The trial of the Halle synagogue shooter – lessons to be learned amid resurgent anti-Semitism in Germany
On the 21st of July, the trial of Halle neo-Nazi terrorist Stephan Balliet began in Magdeburg, Germany. He faces life in prison for the murder of 40-year-old Jana L. and 20-year-old Kevin S., as well as 68 cases of attempted murder and incitement to racial hatred following his attack on Halle’s synagogue last year. Amid growing anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, this was the deadliest anti-Jewish attack in Germany since WWII.
On the 9th of October 2019, Yom Kippur eve, the 28-year-old right-wing extremist drove up to the small-town synagogue, sporting military attire and geared up with explosives and firearms. As just over 50 worshipers gathered in prayer, the attacker started shooting at the building, where a now-memorialized wooden door resisted the shots and helped save the lives of all those inside. Upon failing to enter the synagogue, the attacker started shooting on the street, killing a passer-by and a kebab salesman the shooter assumed to be an immigrant.
Prior to the attack, Balliet published an online manifesto, which detailed his hatred for Jews and his belief in the Great Replacement theory”– a conspiracy myth that claims Jewish elites promote feminism to deter birth rates in predominantly white European countries to replace white males. He also broadcasted the attack live. It was viewed over 2,000 times and archived to right-wing platforms before being taken down by Twitch, a platform owned by Amazon.
Balliet was imprisoned following a police chase, but he attempted to escape this May, climbing an 11-foot fence during a walk through the courtyard. It was only after this incident that he was transferred to a maximum security prison.
Forty-three coplaintiffs, a majority of whom were in the Halle synagogue during the attack, were present at the trial as the terrorist testified about his desire to "commit a massacre", as per the indictment. He showed no remorse.
The Halle attack came amid a pandemic of right-wing extremist attacks globally – notably the attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg and on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand – which, as the Halle synagogue attacker himself admitted, served as inspiration.
It also came on the backdrop of resurgent far-right terrorism in Germany. In 2019, Germany’s federal government recorded just over 22 000 right-wing extremist attacks over 2,000 explicitly anti-Semitic attacks, both representing the largest numbers in past years. It was in the same year that a neo-Nazi sympathizer fatally shot centrist politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. In the Germany city of Hanau this February, a right-wing extremist supporting anti-Semitic and racist views killed nine people he believed were foreigners.
Branches of the army and police are currently engulfed in scandals amid uncovered links to extreme right groups. Over 600 soldiers were investigated by Germany’s military counterintelligence. After several far-right incidents were discovered, the KSK, Germany’s elite Special Commando Forces, was disbanded.
Thomas Haldenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution who is tasked with protecting Germany from extremists on right and left, drew attention to an “informal network” of right-wing extremists in strategic areas ranging from the domestic intelligence service, as outlined above, to media. Anti-Semitic messaging was, according to Haldenwang, being subtly infiltrated into public discourse.
Facing the reality of resurgent anti-Jewish hatred, given its history, Germany has put in place strong measures to tackle antisemitism.
Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein and a growing list of regional coordinators oversee Germany’s attempts to address the phenomenon. Major Jewish institutions are provided with security; prosecution of hate crimes is well established in the criminal justice system; legislation was recently passed that tightens regulations for online platforms to report and take down illegal hate speech; Holocaust education is well anchored in curricula; numerous exchange programs with Israel exist; and the political establishment has a deeply enshrined culture of speaking out in support of the Jewish community.
Following the attack on the German synagogue, President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel both attended vigils, in Halle and Berlin, and recommitted to increase efforts to address anti-Semitism, particularly regarding the lack of security in smaller communities.
In response to the recent resurgence of right-wing extremism, Germany placed the more extreme branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance, and, in a first, banned a series of clubs belonging to the far-right movement Citizens of the Reich.
It’s a matter of perspective whether all this is re-assuring, or all the more alarming in Germany’s feebleness when confronted with the trends outlined earlier. One thing is clear: More needs to be done.
Lessons for moving forward
The terrorist attack in Halle offers many specific policy points of reflection. The streaming of the attack online feeds into ongoing discussions about platforms’ accountability for users’ content. The attacker’s gamer profile points to the violent inclinations of gaming platforms. His declared world views, a signal that more must be done to address the formation and dissemination of conspiracy myths. The now-flimsy wooden synagogue door is a testament to the need for heightened security, even in smaller communities.
