I n the summer of 2014, Israel engaged in a controversial military action in the Gaza Strip, aiming to prevent Hamas from continuing to launch rockets at nearby towns. Protests against the Israeli government were held across Europe. Antisemitic incidents increased. The number of Jews leaving Europe for Israel was the highest in over a decade (Jewish Virtual Library, “Total Immigration, by Continent per Year”). In the midst of it all was Wuppertal, a city of Germany.
In 1938, the synagogue in Wuppertal was burned down by Nazis. In 2014, that same synagogue was burned down by three Palestinian-born German residents in a protest against the conflict in Gaza. Its perpetrators argued that this act was not antisemitic, but rather a legitimate form of protest against the Israeli government.
The courts agreed, even though, as Vox so elegantly noted, “the synagogue was obviously not in Israel and those who worship there are Jews, not Israelis” (Vox, “German court rules that firebombing a synagogue is not anti-Semitic,” 1.13.2017). None of the men involved received prison time and were instead given suspended sentences.
For even the staunchest anti-Israel activist, the problematic nature of this decision should be obvious. Firstly, it legitimizes any act of violence against Jewish people as long as it is in the name of opposition to Israel.
This would not be acceptable if the target was any other place of worship. If those activists had firebombed a mosque in protest of Iranian policy, or a Buddhist temple in protest of the slaying of Muslims in Myanmar, or an Anglican church in protest of the British government, there would be no disagreement that those are hate crimes.
Secondly, it sends a message to the Jewish people that they ought not to expect legal protection for crimes committed against them. How can any Jew feel safe if the courts decide that an act of violence against them is a legitimate form of political expression?
How can any Jew feel safe when the perpetrators of violence against them are allowed to get off with a slap on the wrist? How can any Jew feel safe when society has come to the decision that Jewish people don’t need legal protection? It opens the door to any number of violent anti-semitic attacks.
Even if the attack had taken place in Israel and was committed by members of Hamas, it would be an immoral and illegal act.
According to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, it is illegal to target places of worship for attack during a time of war. Even if 99.9 percent of the synagogue’s members were in the IDF, it would be illegal for a foreign enemy to attack it as long as its existence did not give the other side a tactical advantage.
That means unless the IDF was launching rockets from a synagogue, it would be off limits.
There was considerable outrage after ISIL destroyed places of worship in Iraq and Syria.
Why is it suddenly more acceptable when the target of that attack is a synagogue?
Yet was this decision truly shocking, or merely a part in a larger pattern of anti-semitic attacks?
In Wuppertal, three men scapegoated the Jewish people for perceived injustices against Palestine. They were not the first.
Throughout history, anti-semites scapegoat the Jewish people and tie that hatred to a particular person or issue. As long as anti-semitism is veiled in populist sentiment, it can be considered acceptable.
Consider the Rothschilds, a wealthy Jewish family that made their fortune in banking, and proceeded to invest in a wide array of other interests.
While they have about as much influence as one could expect from any wealthy family (comparable to the Kennedys or Bushes except on a more international scale), many anti-semites believe they control the world, and they have been the subject of vile and ridiculous conspiracy theories.
One meme, shared by former Oberlin Professor Joy Karega, claims that “[the Rothschilds] own nearly every central bank in the world…finance both sides of every war since Napoleon… own your news, the media, your oil, and your government.”
Another claims “Adolf Hitler was a Rothschild” (Skeptoid, “Busting Some Rothschilds Family Facebook Members, 4.6.2014). None of these claims are true. They go beyond alternative facts, their adherents exist in an entire alternative reality.
Yet many, many people believe this nonsense, and those same people use that irrational hatred against the Rothschilds as an excuse to attack the Jewish people.
Yet this brand of hatred can be tolerated because it feeds on a populist distrust of banker–a distrust with deep roots in medieval antisemitism that pervaded European social and political thought.
How many liberals ignored the antisemitism of Occupy Wall Street because they liked the movement’s anti-elitist message? How many conservatives ignored the antisemitism of the tea party because they liked that movement’s anti-elitist message?
Is it really so difficult to imagine that anti-Zionists excuse their own movement’s antisemitism because they agree with its message?
But when do the excuses go to far? When you’re going on about Rothschilds conspiracy theories? When you encourage your friends to punch a Zionist? When you punch a Zionist? When you punch a Jew because you think they might be a Zionist? When you protest a synagogue? When you protest a synagogue with such intensity that you trap its members inside the building? When you firebomb a synagogue? When you decide that it’s okay to firebomb a synagogue because its political speech?
When the line keeps being moved, it no longer is a line.
This court decision is unfortunate, but it is not a surprise. It represents yet another means by which anti-semites seek to legitimize attacks against the Jewish people. More unfortunately, these efforts appear to be effective not only in convincing the public, but in shaping legal precedent. Antisemitism must be expunged from both ends of the ideological divide. The German court’s decision inscribed such malleable antisemitism into the law.
There must be increased vigilance to ensure that the public and legal institutions value Jewish lives and commit to combating anti-semitism in all its forms.