TOULOUSE (JWN and agencies)—A lone gunman armed with a pistol shot and killed a teacher at a Toulouse Jewish high school, his two small children, and another child before escaping on a motor scooter Monday morning.
The helmeted gunman had arrived on the scooter and began shooting outside the school, then entered the building and continued firing.
Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, a 30-year-old French-Israeli teacher from Jerusalem; his two sons, Aryeh, 6, and Gavriel, 3; and 8-year-old Miriam Monstango, the daughter of the school’s principal, were slain in the attack and several others were wounded. All four victims are to be buried in Israel.
Several other students were severely wounded and were still in critical condition following the shooting, which took place shortly after morning prayers. Rabbi Sandler was on his way to drop off his sons at the Gan Rachi kindergarten, adjacent to Ozar Hatorah where he teaches, when they were gunned down, along with Miriam Monstango.
The Ozar Hatorah campus has a junior high, a high school, and a kollel, or yeshiva for married men.
As messages expressing outrage and condolences arrived from world leaders, French President Nicholas Sarkozy came to the scene in Toulouse and mourned what he termed a “national tragedy.” He ordered a minute of silence to be observed in all French schools Tuesday.
Police are conducting an intensive manhunt for the gunman, whom they suspect is a member of a neo-Nazi gang responsible for the recent slayings of three French soldiers, who were also shot by an assailant on a motor scooter. Ballistics examination quickly determined that the same pistol was used in the murders of all seven victims.
French authorities on Monday night released a 2008 photo of three former French paratroopers posing in Nazi uniforms with their arms raised in a Nazi salute. The three had been cashiered from the army for links to neo-Nazis. The French daily Le Point said their profiles matched the initial information about Monday’s killer.
“We’re still in shock,” said Aryeh Bensemoun, the head of Toulouse’s Jewish community, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone on Monday evening.
“We are having a very hard time coming to terms with what happened. It’s a tragedy, it’s a catastrophe. It’s still hard to imagine that someone just came to the school and shot and killed children,” he said. “But we need to recognize and internalize that this really did happen, otherwise it’s going to become a nightmare that will never end.”
“It’s a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that there are insane people who are capable of doing such a thing,” Sarkozy told French TV. “I can’t accept this idea that one can massacre Jewish children in front of their school.”
Sarkozy visited the school accompanied by Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.
“It’s a day of national tragedy,” Sarkozy said after arriving. “The barbarianism, the savagery, the cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. The nation is much stronger.”
The chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, told French news channel BFN he was horrified and upset by the shooting. He said he planned to visit the site immediately.
World ORT representative in France Guy Seniak said: “This shows that Jewish institutions have to be very cautious and I expect that we will now see a period where security is prioritized. The important thing is to be aware and not to panic. It’s an old problem: not to make ourselves live in a ghetto while, at the same time, to ensure we have the best security.”
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned the killings as the consequence of “murderous anti-Semitism.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “whether it was a terrorist attack or a hate crime, the loss of life is unacceptable.”
Police have tightened security around Jewish institutions in the city. The city is reportedly on lockdown as authorities search for the shooter.
The Ozar Hatorah attack occurred some 30 miles from the town of Montauban, where a gunman on a motor scooter opened fire on three uniformed paratroopers at an ATM outside a bank last Thursday, killing two and critically wounding the third. Four days before, a gunman on a motor scooter shot and killed another paratrooper in Toulouse.
The apparent link connecting all seven victims is that all were minorities: the paratroopers were of North African and Caribbean origin and the Ozar Hatorah dead were Jews. Authorities are acting on the premise that the murders were racially motivated.
Local community head Bensemoun said there is a “difficult climate” in France for Jews, referring to anti-Semitism. Although annual reports show a decline in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, they have become more violent, he said.
Gil Taieb, a vice president of the CRIF, France’s Jewish umbrella group, told The Jerusalem Post he has no doubt the attack was a hate crime. “For someone to locate this school in a place like Toulouse means he knew what he was doing,” Taieb said. “He went there to kill Jews.”