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March 29, 2013

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PAGE 18A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 29, 2013 I Film suggests Toulouse killer was disturbed, not hateful By Cnaan Liphshiz possible psychiatric illness, injuredathirdatashopping first time, could provide no anti-Semitic incidents in schizophrenic, merely as (JTA)--Fourweeks before he murdered seven people in Toulouse, France, a cheer- ful Mohammed Merah was filmed laughing and show- ing off his skiing skills to friends at a popular Alpine resort. The footage, televised on March 6, formed the open- ing sequence in a controver- sial documentary about the 23-year-old, French-born jihadist who murdered three soldiers and four Jews last year in a rampage that shocked the country. Aired by public broad- caster France 3 ahead of the anniversary of the killings, the 105-minute film, titled "The Merah Affair--The Itinerary of a Killer," was billed as the definitive in- vestigative work on Merah. More than 2 million viewers tuned in. But the film also has exposed a rift between those who view Merah's actions as the product of deep anti-Semitic currents among jihadists and oth- ers who believe Merah was driven largely by emotional problems stemming from a difficult childhood and By Daniel Hoffman PARIS (JTA)--Cigarette in one hand and cup of tea in the other, Matisyahu sat down with JTA in his closet-sized dressing room during his European tour to talk about his life, his music, how he's raising his kids, and the recent changes in his religious out- look and physical appearance. The beatboxing reggae star once known for his signature beard and hasidic garb has left his yarmulke by the way- side, dyed his hair blond and moved to LosAngeles from the hasidic stronghold of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Matisyahu (aka Matthew Miller) says he felt locked in by the hasidic life and at some point thought his look no lon- ger represented who he was. Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on the truth in life, Matisyahu says; each person must discover his own truth. The 33-year-old singer, now dressed in a blue zip-up hoodie, says he still looks to the Torah and Judaism for "Very early on after the killings, we saw an objec- tionable tendency to view Mohammed Merah as a victim," Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF, France's main Jewish um- brella group, told JTA. "Re- grettably, the film amplifies this view." Merah was a petty crimi- nal from Toulouse who was jailed for theft in 2007. While in jail, the film re- ports, he was teased and seen as a buffoon. He tried to commit suicideby hang- ing himself in his prison cell, according to a prison psychologist. Merah seemingly took comfort in Islam, growing his beard long and immers- ing himself in religious texts. Following his release in 2009, he traveled to sev- eral Middle Eastern coun- tries, including Pakistan, where he received weapons training at a terrorist en- campment. On March 11, 2012, Merah approached an off- duty French Moroccan para- trooper on a Toulouse street and shot him in the head. Four days later he killed two uniformed soldiers and center in Montauban, about 45 minutes to the north. Then, on the morning of March 19, Merah arrived at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and opened fire, killing Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old daughter of the Jewish. school's prin- cipal, along with Rabbi Jonathan Sandier and his two young sons, Arieh and Gavriel. According to a po- lice officer interviewed in -the film, Merah knelt beside one of the children and shot the victim in the head. In the film, Merah is por- trayed as a troubled and ag- gressive youth, the youngest of five siblings raised by a single mother. At 9 he was placed at a state-run institu- tion for at-risk youths after a social worker determined he wasn't attending school regularly and lacked the necessary support at home. Five year later, a teacher wrote, "He is offensive to girls. Every daywe intervene on a fresh aggression, theft, conflict or attack commit- ted by Mohammed, who will not accept the authority." Merah's mother, Zoulikha Aziri, who in the film spoke to the French media for the explanation for her son's ac- tions, but said he once told her, "There's a man in my head and he keeps talking to me." "Our objective was to understand Mohammed Merah, to study the context in which he grew up," Jean- Charles Doria, the film's director, said in an interview with the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. "We found a banal setting: a broken family, absent father, powe r - less mother, late religious discovery and a disturbed characteri" It is precisely this focus on Merah's psychological