Yet beyond these specific points, a recurring theme emerged from testimonies of those who survived Halle: The trial cannot be about this singular incident. Rather, it must raise awareness about deep-rooted anti-Semitism and extremism in many corners of German society. As Commissioner Klein noted in a recent interview, a welcome outcome would be increased discourse about anti-Semitism in German society, and real understanding among civilians and policy-makers alike about the real scope of the challenges faced.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
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This piece was also run on The Times of Israel. You can click below to read it there.
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Amid a fresh wave of terrorism in countries including the United States, Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel – though all but the latter have been responded to full-throatedly, owing to the base politics and limited focus that now afford singular international attention only to the arm of violent jihadism that brands itself ISIS – annual elections were held last week to fill upcoming vacancies on the body most responsible for global peace: the United Nations Security Council. Despite this responsibility, though – and power surpassing that of any other U.N. organ – the Council, itself frequently deadlocked by the conflicting interests of nations large and small, has become well-known for its inability to concretely address the world’s most pressing problems.
The Security Council, at any given time, has 15 members – five veto-wielding permanent members (the U.S., China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom), with the remainder elected by the General Assembly to serve staggered two-year terms.
The U.N. as a whole is comprised of 193 member states; a majority of these have had the opportunity – some repeatedly – to be members of the organization’s most “prestigious” body, while (as of 2017) 67 will never have had the chance. These include many smaller countries. At the same time, while Israel – whose policies and engagements receive unparalleled probing across the U.N. system – has never been elected to the Security Council, countries with a smaller population have: for example, Panama (five times), Denmark (four times), Norway (four times), Ireland (three times), Finland (twice), Uruguay (twice), Singapore (once), Paraguay (once), Luxembourg (once) and Malta (once).
Arab states in the Middle East have also been elected. Among them, Egypt has served five times, Syria three times, Algeria three times, Jordan three times, Iraq twice, Libya twice and Lebanon twice.
The current Council members whose term will continue through the end of 2017 are Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.
Those whose term ends at the end of this year are Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela.
In last week’s ballot, the countries elected to serve on the Council in 2017 and 2018 are Ethiopia (for the African Group), Kazakhstan (for the Asia-Pacific Group), Bolivia (for the Latin American and Caribbean Group), and Sweden (for the Western European and Other Group), with the Netherlands and Italy – in a rarity over recent decades, after multiple inconclusive rounds of voting – agreeing to split a term by serving only one year each.
It is difficult to predict how the altered makeup of the Security Council may impact voting on resolutions on issues such as those related to Israel – and, by extension, whether such resolutions will be proposed at all – as this is impacted at any given moment by geopolitical circumstances, by the policy orientation of sitting governments and, of course, by the specific content of any prospective motion. In the nearly half-year remaining until outgoing Council members are replaced, much can change or remain the same in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS and warfare regionally, along with related surges of migration to and recurring terror attacks in Europe, have drawn a good deal of attention away from the Palestinian-Israeli rift. However, as Western countries pledge to eradicate ISIS, a reflexive instinct to also pacify Palestinians remains. France, of late very much in Islamist crosshairs, insisted on launching a recent international “initiative” to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but its initial summit meeting excluded the parties to conflict themselves; the Palestinians, who at one point received indication that Paris would simply recognize the “State of Palestine” if negotiations with Israel failed to promptly yield it, came to endorse the effort. Absent any Israeli buy-in, the French also on various occasions have expressed a desire to get the U.N. Security Council to impose a “framework” for the resolution of the dispute.
This, that is, assuming the U.S. will not deploy its Council veto. The Obama administration has long defended Israel at the U.N., and affirmed its continued view that the conflict should be settled through direct bilateral negotiations, but it has not clearly promised to oppose any Security Council resolution on Israel during the president’s final months in office, in the absence of progress toward peace on other tracks.
Nine affirmative votes, with no veto, are needed for a Security Council resolution to be adopted. If the U.S. were to allow a Council resolution on the conflict this year – whether outlining an anticipated final-status deal or, for example, merely reproving Israel for the presence of Jewish communities in Palestinian-claimed territory – it would all but surely pass with the four other permanent members, and at least six (if not all) non-permanent members, actively supporting it. While several current Council members have shown willingness in other U.N. bodies to abstain on some overtly anti-Israel resolutions, few, if any, would abstain on (let alone oppose) a motion seen to reflect a consensus that effectively includes the White House.
