A regional court in Wuppertal, Germany this month delivered suspended sentences of up to two years or less to three Palestinian men who firebombed a synagogue in 2014.
The decision affirmed a lower court ruling in a highly controversial case that has triggered anger and dismay not only among Wuppertal’s 2,000-member Jewish population, but throughout European Jewry.
What had happened?
During the heights of the Israeli military operation Protecting Edge into Gaza in the summer of 2014, Jews in Germany experienced a new wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate speech and attacks. Almost every major German city saw protests against Israel, with mostly Arab protestors openly displaying and shouting anti-Semitic slurs and comparisons between the State of Israel and Nazi Germany.
On July 29, 2014 three Palestinians, according to their own testimony, highly intoxicated, filled six bottles with petrol and threw them against the synagogue in Wuppertal. One of the perpetrators was arrested on sight while filming the arriving firefighters and commentating in Arabic.
The district court of Wuppertal sentenced the three young men to suspended sentences for up to two years, largely due to the fact that they did not have a previous criminal record, the marginal damage at the synagogue and the fact that they were apologetic and covered for the caused damage.
More surprising than the verdict and mild punishment itself was the opinion given by the court: The judge ruled and sentenced the accused only for arson, believing the defendants claim that they did not have anything against Jews and just wanted to raise awareness of the war in Gaza, therefore ruling out any anti-Semitic motivation due to lack of evidence.
Unlike many European Union member-states, Germany does not explicitly punish hate crimes as such. But it does allow for hate motivation to be taken into account in assessing sentences.
Following the ruling, an outcry went through the media and Jewish communities, especially the small community of Wuppertal. Most of them of Russian origin, they had escaped persecution and discrimination in the former Soviet Union and came to Germany in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the hope of a better life, now left in shock and traumatized.
The state of Germany and its police and judiciary had, as in many other cases over the summer and during anti-Israel demonstrations, abandoned their obligation to prevent or at least prosecute obvious anti-Semitic attacks and slander.
Once again shouts such as “Jews to the Gas” or “Kill the Jews” could be heard in the streets of major cities, without the police that accompanied the protestors making any attempt of holding the shouters responsible or stopping and prosecuting them.
But what’s even more worrisome and troubling than the misguided and flawed court ruling of 2015 is the confirmation, in second instance, by the higher district court and Judge Thomas Bittner, who ruled on an appeal on points of law by the prosecution. The court only slightly increased the sentence, again on parole, but followed the reasoning of the previous court decision:
“The attack on the Wuppertal synagogue cannot be defined as anti-Semitic, there is simply no proof for an anti-Semitic motivation,” states the official court ruling.
“Can there be a clearer indication for anti-Semitism than trying to burn down a synagogue?” rightfully asks Leonid Goldberg, the Jewish Community leader in Wuppertal, in an interview with German magazine Spiegel.
This was not an Israeli embassy, but a house of God, used by Jewish German citizens, not Israelis, to practice their faith. If one were to make up a textbook definition of anti-Zionism becoming anti-Semitic, this would be it.
The judge also missed out on the opportunity to respond to the summation of the prosecutor Kiskel, in which he stated that the attack was obviously anti-Semitic.
The now legally binding and confirmed regional court decision is a final confirmation of a clear case of German jurisprudence’ surrender towards anti-Semitic hate crimes motivated by a distain for the state of Israel.
A devastating and shocking signal to German Jews, not only due to the fact that a German synagogue was in flames once again (the original Wuppertal had been burned down during the infamous Kristallnacht) but for the incomprehensible court decision that refused to make the shockingly obvious connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
But this case just makes the real underlying problem obvious once again:
The lack of a working definition on anti-Semitism that encompasses all forms of old and new anti-Semitism, including forms of anti-Zionism, that can be used as a guideline and tool.
Another failed attempt to adopt such a definition had just been made by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) during its annual conference in Hamburg in December of 2016 (decisions are made unanimously, and out of the 57 member states only one, Russia, opposed the adoption).
Germany itself as rotating chair of the OSCE had prioritized and lobbied for the adoption of an anti-Semitism definition. The same definition which the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) had adopted already earlier this year, and which includes, among others, two paragraphs that would have helped the judge in Wuppertal to not make such a terrible mistake:
Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Criminal acts are anti-Semitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property—such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries—are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.
Without such a definition, we are left with individual interpretations by overwhelmed members of politics, police and the judicial system, but also by the general public and media, that do not have the knowledge or sensitivity to make a judgment in this area. Worst case, it could end up resulting in such a flawed judgment that denies the anti-Semitic motivation behind a firebomb attack on a Jewish synagogue.
To be fair, the appeal on points of law was in regards to the length of the sentence, and not regarding a re-evaluation of the motivation behind the attack. The court in Wuppertal also did not, as claimed by the Jerusalem Post and other media articles, claim that the attack was a justified criticism of Israel, the contrary was the case: Judge Bittner recognized the heavy traumatization of the Jewish community and made clear that this was no juvenile prank but a serious crime.
He nevertheless did not follow the prosecutors demand for a sentence without parole. What the new appeal ruling also failed to do, despite getting a second chance to correct the terrible mistake of its predecessor, was point out the obvious anti-Semitic character of the attack and thereby send an urgently-needed, strong message to the Jewish community that the German judicial system is able to recognize and prosecute anti-Semitic incidents against its Jewish population.
Not once did Judge Bittner mention the word anti-Semitic in his ruling.
This case is another instance that proves and drives B’nai B’rith’s work and engagement in pushing for an official definition on anti-Semitism to better protect our Jewish communities and prevent such attacks from not being labeled for what it really is: another shameful anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish community in Europe.