profile that critics charge grossly misrepresents not only the nature of Merah's crimes but the essence of jihadist hatred. The filmmakers declined to include the testimony of Merah's brother, Abdel- ghani, who said last year that Mohammed was "raised to be an anti-Semite because anti-Semitism was part of the atmosphere at home." Nor did they note the 90 anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the 10 days fol- lowing the shootings--pa,t of a 58 percent increase in France in 2012. The thought that a French Muslim "could go skiing and then murder soldiers and children is too frightening for France 3," Veronique Chemla, a Jewish media analyst and investigative journalist, told JTA. "So instead of examining how Merah was ideologically transformed, the film spec- ulates on Merah's sanity." Pierre Besnainou, a for- mer president of the Euro- pean Jewish Congress and president of the FSJU social and cultural arm of the French Jewish community, said, "the film demonstrates a total misconception of the true nature of jihadist indoctrination." And the CRIF's Prasquier said the Jewish community must fight the tendency to por- tray Merah in a sympathetic light. "The Shootings were first and foremost part of radi- cal Islam and its dangers," Prasquier said. The film's producers did not respond to JTA's request for comment. But in his Le Nouvel Observateur inter- view, Doria denied that the film portrayed Merah as Matisyahu talks about his new religious outlook and appearance inspiration, but his view of Jewish law--halachah--has changed. Matisyahu talked about his ongoing evolution with JTA shortly before a performance at Le Bataclan in Paris. JTA:Ayear ago you released the single "Sunshine," prob- ably one of your happiest songs. In what context did you write it? Matisyahu: I was in Cali- fornia with my son, who has blond hair. It was "golden sunshine." There was a really good feeling. Part of that is because of the connection between me and the producer and the way we approached the music--dealing with real topics, but in a positive light. I made certain changes in-my life. I feel more open, more free. It's like springtime coming out of a hibernation. JTA: Let's talk about these changes. A lot of your fans were shocked when you de- cided in December 2011 to shave your beard. Not long afterward, you posted pictures of yourself online without Sudoku solution from page 7 817254369 962738541 354196287 179823456 625419738 483567912 74.6382195 538971624 291645873 a yarmulke. Now you have dyed your hair blond. Can you explain the different steps leading to these changes? Matisyahu: When I was in my early 20s, I became interested in Jewish identity and history. I went to. Israel and had a strong feeling about being Jewish. I started to think about how to incorporate my spiritual search into reggae music. And I decided to make the leap to express myself as a Jew. I started to wear a yarmulke, grew a beard and changed my clothes. It was very much like the blending of the old mystical tradition and spirituality with who I am in America as a 21-year- old musician. Then I decided that I would go the next level with it all and that I would take on the ideology of Orthodox Judaism, even though I didn't necessarily understand it logically. I figured that I was going to submit myself to it. And I accepted it. It became a part of my worldview. At the same time, I was traveling a lot, meeting different hasidim, and I really got a good under- standing of what it means to be Jewish. But at some point I felt locked in to that vision of the world. I needed to go back to my choices and make decisions about my life. I still believe there is a lot of truth in Orthodox Judaism, but not the whole.truth. Each person has his truth that he has to discover. You don't necessar- ily have to mold yourself to another idea of who you are. JTA: So you feel more authentic now that you have shaved your beard? Matisyahu: When I had my beard and my suit, that was very true for me. In that moment that's what I wanted. But I did feel that it no longer was representing who I was. JTA: Were you affected by some of the negative reactions among your fans after you changed your look? Matisyahu: Obviously it made me a little sad because I'm not really interested in making people upset. But at the same time, I'm not representatiye for anyone. Some Orthodox Jews felt that I betrayed them. There's no betrayal; every person has to do what is right for him in his life. Then, separate from religion, there is the image issue. Some artists are bound to an image: Bob Marley has dreadlocks, Matisyahu has a beard. But that's a reminder that the whole thing is not about style. It's about music. JTA: Still, you were, maybe unintentionally, a symbol for many Jews around the world that it was possible to recon- cile tradition and modernity. Matisyahu: I think I'm still doing that! I'm looking very much towards the Torah and Judaism as a source of inspira- tion. Maybe it's not as obvious for people on the surface, but anyone who really listens to my record will find depth. And that's a good way to weed out who is a real fan and who cannot go with you. When you are in a relationship with an artist, if his music is a part of your life, you have to choose whether or not to follow him through his transformation and evolution. You know, it's like the story of the .golden calf. