Friday, March 23, 2012

Victims and Vultures in Toulouse

BEFORE and even after the victims of the Toulouse gunman were buried, the political vultures had gathered and fought each other over their remains. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his sons Aryeh(4) and Gavriel (5) were murdered at the Ozer Hatorah school on Monday, along with eight -year-old Miriam Monsonego.

The bullets came from the same gun used to kill three soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban, and because two of them were Muslims and the third of Afro-Caribbean origin it was widely assumed the killer must be a white French racist at first.

Instead the suspect was identified as Mohammed Merah, a 22 year old French Muslim, who reportedly claimed links to Al Qaida. Whether that organisation really exists, or not (as some people claim), it seemed to have lowered its sights a bit from high prestige buildings and spectacular targets to individual soldiers and small children at the nearest school. Merah said he killed the soldiers as a protest against France's involvment in the war in Afghanistan, and the Jewish children in "retaliation" for the deaths of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli forces in Gaza.

The logic of a racist does not change much either side.

As police besieged the gunman's flat, officials said they wanted to bring him out alive. On Wednesday, speaking to negotiators through a walkie-talkie, Merah had promised to surrender. Then it seems the unemployed panel-beater, who grew up on a Toulouse housing estate and had resented a prison term for robbery in his youth, said he did not want to end his days in jail. He told police if he went down in gunfire he would "go to paradise" and if police died, "so what?" He said his only regret was he had not got to kill more people.

When two explosions in the night took out doors and windows it was rumoured police had gone in SAS-style and taken him out. But yesterday it was Merah who burst out firing, and wounded five police before he was gunned down.

After arguing about the background and responsibility for the killings, whether it was right-wing leaders like Sarkozy and Marina le Pen competing to generate an atmosphere of hatred, or yet another atrocity attributable to fanatical Islam, the politicians, press and pundits have been speculating who will benefit in an election period.

Eva Sandler, whose husband Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and sons Aryeh and Gavriel were murdered at the Ozer Hatorah school along with eight -year-old Miriam Monsonego, had a quieter as well as more genuine message. In a statement published on the Chabad website, she said: "There are no ways for me to be able to express the great and all-consuming pain… May no-one ever have to endure such pain and suffering."

But she added: "The spirit of the Jewish people can never be extinguished. To all those who wish to bring consolation to our family and contentment to the souls of the departed: Let's continue their lives on this Earth." Urging people to honour the dead by good deeds, she said people should light candles this Sabbath and on others to "bring more light into the world" and asked people to invite guests to their homes on Pesach (Passover) "so that all have a place at a Seder".

Others were less pious in the lessons they wished to preach. When a known BNP supporter plants bombs to maim and kill Londoners, a Norwegian killer guns down young people at a summer camp. or an American Jewish settler fanatic murders worshippers in a Hebron mosque, we are told they are disturbed individuals who acted alone, whatever we know about their background. Not to mention an American soldier shooting children in Afghanistan. But once it was known the Toulouse gunman was a Muslim, and as the press said, of Algerian parentage, there was no holding back. French police looking for accomplices are holding three of Merah's relatives, while for the Jewish Chronicle's right-wing editor Stephen Pollard the Toulouse murders were just the "latest spawn of radical Islam".

There are questions to be asked, like how Merah, if he was a known extremist being watched by French security services, pace earlier reports, managed to stay loose, and acquire an arsenal of weapons before carrying out his attacks over three weeks. Reports suggest he was armed with an AK47, an Uzi, and several handguns beside the Colt 45 he threw out in exchange for a mobile phone. As he told police he had further weapons in a rented Renault Megane parked near his apartment building.

Since then French officials have been retracking, saying that though Merah had a criminal record and may have also been linked to Salafi religious extremists, they had no reason to think he was dangerous. But Sarkozy and his government are proposing to clamp down on "extremist" web sites and could use this episode to push through repressive political measures.

There is also wide concern among France's Muslims that because of the gunman's identity they are all being tarred with the same brush and stigmatised, and that unscrupulous political forces will use the affair to whip up more anti-immigrant feeling and racialism.

Seeing the victims of the school attack buried in Jerusalem, surrounded by the religious men in black hats, one could not help fearing that while the family's motives might be genuine and sincere, the tragic scene might be politically exploited by Israeli leaders, for whom taking in dead Jews is the next best thing to receiving live ones. I was reminded by contrast with the funerals of the six Jews that died in the Istanbul bombings some years back, and with the blessing of the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, had their coffins draped in the Turkish flag. This was a rebuff both to the terrorists who wanted to end Turkey's traditional tolerance and the Israeli embassy who would have liked to place their own flag over the coffins.

A Turkish diplomat explained "Our message to the world was - they may be Jewish but they are our citizens - they are Turks and they died for their country. This is how we see them."

For the Israeli government, as for the Toulouse gunman, even innocent small children must be regarded as state assets.

A critic writing in Ha'aretz recalls how Ariel Sharon once had to apologise for suggesting France was no place for Jews. "But there are those who apparently have failed to learn from his error. 'Today we have an opportunity to tell French Jews that if they will choose to return to the land of their forefathers, they will find a warm home here,' Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom declared on Tuesday.

"Remarks like that are grease on the wheels of the anti-Semites and those who would deny Jews in France the right to exist. The same is true of the decision by the victims' families to have them buried in the Jewish state.

"Sarkozy, Hollande, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe can declare from Thursday until Friday that 'an attack on Jews in France is an attack on the 65 million citizens of the republic.'

"The Jew-haters are more convinced by what Shalom said".

While Sarkozy may be grateful for the events in Toulouse pushing unemployment and economic crisis off the front-pages for now, he is maybe less sure how the mood of unity against hate crimes and terror can weigh down his efforts to compete with Le Pen in blaming France's ills on immigrants and foreigners.

After he hosted various religious and community leaders, including the leader of France's main Jewish organisation the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), it was reported that CRIF had decided to pull out of a joint demonstration involving Jewish and Muslim groups against the Toulouse killings, citing tensions between communities. One might have suspected an Israeli hand in that decision, but one critic claimed it was the French president:

"Before they went into the Elysee on Tuesday they were for the demonstration, when they came out, it was canceled! Sarkozy probably told them to cancel because a march would be good for Le Pen and therefore bad for him."

A demonstration in Toulouse on Sunday is still announced on the CRIF's website.

Reading that fans of the Beitar Jerusalem football club had violently attacked Arab workers in a shopping mall this week, I thought at first this was another case of blaming the innocent, and using the Toulouse shootings as excuse for a racist attack. But I see that the violence in Jerusalem - for which police made no arrests - took place on Monday, before it was even known that a Muslim man was wanted for the Toulouse killings. A reminder that Beitar Jerusalem thugs, whose team takes its name from the right-wing youth movement and is linked with Netanyahu's Likud party, don't wait for an excuse to engage in racist attacks.

Article in French on Mohammed Merah's background:

But also see:

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