A synagogue burning in Germany is perhaps among the most literal illustrations of anti-Semitism imaginable.
But apparently, not all synagogue burnings are equal.
This week a German regional court ruled that the 2014 firebombing of a synagogue in Wuppertal, a region just east of Düsseldorf, was an act of criminal arson, but not anti-Semitic. Instead, the court found it was a protest against Israel, even though the synagogue was obviously not in Israel and those who worship there are Jews, not Israelis.
The decision upheld that of a lower court, which stated the perpetrators, a trio of Palestinian-born German residents, wanted to “call attention to the Gaza conflict” when they prepared and then lobbed Molotov cocktails at the synagogue one July night in 2014. No one was injured, but the attack caused €800 in damages. The men were ultimately given suspended sentences.
The court’s decision is baffling — and deeply troubling. The men didn’t target the Israeli Embassy or one of its consulates. They attacked a Jewish institution. To conflate Israelis with Jews — and to say that a disagreement with the policies of the former somehow justifies attacking the latter — is by definition anti-Semitic. And if there is a line between anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic ones, this attack definitely crossed it.
“The ruling judges ... found that it was somehow logical that if you were angry with the state of Israel you would choose [to attack] a synagogue, because there are no objects of the state of Israel to protest,” Deidre Berger, the director of the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations, told me Friday. “It’s very difficult for us to get a sense of the dimensions of the problems of anti-Semitism in Europe when cases of anti-Semitism are not characterized as such.”
When the lower court decision came down in February 2015, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported the Jewish community of Wuppertal was horrified. “I thought the time of packed suitcases was over forever,” Leonid Goldberg, the head of the Jewish Community in Wuppertal, told the magazine. “I am now wondering — when would be the right moment to pack them again.”
He wasn’t simply speaking rhetorically: Wuppertal’s synagogue last burned in 1938. It was rebuilt at the end of the last century.
Note to would-be attackers: It’s wrong to target Jews because you’re angry at Israel
The case in Wuppertal was not an isolated act of blaming Jews for Israeli policy. It took place in the summer of 2014, during a bloody Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip designed to prevent Hamas militants there from continuing to rocket Israeli border towns. Images broadcast around the world were of children hurt or killed; anti-Israel protests were held across Europe. The violence ultimately claimed the lives of 70 Israelis and 2,205 Palestinians; the number wounded on both sides went far higher.
And, as the summer’s conflict continued, anti-Semitic acts against Jews around the globe went up, enormously. According to a report jointly issued in April 2015 by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry in Tel Aviv, and the European Jewish Congress, 766 acts of anti-Semitism were recorded in 2014, an increase of 38 percent from the previous year. These were, according to the report, “with and without weapons, and by arson, vandalism or direct threats against Jewish persons or institutions such as synagogues, community centers, schools, cemeteries and monuments, as well as private property.”
The report noted that the Israeli offensive inside Gaza contributed to the upsurge in violence but was not the only factor.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a report in August 2014 noting a “dramatic surge” in attacks. The acts ranged in size and scope. In Paris, memorably, protesters trapped Jewish worshippers in a synagogue. Chants at rallies across Europe often swapped the word “Jews” with that of “Israel.” In the United Kingdom, the Community Service Trust, which has monitored anti-Semitism in the UK since 1984, registered the highest number of anti-Semitic acts in the organization’s history.
In nearly every report, including one in the New York Times, Wuppertal was included as an act of anti-Semitic violence.
“This is a mistaken decision as far as the motives of the perpetrators are concerned,” Green Party lawmaker Volker Beck said after the first ruling, in 2015. “What do Jews in Germany have to do with the Middle East conflict? Every bit as much as Christians, non-religious people or Muslims in Germany, namely, absolutely nothing. The ignorance of the judiciary toward anti-Semitism is for many Jews in Germany especially alarming.”
Germany’s Jewish community is growing. This ruling is a slap in the face.
Back in 2011, the American ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, gave a speech where he drew a link from Israel to Europe. “[E]very new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry,” he said.
But suggesting the answer to European anti-Semitism was not in the streets of Brussels or Berlin or Paris, but in Jerusalem, wasn’t well received. Newt Gingrich tweeted that the president should “recall” the ambassador. The White House told ABC News, “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms and believe there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.” And the ambassador later qualified his remarks stating, “I strongly condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms. I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way.”
The problem with linking the upsurges of anti-Semitic attacks to Israel is that it implies Jewish communities around the world are somehow to be blamed for the decisions of a sovereign foreign government,
The fact that the attack took place in Germany is particularly troubling, and not just for historic reasons.
The overall Jewish population of Europe is in decline, according to the Pew Research Center, but Germany itself has seen a surge in Jewish immigrants in the past quarter-century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Jews settled in Germany, revitalizing a once moribund, decimated community. Attacks like the one in Wuppertal could leave that growing community to wonder if they’re safe in their own country.
Berger, of the AJC, said the firebombing “created a tremendous feeling of insecurity” in Wuppertal.
“The entire community became very concerned about their safety,” she added.
This week’s ruling won’t do much to allay those fears.