By B. Cohen
It’s almost three years since the Islamist terrorist Mohammed Merah walked into the Ozar Hatorah school in the French city of Toulouse and opened fire, as one eyewitness recalled, “on everything that moved.” In those terrible few moments, four innocents were brutally murdered: Jonathan Sandler, a rabbi who taught at the school, his two sons, Aryeh, 6, and Gabriel, 3, and a little girl, 8 year-old Miriam Monsonego, the daughter of the school’s principal, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego.
This week, Rabbi Monsonego sat down with The Algemeiner to give his first media interview since the atrocity that took the life of his beloved Miriam. Visiting New York at the invitation of the World Jewish Congress for the the UN General Assembly’s meeting on the subject of antisemitism, Monsonego brought with him the unique insights that come from having experienced this age-old phenomenon in the most direct and terrible way.
Yet there is no bitterness about Monsonego, nor anger. Remarkably, some might say, he has continued to serve as the principal of the school, now renamed Or Hatorah, after it left the Ozar Hatorah network.
Where, I asked him, did he find the strength to continue in that role? “It’s no longer the same strength that drives me,” Rabbi Monsonego said. “It’s a different impulse.” Part of his inspiration, he continued, lies in the undiminished strength of the school, which started life in 1991 with 40 children, a number that rose, at its peak, to 200. Currently, he said, there are 160 children at the school – testament to the fact that the deadly violence unleashed by Merah failed to destroy its spirit.
“The school has a soul and a life,” Rabbi Monsonego said. Had he left his position after the massacre, he explained, “everything we achieved over twenty years would have vanished.” He is particularly proud of the school’s alumni network, which embraces former students in France and Israel, as well as the US, Canada, Australia, Morocco, and even China. The alumni engage in fundraising, which allows the school to grant scholarships, as well as organizing religious celebrations, among them a shabbaton scheduled in Jerusalem in two weeks time, and a fundraising event in New York in June.
The teachers working under his guidance are another important factor. All the teachers in charge of secular subjects are non-Jews, he said, which underlines the status of the school in the local community. After the massacre, many teachers could have searched for new positions at “safer schools,” Monsonego said, but they didn’t. “I am surrounded by people who always take it upon themselves to do more,” he reflected.
And they do so in an environment which – as Monsonego would be the first to acknowledge – is far from normal. I asked the rabbi whether he agreed with the observation made at the UN’s antisemitism meeting by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who said that French Jewish children who have to walk through “phalanxes of armed soldiers” just to enter their schools were “victims of antisemitism.”
“The sight of soldiers at the entrance to a school makes the children understand that they are threatened, and that is unbearable,” Monsonego said. After the massacre, he recalled, security wasn’t substantially increased, but in the wake of the Paris terror attacks earlier this month, there are now eight soldiers permanently stationed at the school. In some ways though, he added, those soldiers have become integrated into the life of the school, eating lunch in the dining hall alongside the kids themselves, and thereby becoming familiar, trusted faces.
On the questions which every French Jew is asked these days – Is there a future for you in France? Will you stay or will you leave? – Monsonego is careful not to take a definitive stand. He praised both French Prime Minister Manuel Valls for his passionate belief that France without Jews will no longer be France, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for affirming, during his recent visit to Paris, that the path of aliyah remains open.
A previously unpublished photograph of Miriam Monsonego.
Aliyah, the rabbi said, is the essence of the State of Israel. He cited the example of the Jewish state’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who insisted on keeping the gates of aliyah open even as other ministers were warning that the country would not be able to deal with the massive influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
At the same time, he said, France’s political class has woken up to the fact that, as a result of the Paris atrocities, “a real catastrophe occurred and that they have to do everything they can.”
“The people of France have also understood that Jews are only the first victims,” Rabbi Monsonego concluded. “If the state cannot ensure the safety of its citizens, what will come next?”
Three years after her death, Rabbi Monsonego still finds it too painful to talk to strangers about his daughter, Miriam. I found myself groping for the right words to frame a question about her, and muttered some inanity about a “healing process.” But, the rabbi told me, “there is no healing.”
Then, as we ended our conversation, he suddenly volunteered to email me a photograph of Miriam that had not been published before. “Perhaps,” he said, “that’s the first sign of healing.”