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the first thing he does is burn it and it goes back to its original form. Sometimes a calf comes to us like an idol and we become stuck in an image. But to go back to the truth, we need to get rid of the image and get back to the base core. That's kind of what I did. JTA: Has your observance of Judaism evolved, too? Matisyahu: I'm taking every day as it comes. For example, if I'm on the road with my chef or if I'm home, it's very easy to keep kosher. But what is it to keep kosher? Is it eating kosher potato chips? Kosher is a bigger idea. I think it's about being healthy. But according to some people, it's about not eating this food because it's forbidden by the Jewish law. My view of the halachah changed a little bit. The laws are there hopefully to be a tool. When they're acting in that way, I'm following them. But if not, I'm not just doing random things because that's what you are supposed to do. JTA: How did the people around you react to your changes? Matisyahu: The people that I'm around are my band. That'swho I'm spending most of my time with on the road. They're not religious, they're not Jewish and they're very understanding. Also, I don't live anymore in the neighbor- hood where I used to live. As for my family, they are very accepting of my changes. My kids are learning very different perspectives. I felt that was something very important to teach them all along: bringing them out, getting them out of the shtetl,, seeing the whole world, meeting people from different cultures, stressing the humanity of mankind. They're also growing up with a strong Jewish identity because it's a big part of our lives--with Shabbat, holidays and even school. I'm teaching them real Jewish values: not to judge people, believe in unity and oneness, and also to know who they are. JTA: Will we see a new Matisyahu a couple of years from now? Matisyahu: In life, you're never going to escape yourself, you're never going to become something else. Hopefully, if you're having this interview "inept at social relations and mostly isolated." He added that Merah had sought legitimacy from Islamic preachers for actions he already had planned. "We see clearly in Merah a collection of naive religious sentiments, not real faith or ideology," Doria said. The film also devotes many minutes to review- ing the failures of French authorities, who had flagged Merah as a person of inter- est back in 2010, the year he traveled to the Middle East. It also revealed that after Merah had been iden- tified as a suspect in the murders, he managed to shake off a police detail and slip undetected in and out of his apartment mere hours before a French SWAT team surrounded it and killed him. While critics praised the film for exposing these fail- ures, Besnainou said they are a red herring. "The way to beat the Merahs of the world isn't just more security, it's education and social mobilization against their ideology," he said. "This film makes this harder to achieve." Larry Busacca/Getty Matisyahu says that de- spite his changed appear- ance, 'I'm looking very much towards the Torah and Judaism as a source of inspiration.' "in two or three years, you will meet a more evolved Matisyahu. It's important to keep growing. JTA: Your latest album, "Spark Seeker," has just been released in Europe. Critics describe it as more pop and less reggae than the previous albums. Do you agree? Matisyahu: I don't really consider it less reggae because reggae means a lot of differ- ent things to different people. There's no such objective definition of the term when you're talking about genres and styles in music. In the pure sense, it's not so much reggae, but in some ways, this is more my delivery of vocals, a lot of them in a strong reg- gae patois .... The record was a sort of nice breath of fresh air: having a good time, writ- ing feel-good songs. It's more of a digitally produced record, more hip hop in the sense that drums and synthesizers are at the forefront of the music. But when my team and I went to Israel, we recorded a lot of live instruments, mostly .Middle Eastern style. So in the end, we combined this Middle Eastern organic flavor with more modern fresh pop.