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:
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.
Despite an astounding array of conventions, covenants, directives, framework decisions, case law and other existing legal instruments meant to ensure human rights and freedom from discrimination in the European Union, Jews continue to face high levels of anti-Semitism in nearly all of the 28 EU member states.
I had the privilege of participating recently in the 10th Israel-EU Bilateral Dialogue on Combating Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry (MFA) in Jerusalem earlier this month. The forum was established to allow Israelis and representatives of the European Commission—the government of the European Union—to discuss their ongoing work in combating antisemitism, exchange experiences and compare best practices. Participants included high-ranking European Commission and Israel Foreign Ministry officials, experts and practitioners in the field of education and social media.
The meeting occurred after the failed attempt by the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to adopt the long-awaited Working Definition of anti-Semitism. Researchers, lawmakers and law enforcement practitioners have long complained that the lack of a generally agreed-upon definition of anti-Semitism—even if not legally binding—has helped confound efforts to combat the issue. So long as there was no definition, one man’s anti-Semitism could arguably be another man’s legitimate, albeit judgmental, opinion about Jews or Israel.
READ: A Potential Breakthrough in Defining Anti-Semitism
The definition proposed to the OSCE—only one sentence long with no mention of the State of Israel—goes on to provide 11 illustrative examples, most of which reference different manifestations of anti-Israel prejudice as forms of anti-Semitism: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust;…Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis...” – while adding the clear caveat that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The definition was adopted in May by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (encompassing European states plus the U.S., Canada, Argentina and Israel), but due to an obstructionist role played by a single member, the Russian Federation, the definition did not pass muster at OSCE, leaving states wanting to do utilize this new tool in the fight against anti-Semitism to adopt it individually as local legislation. The UK’s new prime minister Theresa May has committed Great Britain—faced with an alarming 61% increase in anti-Semitic crime over the past year—to being the first country to formally adopt the definition as law.
Despite the palatable disappointment at the OSCE vote, the Israel-EU dialogue provided a useful opportunity for officials to restate the Union’s commitments to counter anti—Semitism. Daniel Braun, the deputy head of cabinet for Věra Jourová, the European Union's commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, declared that combating anti-Semitism is not the responsibility of the Jewish community alone but an assault on fundamental rights that affects all people and not only minorities. Paul Nemitz, director for fundamental rights and rule of law, said that the Holocaust is part of European citizenship and that everyone, not only Jews, suffer from the effects of anti-Semitism, adding that the dialogue on combating the issue must continue irrespective of the state of the political dialogue between Israel and the EU.
The dialogue also provided a platform for an exchange of views on best practices, latest research and technological advances in combating anti-Semitism and also for a reality check on the efficacy of some long-held axioms.
For example, the EU has put much hope—and funding—into education and youth action as a means of tackling radicalization and anti-Semitism. Indeed, the concluding sentences in the extensive 10-year review on anti-Semitism in the EU, published last month by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, states that “Education is essential to prevent intolerant attitudes. Through education that fosters socialization, tolerance, universal values and encourages critical thinking, children and young people can bring change to their families and communities, and ultimately to the broader society.” This was reflected in the message of Katharina Von-Schnurbein, coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, who said that to change attitudes in the long term, EU member states need to tackle hate through education by working among teachers and principals. Braun also said that tolerance education must involve the whole spectrum of Jewish history in Europe, not just the Holocaust, which has been the focus of EU efforts until now. He was concerned by reports of anti-Semitic acts in schools and universities in Europe, adding that newcomers to the continent are bringing anti-Semitic attitudes with them and that it is Europe's responsibility to inculcate its basic principles of respect and tolerance into these newcomers.
But putting this approach into question, Dr. Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, argued that in the current hyper-charged atmosphere at many schools across Europe today, it is doubtful that meaningful change could be affected in schools since, as reported by many of the European teachers his school trains in methods for teaching the Holocaust, they are unable to implement any Holocaust curriculum in the face of student’s raucous objections, fanned by attitudes of Holocaust denial at home. Kaminka called on the EU officials to review the telling testimonies he has compiled of teachers across Europe that reflect the true face of intolerance and anti-Semitism in the classroom.
Perhaps the most hopeful news at the dialogue came from reports on implementation of the new Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online reached this May between the Commission and four major IT platforms: Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Social media is widely recognized as the principal platform for the promotion of anti-Semitic attitudes today. Under the Code, the IT companies must put in place a clear and effective process to review notifications regarding illegal hate speech on their services so they can remove or disable access to such content. Von-Schnurbein said that the Code establishes that the internet is no longer a legal black hole—, as it has been since its inception some 15 years ago, but that standards of incitement and illegal hate speech apply there too as it does in the print and broadcast media, terminating the privilege IT companies had claimed until now that they are not responsible for 3rd party content.
