It is almost 8am when the students of the Jewish school Ozar Hatorah pass the entrance gate of their establishment, this Monday, March 19, 2012. At the same time, Mohammed Merah, the scooter killer, heads for this college- high school where he will kill Jonathan Sandler, his two children, Gabriel and Arié, 3 and 5 years old, and Myriam Monsonego, aged 8. The anti-Semitic attack in this sacred place that is the school marks the beginning of a black series which will specifically target the Jewish communities –of Brussels with the Jewish Museum in 2014 and of Paris with the Hypercacher in 2015.
Explain the drama
After the attacks, in the Jewish school of Ozar Hatorah (which was then renamed Ohr Torah, the “light of the Torah” in Hebrew), it is the amazement which prevails. A crisis cell is set up by the rectorate of Toulouse with psychological support offered to teachers, parents and children.
Noémie* is now director of the Gan Rachi kindergarten-primary school, a counterpart of the Ozar Hatorah middle school-high school. His daughter Maya was in Myriam Monsonego’s class. At the time, Noémie was responsible for school life. She remembers that “the shock was so strong that very few parents called on the psychological cell”. Therapeutic work begins first within the Jewish community:We spent two years around cafes, at birthday parties, at bar mitzvahs, discussing the issue. There was a real feeling of revolt, against God, against what happened.
For several years, the subject remained extremely delicate. “Many families wondered about faith. On my small scale, I had to find the words… but we didn’t even look for the why, it’s beyond all understanding. Very quickly, her husband and she had their daughter followed by a psychologist.
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Speech has long remained locked in the Jewish community, yet historically accustomed to attacks. In 2018, Georges Benayoun and Haym Vital Salfati work on the documentary Chronicles of today’s anti-Semitism with Toulouse as a study laboratory. They return to the scene of the killing and question the face of anti-Semitism in the 2000s. Haym Vital, assistant director on the set, remembers a scene shot with the Tordjman family, whose eldest daughter lived through the attacks : “We had briefed her well, but at the time of the interview in front of the camera… nothing more. She couldn’t say a word anymore.
Writing as therapy
It took ten years to raise awareness, verbalize, exteriorize. Jonathan Chetrit, a final year intern at Ozar Hatorah in 2012, was never able to talk about it with his family, anxious not to worry anyone. Highly publicized since the attacks, he has gone through phases of questioning his faith. “Obviously, I asked myself questions: innocent children? Why? But it did not affect my beliefs or my practice, on the contrary.
For years, he thought about writing a book in the form of a collection of testimonies. “I felt that enough had been heard of me. I had started snippets of text but without conviction. During the first confinement, Jonathan calls for testimony from a group of alumni and alumnae of the school. “There was an emergency. I felt a need to speak, but I had hesitated for fear of passing again for the heavy duty.
Time, however, proves him right because the positive responses are pouring in. “We had to go back to the details: but where were you at that time?” The young Toulousain will collect around twenty testimonials for his work, Toulouse, March 19, 2012 – The Ozar Hatorah attack told by those who lived through it.
In the months and years that followed, the emotion was still too strong to leave room for therapy. “You are 17 years old, a naive life with friends, girlfriends. We set up a shrink cell on the day of the killing, but what’s the point? Indeed, trauma psychologists were mobilized in Ozar Hatorah, in vain.
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In the book, a teacher at the school recalls: “They explain to me that I am in a state of post-traumatic stress and that it is strongly advised that we see each other. I refuse at the moment because I want to be with my students […] In class, I interact with them all day. Ten years later, the testimonies converge: it is the collective work that repairs. “Writing was my first and my best therapy”says Jonathan Chetrit.
Keep the faith
After the killing, the question of resilience arises. On the scale of Toulouse, the year 2012 saw an exceptional wave of departures in Israel – in France, this represents 2,000 people on the entire Jewish population, estimated at 478,000 individuals in 2012. At the same time, a feeling of resistance and pride is germinating within the Jewish community. Rabbi Monsonego, bereaved by the death of his own daughter, and Eva Sandler, widowed and having lost her two sons, “restore strength to the faithful”says Jonathan Chetrit. “Seeing them get up with such dignity has kept us on our feet.”
To make sense of the inconceivable, links with the Second World War regularly come up in the minds of witnesses. Noemie “did not seek to understand”: “It is beyond all comprehension. I could associate it with the era after the Holocaust.she explains. Élodie, 25, was also educated at Ozar Hatorah and present on March 19. She participated in Jonathan Chetrit’s book project: “It was a way out to appeasement. I knew the version of BFM but not that of my friends.
Élodie speaks of a trigger effect on her relationship to religion: “I was never again ashamed to say that I was Jewish, that I ate kosher. I talk a lot about March 19 today because it makes me feel good. During her studies, she became a member of the Toulouse branch of theUnion of Jewish Students of France (UEJF), then president of its Grenoble branch. “I always say he wanted to tear us apart, and that failed.” Same story for Ethan, 23, who also witnessed the killing: “They say God gives his toughest fights to his best soldiers.”
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The search for meaning in the face of drama in the Jewish tradition has been the subject of long reflections in the Torah, the biblical texts and Jewish philosophy. According to Haym Vital, “It is part of the Jewish condition. Each generation will have its enemies, it is written in the texts. When he tries to interview the Matusof couple, at the head of Gan Rashi at the time, the question of the relationship to religion is posed: “We tried to evoke this aspect of meaning, but for them, the testing, the pain, the horror, the fact that they are targeted, it is inescapable.”
Strengthened cultural identity
This narrative of violence, Yona refuses it. She first experienced the attacks as a collective family drama, without realizing their political dimension. Today, she says she deplores fatalism, “the idea that we will always be persecuted by enemies”. “I did not want to resign myself to any withdrawal”adds the young woman.
After her schooling, she took a huge step aside and began studying history, political science and gender, which led her to question herself a lot. “I was in a very left-wing university, with fixed ideas on communitarianism. People constantly questioned my certainties and the religious foundations that had been transmitted to me.
This reinforced its cultural identity, but also triggered the need “to tell how it had been experienced from the inside”. Against a hierarchy of identities, Yona wanted to stay in France, unlike the majority of her friends who left her to go and live in Israel. “I am Jewish, but I am also French.”
A fact that should perhaps be recalled in the light of the killing of Ozar Hatorah.
*Name has been changed.