Analysis

German Synagogue Shooting Makes Clear the Far Right Targets Jews and Muslims Alike

The August 2018 attack in Chemnitz foreshadowed that the assaults could escalate from verbal abuse to killings

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) stands with Rabbi Gesa S. Ederberg (L) and other members of the Jewish community at a vigil outside the New Synagogue in Berlin on October 9, 2019
AFP

An armed German man wearing a bullet-proof vest and a helmet tried to break into a synagogue full of worshippers on Yom Kippur in Halle, Germany.

According to preliminary reports that have not been confirmed but are backed by photos from the scene, the gunman, a 27-year-old from eastern Germany, is apparently a right-wing extremist. No more than that is needed to make clear that the danger from the far right in Europe is real, not only for Muslim immigrants but also – as it once was – for Jewish citizens.

People of faith will certainly say that the terrorist’s failure to break into the sanctuary is a miracle. Others will will say that the worshippers were lucky. But the fact is, only a short distance separated the current headlines of “two killed outside a synagogue in Germany” and “Yom Kippur massacre in Germany” if, perish the thought, the assailant had managed to get into the synagogue in which there were dozens of worshippers.

As I wrote this Wednesday evening, the identity of the victims was not known, but of course even if they weren’t Jewish, the attempt to attack a synagogue is a significant escalation in anti-Semitic crime and neo-Nazi activity in Germany.

In recent years reports of assaults on Jews throughout Germany have increased, and every year hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks are documented. But these are usually “minor” incidents such as verbal assaults and street fights that end without physical injury.

Still, those who follow events in Germany aren’t surprised by this near massacre on Yom Kippur. A year ago, in August 2018, a warning light flashed that made clear that in the current atmosphere, Jews could suffer more severe attacks and even pay with their lives. That month, neo-Nazis attacked a Jewish restaurant in the city of Chemnitz, like Halle, in the former East Germany. The assailants shouted “get out of Germany, Jewish pigs” and threw stones and bottles at the restaurant.

In May, official confirmation of the seriousness of the situation arrived when the German government’s commissioner for Jewish life in Germany, Felix Klein, warned Jewish men in Germany not to wear a kippa in public. “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippa everywhere all the time in Germany,” he said at the time. A few months before, after the assault in Chemnitz, he said that “we are dealing with a new level of anti-Semitic crime. It calls to mind the worst memories of the 1930s.”

In recent years, Jewish communities in Germany have reported incidents originating in two different groups: the far right and extremist Islam. According to government data, the far right is responsible for more anti-Semitic attacks than Muslim assailants are. But because attacks like the ones in Chemnitz and Halle are very rare, the general public mistakenly believes that the extreme right only targets Arab and Muslim immigrants who came en masse with the opening of Germany’s gates.

Scene of attack near synagogue in Halle, Germany, October 9, 2019

Evidence of the danger in the combination of far-right ideology and access to weapons was seen in the first decade of the century, when the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terror group, operated unhindered. Three of its members killed nine immigrants and a policewoman. Beate Zschäpe, a leader and only known member still alive, is serving a life sentence in Germany.

The activities of this group exposed not only the danger of the German far right but also the failure of German intelligence, the German version of the Shin Bet security service and law enforcement to thwart these attacks. According to the government, a few hundred far-right activists in Germany are considered dangerous and violent. They are under surveillance by the authorities, at least officially, but apparently, the surveillance isn’t foolproof.

It should be noted that, as proved by the attack in Halle, the far right has never relinquished its loathing of the “Jewish enemy,” even if the number of Jews in Germany is minuscule compared with the population as a whole – about 100,000 out of about 82 million. Also, we shouldn't forget that assaults and high-profile instances of violence have also been perpetrated in Germany in recent years by Muslim and Arab immigrants and asylum seekers, including anti-Semitic attacks.

On Saturday a Syrian asylum seeker was arrested after he tried to attack the security guards at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Street in Berlin, which is also where the Jewish community is based. He was armed with a long knife and the guards reported that he shouted “Allahu akhbar” and cursed Israel. After being interrogated on suspicion of “threats,” he was released under circumstances that have yet to be made clear.

The most high-profile attack by an immigrant was at a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, when a Muslim immigrant ran over and killed 12 people, including an Israeli. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.