Yet another warning for local Jewish organizations to increase their vigilance due to events overseas went out this week, as the gruesome murder of four French Jews, three of them children, sent shockwaves around the world.
The New York Police Department had a visible presence outside major institutions such as large Manhattan synagogues, prompting some other organizations to demand the same level of protection.
“Every organization thinks they are the most at risk,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council here, who has been fielding such calls in recent days. A squad of police with machine guns and black helmets has been stationed outside the JCRC’s Midtown offices, he said, because of recent threats made to the organization, which coordinates major New York Jewish communal events such as the Celebrate Israel Parade.
“Although there is no known specific threat against New York City, the NYPD has taken the precaution of stepping up coverage of Jewish neighborhoods and institutions in the city, including special attention by the NYPD Patrol Bureau to synagogues, and the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau’s assignment of Critical Response Vehicles to institutions and neighborhoods,” Pollock wrote on the JCRC’s security blog (jcrcsecurity.blogspot.com).
The Critical Response Vehicle program is a large group of marked police cars with specially trained officers from across the city that can converge into an area on short notice to provide a visual deterrent or respond to a problem. The NYPD regularly conducts CRV drills in Times Square.
Just over a month ago, a similar alert was issued to Jewish organizations here following reports that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities might be imminent, which could inspire pro-Iranian terror cells here to act against “soft targets.”
Following the deadly terror attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse, the fear is that the violence, likely the work of a single “lone wolf” gunman who previously attacked a group of French soldiers, could inspire copycat attacks here.
At Yeshiva University’s Washington Heights campus, the administration issued an alert saying that the NYPD had “heightened its state of readiness with certain modifications to its staffing and procedures in order to provide our community with a safe environment.”
The statement calls on faculty, staff and students to “be alert to any suspicious activity or persons” and to carry their ID at all time on campus. Each of the university’s campuses, including its Benjamin Cardozo Law School downtown, has an emergency hotline.
Bill Flynn, an assistant undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, spoke to over 120 Jewish communal leaders in a phone call on Wednesday.
Paul Goldenberg, who heads the Security Communication Network, the group affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America that organized the call, said he and Flynn reviewed security procedures, resources and protocols.
"The most important element here is that Jewish communities are very much remaining open for business, we will do so in a much more vigilant matter," Goldenberg told JTA.
In addition to the JFNA and SCN, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations helped organize the call.
Goldenberg said that requests for SCN training sessions have increased since the shooting, and that he is traveling to six cities over the next two weeks.
"There is no imminent or specific threat regarding the American Jewish community," he said. "We will remain concerned about the lone wolf and those that are acting independent of organized groups."
French police said the man responsible for the attacks died Thursday after jumping out a window to evade capture. The long standoff began at 3 a.m. Wednesday outside the Toulouse home of Mohammad Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian descent who claims ties to al-Qaida. Merah reportedly has been known to French intelligence for many years. He had told police he would turn himself in at night.
French police surrounded Merah's home in the morning. Merah, in contact with the police, reportedly had agreed to turn himself later in the day before abruptly cutting off communication with police. The suspect's brother and mother reportedly were arrested, and two police officers were injured in a shootout outside the home, according to reports.
Forensic tests found that the weapon used in the attack at the school was the same one used in a pair of fatal shooting attacks last week targeting off-duty French soldiers in and near Toulouse. The shootings, which also were committed by a gunman on a motorbike, left three soldiers dead and another seriously wounded. The soldiers who were shot were of North African or Caribbean background.
The violence in Toulouse, in southwestern France, about 366 miles from Paris, unfolded early Monday morning when a man who arrived on a motorcycle opened fire outside the Ozar Hatorah School, where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. The shooter then entered the building and continued shooting at students and teachers before fleeing on his motorbike.
The dead are reported to be a 30-year-old rabbi, Jonathan Sandler, and his 3- and 6-year-old sons, Gabriel and Arieh, as well as Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, Yaacov Monsonego.
In one of the most chilling details to emerge, security cameras showed that the gunman pursued Miriam into the school, grabbed her by the hair then shot her several times. Some 200 students attend the school, according to Israel Radio.
A 17-year-old student, Brian Bijuai, who reportedly tried to save Miriam, was injured in the shooting and remains hospitalized in serious condition as of Friday afternoon.
