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How a terrorist’s words from the grave threaten France and its Jews

This summer has had more than its share of violence targeting innocents. There was the lone gunman who entered a bar in Alabama and  shot 17 strangers. A few days later, James Eagen Holmes killed 12 and injured 58 moviegoers during a midnight attack at an Aurora, Colorado theatre.

Those tragedies were widely described as “senseless,” since there was no apparent ideological motivation behind the massacres.

Such was not the case when Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and murdered six parishioners in cold blood. Page was part of a subculture of hate in America that reviles religious and ethnic minorities. For over a decade he contributed to neo-Nazi, white supremacist movements through his hate music.

The universal revulsion following Page’s rampage engendered wall-to-wall solidarity from politicians and interfaith leaders, bringing a measure of solace and reassurance to Sikhs and even forcing some of Page’s musical colleagues to disassociate themselves from his heinous crime.

Across the Atlantic in France, Europe’s largest Jewish community is also still reeling from a series of brutal attacks. There was the shocking murder --execution style -- of a 7-year-old girl, a rabbi and his two small children in the entrance of a Jewish school in Toulouse by Mohamed Merah, a French Islamist fanatic, followed by an unexpected upsurge in violent attacks targeting Jewish youngsters across the country.

Anti-Semitism is not new to France. In the last three decades, French Jewry has had to grapple with  waves of terror, violence and threats, some spawned by Middle East conflicts, others from French neo-Nazis.

Indeed, French experts pointed to direct links between an intifada on the West Bank, an Israeli incursion into Gaza, the Hezbollah War in Lebanon, and spikes in anti-Jewish hate crimes. Those situations were exacerbated by the drumbeat of over-the-top anti-Israel bias of French media’s coverage.

But the brutal targeting of Jewish children in Toulouse reveals a new, more sinister threat. The new wave of anti-Jewish violence is not linked to any specific event in the Holy Land. In fact the immediate aftermath of  the Toulouse massacre  generated immediate, and strong condemnation by the French people, led by the full spectrum of political leadership. French police, unlike a decade ago when Jewish synagogues were repeatedly firebombed,  were active and visible outside Jewish institutions. But despite these welcome gestures, , Merah’s rampage actually spawned an increase in violent attacks.

Why? The ugly truth is that for some, Merah is a heroic lone wolf, not a senseless criminal.

Recently, the French media released  32 hours of conversations between Merah and French police before the Toulousse Terrorist died in a hail of bullets.

From the grave Merah can heard explaining in his own words what has changed:  

“…If I would have killed civilians, the French population would have called me another mad Al Qaeda terrorist…” Merah said, adding that “...killing military and Jews passed the message... But my message is different...I kill Jews inFrance as these are the same Jews who kill innocents in Palestine."

Merah and his ilk, have thrown down a new gauntlet to France. For them, French Jews are no longer considered civilian neighbors but soldiers in a war. For Merah, those who inspired him, who validated his hate, who trained with him in Afghanistan, who mourn his death on the Internet, who offer condolences in local Mosques, Jews are not neighbors but ‘legitimate’ targets just like the French Muslim soldiers Merah also murdered days before the schoolyard massacre.

Recently, my colleague and I traveled to Toulouse, Marseilles, Lyon and Villeurbanne to meet French Jewish victims of terror, their parents and teachers. For most, physical wounds have healed but emotional scars remain. 

At a meeting with the director of the Beit Menachem in Villeurbanne, a regional school servicing 600 Jewish kids, he pointed to apartment houses just beyond their football field, from where a small mob of young Muslims, led by a hammer-wielding thug, attacked a young newlywed on a Sabbath afternoon. 

His stoic face said it all: “How can I protect my students from such hate when the new school year begins in September?” 

And  there was the father of a 17-year-old who was recovering from a severe beating from thugs on a train outside Lyon. This same youngster is a student at the Toulouse school, who in the immediate aftermath of the shootings moved the lifeless bodies of two children into the adjoining synagogue. “What can I say to my son?” his father tearfully lamented.

In every city we visited, we also met with French Muslim leaders. These are people who understand that the injection of Islamist hatred, whether via the Internet, or in  local mosques also threatens them. It remains to be seen who will prevail for the hearts and minds of their children.

All eyes are now on the new government led by President Hollande. He and his team won a powerful mandate to lead France, on the world stage and to deal with Europe’s burgeoning economic crises. 

Hollande will also have to take a leadership role in thwarting Merah’s threat from the grave. The president must send an unequivocal message that “wars” treating 3-year-olds, as combatants will not be tolerated on the streets of France. While moderate French Muslims--secular and religious-- will be fully supported;  Imams aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood-- whose Hamas affiliate regularly targets Jewish children for death—won't.

The fate of Europe’s largest Jewish community and the fabric of France’s democratic society hang in the balance.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.

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