As to 2017, the Security Council landscape would seem to be improving a bit for Jerusalem: three countries that dependably vote against Israel (including the vociferous Venezuela) will be out, to be replaced by only two following the same voting pattern (though the incoming three countries that typically abstain on stridently anti-Israel resolutions include Sweden, which has regularly been outspoken in criticizing Israel’s government). Israel’s effort to return to a renaissance in ties with African states like incoming Council member (and moderate-voting) Ethiopia – as well as its recent, behind-the-scenes consultations even with those like Russia, Turkey and the Sunni Arab states – may also yield subtle fruit at the U.N., if only in averting or watering down the most damaging of prospective resolutions. At the same time, of course, factors like the U.S. presidential race and now the selection of a new British premier – though a number of friends of Israel are well-placed in both contexts – offer real wildcards. Additionally, it is yet to be seen how Brexit, and global anxieties and a sense of nationalist resurgences generally, will impact the European Union and its aspiration to a bloc-wide foreign policy.
Last Friday, the so-called international Quartet on Middle East peacemaking – which includes high-level representatives of the U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia – resurfaced with a report that again sought to project an urgent need to end the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate. However, the report provoked a furious backlash from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who yesterday called on the Security Council to reject the text, which notably included not only Israeli settlements but also Palestinian incitement to violence among the impediments that it perceives to peace.
More likely than heeding Abbas’s call, the Council can be expected over the coming weeks to shift focus to the process of selecting a U.N. secretary-general to replace Ban Ki-moon at the start of 2017, after ten years in office. Though formally elected by the General Assembly – which this year has been given the opportunity to interview declared candidates – the world body’s top official is traditionally chosen through intensive private haggling within the Security Council, specifically its permanent members. Like candidacies for Council membership, the role of secretary-general is (unofficially) seen as tied to region, doled out on a basis of rotation. It is now widely seen to be Eastern Europe’s turn to place someone at the helm.
While the array of candidates vary in their prior record on Middle East issues – secretaries-general are limited in what they can do to ameliorate anti-Israel bigotry at the U.N., and most have to different degrees disappointed in their efforts to at least try – Eastern European countries have, in the post-Communist era, often been characterized by considerable sympathy for the Jewish state. During a period when Eastern Europe may have some greater autonomy from centralized E.U. decision-making – or, in fact, a more influential part in shaping it – it would be a true contribution to peacemaking, and to the standing of the United Nations, if a senior-most U.N. official from that region were to model bold leadership in promoting fairness and responsibility on Israel at the world body itself.
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Nearly all of the 10 presentations have been made to victims of Palestinian terrorism, and not one of the encounters, usually in their living rooms, was an easy experience. The process begins with a cautious telephone call to broach our intention to make the grant (at least one guardian refused our largess) and set a meeting to hand over the grant check. I made the latest, particularly heartbreaking presentation, last week just before the Passover holiday to Yael Weissman for the benefit of her 7-month old daughter, Neta. Their husband and father, St. Sgt. Tuvia Yanai Weissman (21), was murdered on Thursday, Feb. 18, while trying to protect them and other shoppers from two 14-year old, knife-wielding Palestinian terrorists at the Rami Levy supermarket at Sha’ar Binyamin.
Weissman—a combat sergeant in the IDF’s Nahal Brigade, was on a week-long leave, shopping for the upcoming Shabbat with Yael and Neta when he heard screams from a different aisle. Realizing immediately that a terrorist attack was in progress, Weissman, unarmed, ran to confront the terrorists as other shoppers fled. He was the first to reach the terrorists who had begun their stabbing spree but he was the only victim to die of his wounds. I made the drive to the secluded Binyamin settlement of Ma’aleh Michmas in the quiet, late morning—the Judean Hills were vibrant in the spring sun. With Neta—a sweet, calm, playful infant—embraced in her arms and Yael's older sister, who had just undergone an operation to remove a grown from her head' in the kitchen, Yael told me that she and Yanai were childhood sweethearts who grew up in Michmas, married, and made their home there near both sets of parents. A witness herself to the attack, she vividly remembers every detail as it unfolded. The investigation confirmed that the death toll would have been much higher had Yanai not bravely confronted the terrorists barehanded. She was overwhelmed with the expression of support for her and Neta by B’nai B’rith and other organizations and individuals.
The hardest part of this and my other encounters with these bereaved families is bringing the meeting to an end and continuing with my day’s work, knowing that that while perhaps momentarily buoyed by the expression of care and concern by a major international Jewish organization, I would rejoin my hectic reality while the victims will need to spend a lifetime confronting their loss.
