TOULOUSE, France – The French president on Thursday promised Jewish children targeted in a deadly attack by an Islamist militant that their country will protect them and fight to stamp out the anti-Semitism that left four dead in their schoolyard.
The school's director, his voice cracking, recalled the "dark Monday" when he lost his young daughter and his faith in the safety of the community he built.
Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego, who said he and his wife had worked to transform the school in Toulouse into a center of learning for young Jews, slumped as he recalled the day his 8-year-old daughter, a teacher and two of the teacher's young sons died. Dozens of children who had stood at formal attention for the visit from the French president and Israeli prime minister crumpled into tears at the memory.
That day, Monsonego said, "a monstrous hatred destroyed my universe. "
On March 19, French-born Mohammed Merah stormed the school, shooting 8-year-old Myriam Monsonego in the head and spreading blood on the schoolyard before getting on his motorbike and driving away. Among the dead were a rabbi and his two young sons and, in an earlier shooting, three French paratroopers, two of North African descent and one from the Antilles.
Francois Hollande, in the final throes of campaigning for the French presidency, visited the school that day. He came Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, promising to continue the fight against anti-Semitism.
On Wednesday, the French government expelled a Muslim preacher for his anti-Semitic speeches, calls for holy war and defense of violence against women; and earlier in October security forces said they dismantled a network of French-born radical Islamists bent on targeting Jews, accusing the group in a firebomb attack on a kosher grocery outside Paris.
"French Jews must know that the republic will use all means available to protect them," Hollande said. "Their security is a national cause."
He promised to go after anti-Semitism on social networks "where hatred gains anonymity" and elsewhere. He acknowledged flaws in security officials' handling of Merah, who had been under surveillance in the past and traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for apparent weapons training. Merah avoided detection as he plotted the attacks in Toulouse, which also included the shooting deaths of three French-born paratroopers — two of North African descent and one from the Antilles.
"Anti-Semitism turns into a fire that quickly engulfs all in its path. It was no coincidence that the murderer of Toulouse killed not only Jews but also French soldiers, Christian and Muslim, with no distinction," Netanyahu said, praising the French government for its response. "This murderer would have killed each Jewish child who crossed his path, exactly like the Nazis. But there are immense differences between the murder of Jews in the past century and those of today."
Today, the Israeli leader said, European governments — and especially France's — are fighting back.
Hollande, who met privately with students ahead of the speeches in the packed gymnasium, said one child asked him how long police would be posted at the school, which is surrounded by a high wall and metal gate and under constant surveillance.
"As long as it takes," he said, recounting the conversation.
The school was renamed Ohr Torah to break from the painful memories of the March attack, but they were apparent in the weeping of the students and the quiet voice of Eva Sandler, who lost her husband and their two sons Gabriel and Arieh. Now a widow and mother of one little girl, Sandler addressed Hollande in French and Netanyahu in Hebrew, saying she struggled sometimes to find meaning for humanity. Her father-in-law recalled his last conversation with his son.
"The grief is always there, vivid and deep," Eva Sandler said.
Netanyahu, who spoke last, got a rock star's welcome from the children, who cheered and stamped when he first addressed them in French and followed his lead as he chanted "Israel will live" with the crowd.
At the end of the day, after both leaders left and their security detail had packed up, the green metal gate clanged shut. A lone officer could still be seen on the roof across the way, securing everything in his sight.
Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.