(This Dec. 7 story has been refiled to remove a picture) By Thomas Escritt and Sarah Marsh BERLIN (Reuters) – A German chancellor for the first time kindled the first flame of the giant Hanukkah Menorah in front of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate on Thursday in a sign of solidarity with Jewish people two months […]
Hanukkah brings light to Germany’s Jews facing surge in antisemitism
(This Dec. 7 story has been refiled to remove a picture)
By Thomas Escritt and Sarah Marsh
BERLIN (Reuters) – A German chancellor for the first time kindled the first flame of the giant Hanukkah Menorah in front of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate on Thursday in a sign of solidarity with Jewish people two months after the Hamas attacks.
“May these days go down in history as a further step in the growth of Jewish life in Germany,” Berlin Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal said, standing alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz in front of the nine-branched, 10-metre (33-foot) high candelabra marking the eight days of the Jewish Festival of Lights.
A crane lifted the two up to the first branch of the menorah, that Scholz, wearing a kippah for the occasion, lit with a torch.
“Hanukkah stands for hope and trust,” said Scholz. “We need both, especially in these days.”
Scholz’s gesture – which comes as Germany’s renascent Jewish community has been shaken by a surge in antisemitic attacks since the October start of the war in Gaza – has been welcomed by many.
But it also comes at a time when that conflict is testing German’s post-war consensus – even among some members of the Jewish community – on broad support for the government of Israel, a policy born out of atonement for the Holocaust.
There were 994 antisemitic incidents across Germany from the start of the war on Oct. 7 to Nov. 9 – 29 per day – a 320% rise on last year’s daily average, according to the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism.
“I can’t believe we are having to look over our shoulder again,” said Hannah Katz, 32, in her home in Berlin. Her grandfather fled Nazi Germany for the United States in 1940 and she became the first in her family to return to live in Germany five years ago.
A petrol-filled bottle was thrown at a synagogue near her own temple shortly after the Hamas attacks. The directors of her Hebrew choir advised members not to advertise their concert last Saturday, which was guarded by armed police.
Katz, a teacher and musician whose great grandparents were among the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, said she was glad the government was trying to ensure Jews’ safety.
But like some other German Jews, she feared that in its concern to show support, Germany was sometimes holding back too much on criticism of Israel, for fear it would be taken as antisemitism. No member of government or mainstream political party has directly condemned Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
“If they are going to be so one-sided about it, that is going to make people frustrated,” Katz said.
‘A MESSAGE OF LIGHT AND HOPE’
Official statistics show antisemitism had already been on the rise before Oct. 7, driven by the far right.
Leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany party – currently second in opinion polls – have argued the country should move on from atoning for its past crimes.
Since Oct. 7, some in the government have pointed to Germany’s Muslim community as a significant source of antisemitic incidents.
The interior ministry has banned several Islamist organizations including one which celebrated the Hamas attacks by distributing sweets in Berlin, and hiked security at Jewish institutions.
“Germany should not take in any refugees from Gaza,” Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition conservatives, said on Oct. 27. “That would exacerbate the antisemitism problem.”
Felix Klein, the government official charged with coordinating the fight against antisemitism, told Reuters most antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7 could be traced back to Muslim communities.
Those responses have highlighted another deep fault line in German society. Leading members of the Muslim community have accused the government of unfairly shifting the blame onto them and using Gaza to fuel the ever-divisive debate on immigration.
“Germany has always had a problem with antisemitism, and especially with right extremism,” said Aiman Mazyek, head of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims.
“And now people see a chance to shift that burden, saying: look! It’s not us, it’s the Muslims, the Arabs bringing antisemitism to Germany.”
His concerns have been echoed by rights organisations – and also by some leading members of Germany’s own Jewish community who say they feel a common cause against all forms of discrimination.
More than 100 German Jewish intellectuals signed an open letter in October expressing their “full solidarity with our Arab, Muslim and especially Palestinian neighbours” who they said were facing racism.
“What frightens us is the prevailing atmosphere of racism and xenophobia in Germany, hand in hand with a constraining and paternalistic philo-Semitism,” they said.
Muslim representatives attended Thursday’s ceremony at the Brandenburg Gate, alongside Jewish and Christian leaders.
Scholz’s leading role in the Hanukkah ceremony, on the same square where the Nazis once paraded, was a potent symbol, said Rabbi Teichtal.
“Standing in the same place where the Nazis had their marches,” he said. “Isn’t that a message of light and hope?”
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Andrew Heavens)