This was the case with previous years' recipients. Laren Sayif’s father, Druze Police Sgt. Zidan Sayif, was killed in November 2014 as he confronted two Palestinian terrorists who were engaging in a gruesome knife and meat cleaver attack on worshipers at the Kehilat B’nai Torah synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem. That attack left 24 children without their fathers and, in recognition of the scope of the tragedy, B’nai B’rith used the B’nai B’rith International Emergency Fund to make an exceptional second grant that year to the four children of one of the four victims, Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, Chief Warrant Officer Kasahun Baynesian, 39, of Netivot, served in the Northern Brigade of the Gaza Division and was killed during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, along with three other soldiers, when his military jeep was hit with an anti-tank missile fired by a Gazan terrorist squad, which used a cross-border tunnel to infiltrate southern Israel on July 17. He left behind four children—the youngest born after his death. Yossi Shushan was killed on Augusut 20, 2011 by a Grad rocket fired from Gaza and left behind three children. Udi and Ruth Fogel who were murdered, along with three children, in their beds in the settlement of Itamar on Friday night, March 11, 2011. They left three surviving children. These heartbreaking stories repeat themselves for all of the ten victims whose orphans the fund has touched over the years.
The Edith “Pat” Wolfson Endowment Fund has become an expression of caring for the victims of some of the worst terrorist atrocities that have left orphans over the last decade. The B’nai B’rith World Center will continue to execute this difficult and humbling task while seeking ways to maintain a meaningful relationship with those we have touched.
The B’nai B’rith World Center has administered the Edith “Pat” Wolfson Endowment Fund for Israeli Youth since its inception in 2005, with Schneider personally presenting the grant to the orphan’s surviving parent or legal guardian each year. The fund supports Israeli youth orphaned by war or terrorism.
Did Islamic terrorists ask permission to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and to bomb the AMIA in 1994? No. Neutrality only opens doors for insanity.
In January of this year, before the massacre in Belgium but after the terrorist attacks in France in 2015, a major daily in Uruguay interviewed French Ambassador Sylvain Itte to Uruguay in Montevideo.
“Of course Uruguay is not outside terrorist threats. It would be very wrong to think that way or to think that any country can be free of such a threat,” Itte said. “Terrorists have no borders and their message is the same all over the world. You can´t live thinking 24 hours a day that there will be a terrorist attack, but if you compare 20 years ago, you must admit that there is no place on earth free from terrorist threats and attacks.”
Itte didn’t realize that this was basically a premonition.
15 years ago, Uruguay approved an anti-discriminatory law to combat hatred and anti-Semitism, defending the society against hate crimes. This was not a response to terrorism at the time but there were strong signs of intolerance and the approval of the law was essential.
On March 8 of this year, incitement progressed to murder, hate crimes and terrorism.
David Fremd, an extraordinary, devoted Jewish community leader in Paysandu, a city 400 kilometers from Montevideo, was stabbed to death. The killer admitted this was because he was Jewish.
Abdullah Omar, 35 years old, a school teacher, converted to Islam 10 years ago. His original name is Omar Peralta. He told the judge before being sentenced that he received “a call from Allah” to kill a Jew, so he went to the shop where he knew a prominent Jew worked and stabbed him.
Latin America is surrounded by incitement. From social media to the awful language used in political discussions in the media to the Uruguayan Congress, etc. We can watch it through the lens of the frenzied, radical left, which separates the world into good people and bad people, and blames Israel for all the evils on earth.
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During last war in the Gaza Strip in 2014, then-President of Uruguay Jose Mujica took part in the incitement, saying that Israel was “genocidal.”
In a blink of an eye, anti-Semitism rose like flames of a great fire and graffiti with the phrase, “Get out Jews from Uruguay” were painted in roads, streets, avenues and walls. Once incitement comes out, it does not go back.
The signs of hatred are out there. There are laws to fight discrimination and cyber harassment. But waiting for turmoil is not prevention as requested by the law.
Now that hate crimes and terrorism have taken place in Latin America, there have been some positive reactions.
The Uruguayan government, through its President Tabare Vazquez who took office a year ago, has promised that the administration will use its tools to combat all sorts of racism and discrimination at all levels.
But let´s be clear. Neither the state nor the civil society alone will be able to heal these deep wounds separately. The work must be done together.
Is it possible? We all hope so. Except for the ALBA countries (Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Venezuela), democracy prevails.
In this fight to defend democracy, it’s not simply the future that is at stake. It is also the present.
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