European values of enlightenment and democracy. A Europe where having a good meal is suddenly not only an act of defiant normalcy but also a demonstration of living proudly as European Jews.

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