Legalized Anti-Semitism

German Court Rules Synagogue Firebombing an ‘Act of Protest’

After three men firebombed a German synagogue, a judge let them off with just arson charges. That ruling is as wrong as it is dangerous.

Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty

Imagine the following scenario.

A group of skinheads torch a black church somewhere in the Deep South. Upon being apprehended by the police, they cite the injustices that Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe has visited upon the white farmers of his country as justification for their arson. Mugabe is black, he rules on behalf of “the black race,” and therefore black people everywhere must be made to feel responsible for his crimes.

Anyone making such a ridiculous argument would rightly be labeled a racist. But change the victims from black people to Jews, and the perpetrators from pale neo-Nazis to dark-skinned Muslims, and a great many people will claim that what is obviously a crime motivated by blatant bigotry is in fact a politically-inspired protest.

Included in these enlightened ranks we can now add a German jurist from the city of Wuppertal. Last week, the judge convicted two German-Palestinian men of attempted serious arson against a synagogue in the city, along with a juvenile accomplice. But in his ruling, the wise man of the law declared that the crime was motivated not by anti-Semitism, but instead by a desire to “bring attention to the Gaza conflict.”

The torching occurred on July 29, in the midst of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day armed conflict waged in response to Hamas rocket attacks. A few days before the firebombing, “Free Palestine” had been scrawled on the synagogue walls.

This was not the first time, of course, that people had tried to burn down the synagogue in Wuppertal. It was destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. According to the logic of the judge, the Jews of yesteryear must have had it coming, too. Perhaps if so many of them had not tried to stab Germany in the back during the First World War, the brown shirts would not have felt the need to ransack their shops and raze their houses of worship to the ground.

Never mind the question of why Jews in Germany should have to suffer for the supposed sins of a government half a world away. In a liberal democracy, there are many ways one can “bring attention” to pressing issues elsewhere in the world. One can write newspaper articles. One can petition elected officials. One can hold public demonstrations. One cannot, however, commit acts of violence.

When one does commit an act of violence, it is incumbent upon responsible members of society to call it out for what it is.

The torching of a synagogue is anti-Semitism, plain and simple. To call it anything else is moral cowardice.

More than that, to deny that it is anti-Semitism is to capitulate to the anti-Semites and be complicit in their anti-Semitism, just as to deny that the racist motives of a black man’s lynching would make one complicit in racism. Had the perpetrators wanted to make their point about Israel untainted by anti-Semitism, they could have easily done so by torching the Israeli embassy. It would have still been unlawful and unreasonable, but not necessarily anti-Semitic. But attacking a Jewish house of worship crosses the line from political protest to unambiguous bigotry.

This distinction should be obvious. Yet across the European continent, it is a commonly held opinion that when Muslims commit hate crimes against Jews, they are merely expressing legitimate frustrations regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Take, for instance, BBC presenter Tim Willcox’s interview last month, in the aftermath of the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket, with a shell-shocked Jewish Parisian daughter of Holocaust survivors. Asking the woman what it was like to live as a Jew in a country where four Jews had just been murdered simply because they were Jews and where the number of Jews immigrating to Israel had doubled in the past year, the woman replied that, “the situation is going back to the days of the 1930s in Europe.” To this, Willcox slyly suggested that the Jews deserved what they were getting because of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. “Many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well” he said.

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Not only does this faulty logic—if one can even call it that—excuse anti-Semitism. It patronizes Muslims. By holding them to a double standard, excusing away violent hate crimes as just immoderate forms of political expression, we treat them as children. We render them helpless to express their grievances like the rest of humanity via civilized means, capable only of “acting out” in the form of suicide bombing and other violent methods.

To call this mode of thinking a form of moral confusion would be too gentle. Just like explaining away the firebombing of a house of worship, it is sinister excuse making for murderous bigotry.