Tragedy in Toulouse

Searching for a motive in the worst attack on French Jews in decades.

France is reeling from a national tragedy on Monday following a horrific attack on an orthodox Jewish school in the southwestern city of Toulouse that left four people dead, among them a young rabbi and three children, and authorities in search of a motive and a killer.

French police are already linking the shooting to a series of attacks last week on French paratroopers of North African origin, whose unit had served in Afghanistan. Ballistic tests show that the same gun used in the school attack had earlier been used to shoot uniformed French soldiers in two separate incidents in the Toulouse area. Last Thursday, a gunman shot and killed two soldiers about 30 miles from Toulouse. In a nearly identical incident just four days earlier, a gunman had killed a paratrooper in Toulouse. In all the shootings, the killer had used the same stolen black motorbike to flee the scene.

Despite the connective evidence, questions persist over the motive. Thus the fact that several of the murdered soldiers were Arab and Muslim has fueled speculation that the motive in the school shooting cannot be reduced solely to hatred of Jews. Press accounts have accordingly described the murderer as a "serial killer," a "madman" and a "terrorist," emphasizing that his motivation is unclear.

Yet even the limited evidence available suggests that such descriptions may well be superfluous. From the systematic way that the murderer pursued the children through the school, shooting “everything that moved” as authorities have described it, suggests that the overriding goal was to kill as many Jewish children as possible. At one point, the killer reportedly cornered an eight-year-old girl, then shot her in the head. The school shooting marks the deadliest attack on Jews in France since the 1982 bombing of the Parisian Jewish restaurant and deli Chez Jo Goldenberg, in which six were killed and 22 wounded.

Moreover, while the school attack came as a national shock in France, it is in keeping with a pattern of virulent anti-Semitism, emanating primarily from the country’s restive Muslim population. On a less deadly scale, France has seen scores of similar attacks over the past decade, many directed at day schools and synagogues. In September 2009, aerosol cans soaked in gasoline were hurled at a Jewish school in Marseille, causing damage. Earlier, in January of that year, a car was set ablaze and crashed into the gates of a Toulouse synagogue. Another car, containing three unused gasoline bombs, was found nearby. In May 2005, three bottles of hydrochloric acid were thrown at the Sinai Jewish school in Paris. The children attending the school were playing in the yard at the time, though none were hurt. In November 2003, an arson attack destroyed a large section of a Jewish school in Gagny in attack. Nicholas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, said the attack had “an anti-Semitic and obviously racist connotation.” In 2006, the school was again targeted by arsonists.

While these attacks have been linked to surges in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Palestinian intifada, the consistency of the attacks over the years suggests that they are rooted in anti-Jewish enmity, not politics. No case more strongly illustrated the intensity of the hatred for Jews in the French Muslim community than the 2006 murder of 23-year-old Parisian Jew Ilan Halimi. Lured by a girl into the Paris suburb Sceaux, he was set upon by a gang of Muslim youths. After being brutally tortured, stabbed and burned with acid, his body was dumped on the railway tracks, where he was left to die from his wounds. Halimi's torturers made no attempt to hide their hatred. One gang member later said that he had put out a cigarette on Halimi's face because he "didn't like Jews." Monstrous as the murder was, equally shocking were revelations that many in the Muslim community knew of Halimi’s treatment and whereabouts, yet refused to report it to the police.

Based on the ruthlessness of the killer and his choice of victims, it’s hard to avoid at least the suspicion that the school shooting was the latest act of extremist Islamic violence against France’s Jews. The fact that the killer’s victims included Muslims does not necessarily confound the picture. In the past French Muslims have been as outraged about Israel and Jews as they have been by France’s support for U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan. Some French Muslim soldiers have even refused to serve in Afghanistan on the grounds that they refuse to kill fellow Muslims. Osama bin Laden, in one of his final declarations, had warned in 2011 that France would pay a “high price” for putting troops on Muslim soil. In that context, it’s not difficult to imagine that the attacks on the French Muslim soldiers may have been intended as retaliation for French foreign policy.

As they track down the killer, French authorities are right to focus on the evidence rather than the motive linking the crimes. The gunman may yet turn out to be a lone terrorist with no cohesive purpose. But the history of murderous anti-Semitism in France’s Muslim community counsels that there is nothing inherently inconsistent about the motives of a killer whose ideology drives him to kill both Muslim soldiers and Jewish children.

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