French Jews in Southern California reacted with sadness and disgust, but not surprise, to the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left three children and one teacher dead.
“In France you are scared – you cannot even wear a kippah on the street,” said Francky Perez, who moved with his wife from Paris to Los Angeles three years ago to allow their children, now 6 and 7, to express their Judaism in a safe environment. “Even if what happened in Toulouse turns out not to be anti-Semitism, you cannot pretend that hate doesn’t exist in France. It’s a reality.”
At press time Tuesday, the gunman remained at large. On Monday, a man on a motorcycle opened fire as students and parents were entering Ozar Hatorah at the start of the day, then chased students into the school as he continued shooting. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two sons, Gavriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6, were killed. The school’s principal, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego, saw his 7-year-old daughter Miriam killed in front of him. A 17-year-old boy is in critical condition.
The area in southwestern France remains under heavy security.
“We’re all absolutely shocked. A tragedy like this shows the worst of human nature, if we can still talk about human nature in this case,” said David Martinon, France’s consul general in Los Angeles.
French investigators have linked the shooting at the 200-student school to two shootings in the area last week that killed three soldiers and left another critically injured. The soldiers were of North African and Caribbean descent.
“Even though the anti-Semitic aspect of the murders at the school is evident and absolutely horrible, it is difficult to draw a conclusion from all three incidents,” Martinon said. “We have to let the police do their work and arrive at their results.”
Martinon said that while anti-Semitism is undeniably an issue in France, the government works closely with law enforcement and the Jewish community to address it.
Whether the shooting was the work of a crazed gunman or an organized neo-Nazi or anti-Israel cell, it should raise alarms for Jews all over, said Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“What we do know is that this is a new level of evil, because when a shooter on a motorcycle targets innocent children … this is a wake up call,” Hier said. “This is not a swastika on Jewish school or a synagogue; this is murder and mayhem.”
The Anti-Defamation League said law enforcement does not believe there is any increase in the threat level to American Jewish institutions, but the watchdog organization warned of possible copycat attacks and reminded schools and institutions to review standing security procedures.
Miriam Prum-Hess, director of the Centers for Excellence in Day School Education and Educational Engagement at the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, said she received phone calls from schools concerned about security.
At Kadima Academy in West Hills, the administration tightened security and kept a close eye on the front gate, according to head of school Bill Cohen.
Kadima middle-school students wrote letters of support to the students in Toulouse, and several schools said special prayers for the victims and survivors.
France, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, had 389 reported acts of anti-Semitism in 2011, according to Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.
France is working hard to fight anti-Semitism, according to a press officer at the French consulate in LA. The country is figuring out how to contend with a new breed of anti-Semitism, coming mostly from Muslim immigrants, while continuing to stanch anti-Semitism that comes from extreme right elements. The number of anti-Semitic incidents dropped 43 percent between 2009 and 2010, the press officer said.
Recent events build on the still-bitter legacy of Vichy France of the World War II era, when French military and police cooperated with the Nazi roundup of Jews.
But this week, French people of all backgrounds united in horror in response to the killing of Jewish children, with strong support from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been an ally of the Jewish community.
Martinon said he has strong relationships with Jewish leaders in Los Angeles.
There is a sizeable Franco-Jewish community in Los Angeles, but its members prefer to blend into existing institutions rather than form their own organizations, said Francky Perez, who runs French programming for Jewish Life TV in Los Angeles, and works at the Jewish radio station in France. He also has a band in France and is a DJ for the French Jewish community in Los Angeles.
Perez points to he case of Ilan Halimi, who in 2006 was kidnapped in Paris and tortured for 24 days by a group calling itself Gang of Barbarians, which targeted Jews. Halimi died after his brutalized body was strapped to a tree.
Perez said an old video of Ariel Sharon urging Jews to leave France is again circulating among French Jews.
“We always knew that France is the most anti-Semitic country in the world. We’ve known that for centuries,” said Julien Bohbot, owner of Delice Bakery on Pico Boulevard, who lived in France in the 1970s and 80s.
Bohbot said many of his compatriots stopped by his French kosher bakery on Monday morning after they heard of the shooting.
“Everybody who came in this morning was devastated and so saddened,” Bohbot said. “The French have great food and wine and cheese, but deep inside there is still anti-Semitism.”