Although much hope was put in the Code, Von-Schnurbein expressed disappointment at the findings of the first review of implementation undertaken in October that indicated that only 28% of flagged entries have been removed by the platforms, a percentage she admitted did not meet expectations. When the fact that the flaggers are all vetted and paid for by the IT companies themselves, the percentage of takedowns pales even further (takedowns of flagged offensive material from non-vetted sources is even lower).
This led a number of participants in the dialogue to express incredulousness at the IT company's continued insistence on using manual flagging while objecting to the institution’s use of more uniform and reliable technological solutions for automatic removal as they already do to generate individualized advertising and content. As reported recently by Digital Trends, Google recently made improvements to its algorithm that will prevent Holocaust denial websites from appearing in search results. This improvement in the algorithm was made after Google came under fire for enabling neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denying websites to rank high up in search results for questions such as: "Did the Holocaust happen?"
Some of the most advanced technology available to cleanse the web from hate speech has been developed in Israel. One of these is Spot.IM—a fully automated tool that monitors the comments sections in online media outlets for hate and verbal violence, identifying individuals who prowl the internet hoping to spark violent discourse or aggravate them. The platform, now used by over 5,000 active news sites and online magazines in the U.S., Israel and Europe—automatically filters their activity up to and including blocking them and deleting their entire comment history.
Israel is also in the process of falling in line with the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK after a new legislation, the Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media bill, dubbed the “Facebook bill,” passed first muster last week in the Cabinet. Under the bill, courts will be empowered to order social media companies to remove posts that the authorities consider “a criminal endangerment to personal, public or national security." Although in the past year, 71% of 1,755 requests made by the Justice Ministry to providers to remove content were met, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that while internet companies were cooperating with the government in cleansing the web of content that violates defamation, adoption, Holocaust denial, incitement and anti-terrorism laws, "it is important that this cooperation be required, and not according to their whims.” The bill would apply to posts that “call for an act of violence or terrorism" and demands that posts are removed from visibility in Israel.
The Jewish community in general and B'nai B'rith in particular, along with other watchdog agencies, have a responsibility to ensure that the Commission keeps up pressure on the providers to make the Internet and social media a safer environment. In fact, speakers at the dialogue expressed that the dedication and commitment exhibited by Jewish interlocutors on this issue could be duplicated among other targeted minorities in Europe. This is a distinction I believe many of us would be only too happy to concede.
A recent international conference in Warsaw, Poland provided an opportunity to take inventory of the struggle against anti-Semitism. While the U.S. and European governments have made progress in addressing the problem, evidence of anti-Semitism’s persistence is in ready supply.
2014 saw a breakthrough at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a multilateral organization charged with, among other priorities, combating anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. For the first time in more than a decade of tackling modern incarnations of Judeophobia, the 57 governments that make up the OSCE codified core principles of the fight against anti-Semitism in a high-level ministerial declaration. “We reject and condemn manifestations of anti-Semitism, intolerance, and discrimination against Jews,” the document intoned.
2014, meanwhile, was also a year that saw a spike in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe and the former Soviet Union. A wave of anti-Israel demonstrations has swept the OSCE region in 2014 and 2015; these gatherings typically have featured blatantly anti-Semitic themes and often have turned violent. Attacks on Jewish individuals and institutions have increased in frequency and intensity, as the landscape from Belgium to Bulgaria, Germany to Greece, Holland to Hungary, and Ireland to Italy has witnessed violence against Jewish targets. This spread of hatred has been accompanied by a corrosion of the public discourse with respect to Jews and Israel and has left European Jewry fearful for their safety and security.
The rise of anti-Jewish hatred also has resulted in a proliferation of anti-Semitic propaganda, much of which is directed against the State of Israel. Tragically, the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state has become a daily occurrence, as Israel’s enemies repeatedly accuse it of being a Nazi-like occupier and an apartheid state that disenfranchises the Palestinians. Falsehoods about Israel are repeated so often that they become widely accepted in the popular culture and sometimes impact government policy. The effort by Israel’s relentless critics to denigrate the Jewish state is not only evidence that anti-Semitism is alive and well 70 years after the Holocaust—this new variation of the world’s oldest social illness actually poses a security threat to the Jewish state by intensifying its international isolation.
Against this backdrop, an OSCE human dimension implementation meeting that B’nai B’rith attended in Warsaw this month underscored that while much has been done to fight anti-Semitism in the past decade or more, much work remains. The need for practical and effective strategies to combat and defeat this pathology is still crucial.
B’nai B’rith’s recommendations to the Warsaw gathering included a call for OSCE member-states to affirm commitments made at the landmark 2004 Berlin Conference on Anti-Semitism— and reiterated in last year’s ministerial declaration—and assess the implementation of those commitments. B’nai B’rith also urged:
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He previously served as assistant director of European affairs at the American Jewish Committee. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, Click Here
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