Opinion

A neo-Nazi Massacre of German Jews on Yom Kippur Was Averted – This Time

German Jews are in mourning. But they are also asking why the police dismissed their well-founded security concerns, and why Germany's government isn’t doing more to stop the militarization of 13,000 far-right extremists

People mourn outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany October 10, 2019, after a far-right shooter tried and failed to enter, then killed two people nearby
\ FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

For anyone paying attention to the Jewish community's situation in Germany, the attempted synagogue shooting in the East German city of Halle this Yom Kippur was barely a surprise.

In fact, the community was already on high alert following an attempt by a knife-wielding attacker to enter a Berlin synagogue a few days before. The suspect’s swift release from custody had enraged many people in the community, with the president of the Jewish community of Germany, Joseph Schuster, calling it "incomprehensible."  

>> How The Dark Web Turns White Supremacists Into Terrorists >> The Far Right Targets Jews and Muslims Alike >> Germany's Far Right Makes Anti-Semitism Acceptable Again

How can a man who poses an acute threat to the Jewish community be allowed to walk free just days before the Day of Atonement, when synagogues are at their most crowded?

Schuster expressed his concern that the government was not doing its work to "ensure the safety of the population." His concern was perhaps prescient.

After Wednesday's deadly attack, the community's anger and disappointment is intensifying.

A heavily-armed man, with multiple automatic weapons, dressed in military gear, tried to force his way in to the synagogue, where 60 people had gathered for Yom Kippur prayers. He hurled a grenade into the adjoining cemetery, and shot at the door, but could not get in. The assailant fatally shot two people on the street before being apprehended.

That fortified door prevented his entry - or, at least, withstood the specific weaponry he had prepared to force his way in. But the Jews inside the synagogue still had no armed or official back up.

Despite regular warnings about the safety concerns of the Jewish community, and the obvious fact that East Germany has "a highly active, and frequently violent, neo-Nazi scene" the building was not guarded, as many synagogues in the large cities are. Congregants themselves quickly barricaded the door with furniture, to prevent the shooter entering.

Today, the Jewish community is mourning that terrible loss of lives. But many are upset and deeply dismayed: They feel they were, and will be, left alone to deal with a murderous ongoing threat. It took the police at least ten minutes to arrive at the scene, even though the community called the police to say they were under armed attack.

According to the chairman of the Halle Jewish community, the police had repeatedly played down the community’s security concerns.

"We said repeatedly that we want security, just as the big cities of Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, do, where police are stationed in front of synagogues and community institutions. But we were always told: Everything is great, everything is great, everything is OK," Max Privorotzki said.

The small community can't afford to hire 24-hour security. Its fortified door was paid for by the Jewish Agency, an Israel-based non-profit organization, not local authorities. The synagogue managed to install a security camera outside the building with its own funds, and relies on volunteers to monitor its own security.

The congregants thus watched as the shooter tried over and over again to blow the lock of the door, unhindered by law enforcement. In Privorozki's words, "We saw in the security camera that a man was trying to gain access to the synagogue using weapons, he had a rifle, he threw grenades, Molotov cocktails, but thank God he has failed to get in."

Josef Schuster, president of the umbrella representative body, the Council of Jews in Germany,was scathing. He called the lack of police protection on Yom Kippur "scandalous," and accused the police of serial negligence.

The 27-year old assailant, a German citizen, left no doubt about his neo-Nazi motivation in a manifesto he left, and the livestreamed video he took of his assault. Like the shooters in Pittsburgh (on a synagogue) and in Christchurch (on a mosque) he weaved his hatred of immigrants and Muslims into an age-old conspiracy myth about Jewish control.

In his tirade he wrote that he "originally planned to storm a mosque" but decided instead "to cut off the head" of the global conspiracy, to get to its "root": the Jews.

Apparent explosives cache is seen in a bag inside the vehicle used by a gunman in an attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany October 9, 2019. Still image taken from the gunman's helmet camera video stream
\ INTERNET/ REUTERS

For the Jewish community, these neo-Nazi fantasies sound like a broken record, heard one too many times. But conspiracy theories are much worse than wacky nonsense. And they’re even worse than defamation. In the minds of their adherents, the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy acts as a perverse justification of targeted violence.

Historian Norman Cohen called the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy a "warrant for genocide" because it gives the ideology’s believers not only a group onto which they can project all their fears and all evil, but also to legitimize violent actions targeting this group.

Germany's problem with violent neo-Nazis is well-documented.

The country's domestic intelligence service states that nearly 13,000 violent far-right extremists are active in the country. This number was released after a right-wing extremist murdered a pro-refugee politician earlier this year. Reports shows that these groups are increasingly arming and training themselves for violent attacks.

During the summer, reports by the domestic intelligence agency showed also that many far-right extremists had even infiltrated the police and army, and that a well-armed 30-person group calling itself "Nordkreuz" had used official intelligence information to compile a "death list" of more than 25,000 political opponents, stockpiled weapons and even ordered body bags in preparation for a large-scale terror act.

The myth of a Jewish world conspiracy is not only shared by violent and self-professed neo-Nazis. It is shared by the parliamentary far right as well. A recent study showed that a full 55 percent of the supporters of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) believe Jews have too much power in the world.

A former president of Germany's Jewish community noted how the AfD, by proactively attacking the conscious commemoration of the Holocaust in Germany, prepares the grounds for anti-Semitic violence.

"Many people may say they don't agree with this last step - violent actions. But they don't want to look how the current political discourse, and rhetorical provocations, has created it, and how people [in Germany] actively and routinely participate in this - or passively tolerate it." Michel Friedman called this a "spiral of violence" that exposed that anti-Semitism is a "serious structural problem" in Germany's political system.

Perhaps even more worrying, nearly 20 percent of the supporters of every single mainstream German political party share the belief that Jews have nefarious global power.

That is why it is particularly tragic, and ironic, that while Chancellor Angela Merkel was sending an important symbolic statement of support to the Jewish community by attending a spontaneous vigil at the central synagogue in Berlin on Wednesday night, her government was scaling back its programs to prevent right-wing extremism. 

Anti-Semitic crimes in Germany rose 20 percent last year, and violent anti-Semitic crimes rose more than 80 percent. These cuts will weaken efforts of groups like the Antonio Amadeu Foundation, a leading civil society initiative countering racism and anti-Semitism, which was forced to scale down its activities due to the budget cuts.

Following the deadly assault on the Halle synagogue, Germany's Jewish community is today mourning the senseless loss of life.

But it is also asking questions about why Germany's government isn’t doing more to educate its population against white supremacist ideology, to protect the Jewish community, and to stop the militarization of the far-right.

Robert Ogman is a journalist and lecturer on contemporary politics and social issues and lives in Germany. Twitter: @r_ogman