Sandler, a dual French-Israeli citizen, reportedly was working in France for several years as an emissary and was well known in Toulouse for his outreach to secular Jews. He leaves behind a wife and 4-year-old daughter.
Forensic tests found that the weapon used in the attack at the school was the same one used in a pair of fatal shooting attacks last week targeting off-duty French soldiers in and near Toulouse. Those shootings also were committed by a gunman on a motorbike and left three dead and another seriously wounded. The soldiers who were shot were of North African or Caribbean background.
Security was increased at Jewish synagogues and schools all over France and President Nicolas Sarkozy and Interior Minister Claude Gueant called for a stepped-up police presence at Jewish institutions, particularly in the southwest, where the killer was still at large.
Guards were being stationed at all religious schools and outside Jewish and Muslim institutions.
David Ben Ichou, the social welfare director at the Fonds Social Juif Unifié (FSJU), the country’s main Jewish welfare organization, said the Jewish community in France has its own protection service consisting of volunteers who guard Jewish institutions in time of crisis.
“They were mobilized within two hours of the shooting,” Ben Ichou said. He said more of the volunteers would be concentrated on Jewish schools and synagogues in the Toulouse region. “Until they catch the killer, they will be out in force.”
Jewish community leaders made sure frightened students at the Ozar Hatorah school and their parents received psychological counseling and help, according to Ben Ichou. The government automatically deploys counselors to schools after such an event, but the students and families at Ozar Hatorah also will have the chance to speak with Jewish social workers, he said.
The bodies of at least three of the victims were flown to Israel for burial Tuesday, while schoolchildren all over France stood and paused for a moment of silence Tuesday morning to remember them.
Sarkozy, who suspended his presidential campaign until Wednesday and flew to Toulouse after the attack, called the tragedy “obviously anti-Semitic,” and the interior minister called for heightened security at all Jewish schools and institutions in France. France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, has an estimated 600,000 Jews.
On Monday night, thousands of Jews and non-Jews, including politicians, gathered in Paris for a silent demonstration organized by the French Union of Jewish Students. One banner among the many French flags held aloft by the marchers read, “In France, Blacks, Jews and Arabs are killed.”
“It could have been anyone’s child,” said Jacques Benichou, the executive director of the FSJU, in a phone interview with JTA as he was boarding a plane for Paris on Monday night after spending a large part of the day with Jewish leaders in Toulouse. “Even if the killer was targeting other minorities, there’s no escaping that he targeted Jewish children as well. We all feel deeply sad and very alarmed.”
Nicole Yardeni, one of the leaders of the Toulouse area branch of the CRIF, France’s main Jewish umbrella organization, said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support after the shooting.
The Ozar Hatorah school is scheduled to re-open Wednesday.
“What I’m focusing on is how we feel about the outpouring of support from our neighbors, the country and beyond the country that came so quickly,” Yardeni said on Tuesday. “Even the Jewish community of Istanbul has called us. And not just Jews. Many people all over the world have reached out. It has been such a great help. We never expected such an outpouring of support.”
Yardeni’s son attended Ozar Hatorah a few years ago and she, like many in the roughly 20,000 to 30,000-strong Jewish community in Toulouse, knew parents and teachers at the school.
She said that the Paris-born Rabbi Sandler was an enormously well liked teacher who had just begun work at the school in July. Not everyone knew that he was an alumnus of Ozar Hatorah and, after 10 years of study and training in Israel, had decided to return.
“He wanted to give back to this school who had given him so much,” Yardeni said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack had a “strong, murderous anti-Semitic motive.” The Vatican called it a “heinous” crime, and the White House said it was “outrageous and unprovoked.”
However, remarks by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the attack angered some.
“The days when we remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances — the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and Sderot and in different parts of the world — we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the statements “inappropriate” and asked Ashton to re-examine and retract them. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak also criticized Ashton.
Ashton said her remarks had been “distorted” and that she drew “no parallel whatsoever between the circumstances of the Toulouse attack and the situation in Gaza."
On Tuesday three former French soldiers who had previously been suspected of possible involvement in the attack were questioned and released by French police.
The men, who were dismissed from the military in 2008 for posing with a Nazi flag, have been eliminated as suspects, the French news agency AFP reported Tuesday.
French investigators reportedly still believe that the attack was carried out by right-wing extremists.