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David Harris: 'It's time to see the menace clearly'

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
October 11, 2019

In a DW interview following the attack on the Halle synagogue, American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris stressed that Germany, like several other European countries, has long underestimated the danger to Jews. 

USA | David Harris, American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Committee CEO David HarrisImage: privat

The Germans are still shocked after a gunman killed two people in the streets of Halle after a thwarted attempt to enter the synagogue. What conclusions should be drawn from the tragedy?

The tragedy in Halle was another painful and sobering reminder of the very real threat of antisemitism in Germany. It also revealed that security needs to be stepped up and the police response time must also be shortened. A few days earlier, another terrorist attack, this time against a Berlin synagogue, was thwarted by alert security guards. What links the two attacks is hatred of Jews. What distinguishes them is the perpetrator in Halle appears to be an extreme right-winger, while the perpetrator in Berlin appears to be a Syrian refugee. The lesson is that German officials need to be closely monitoring threats to Jews from multiple sources. There's still a lot of work to be done.

Deutschland Halle nach Anschlag auf Synagoge
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

There is a growing number of antisemitic incidents in Germany. Are you hopeful that Germany is able to keep these things under control?

Rising antisemitism in Germany presents a big challenge not only to the Jewish community, but no less to German society. It was a source of great pride to Germany that, in recent years, many Jews came to live there, no longer being so fearful of the past. But now, with a noticeable rise in antisemitic incidents throughout Germany and a much-noted comment by a German official that Jews who wear a kippah may not be fully safe, concern is once again growing. Whether the hatred comes from the extreme right or from within the immigrant community or wherever else, Germany must confront and defeat this pathology. 

But how should Germany confront this pathology?

It's my impression that Germany, like several other European countries, long underestimated the danger to Jews. It's time to wake up and see the menace clearly and unambiguously. Having accomplished so much in the post war years to help rebuild Jewish life in Germany, it would be a major tragedy if Germany once again was viewed as a dangerous place for Jews to live and worship. Just a few months ago, the highest-ranking German official monitoring antisemitism said the country could no longer ensure the security of identifiable Jews and urged their caution. We believe this statement was a mistake at the time because it showed weakness, not strength, in combating antisemitism. It's time to show strength.

Deutschland Halle Synagoge
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

About Jewish-German relationships: one of the outcomes of the Second World War is Germany's rather pacifist attitude. Do you consider this something positive? 

As a child of Holocaust survivors, I find myself in the rather ironic position of seeking Germany’s increased defense budget and its share of our collective defense. I say this only because I have confidence in today's Germany, having spent a great deal of time in the country over the years. In fact, since 1994, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the German military have had a rather unique association, whose 25th anniversary we mark this year. 

U.S. President Donald Trump is a close ally of Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, but is he a good advocate of Jewish purposes and needs worldwide as well?

As a nonpartisan organization, the AJC prefers to discuss policies, not personalities or parties when it comes to democratic countries. American Jews are deeply divided on President Trump’s overall record, but clearly, from the perspective of Israel and its leaders, there is a lot of satisfaction with his positions on U.S.-Israel relations, on U.S. voting at the UN, and on the threat of Iran.

Some say that the two-state solution has no future any more. Europeans are especially critical of this. What would you recommend a EU country like Poland, torn between the White House and Brussels, should do now?

It's far more complicated than simply to suggest that President Trump is responsible for the dimming hope of a two-state solution. The real responsible party has been the Palestinian leadership and its rejection of one offer after another, beginning as early as 1947. The result is that fewer Israelis believe that such a solution is actually possible, much as they might wish it, if there's no serious and credible partner. What Poland and Europe more generally ought to do, I believe, is, first, better understand Israel's real security challenges and dilemmas in trying to move forward, and second, focus more attention on what the "day after" of any peace agreement would look like. In other word, what can Europe actually offer to help prevent the possibility of a failed Palestinian state emerging in the narrow space between Israel to the west and Jordan to the east? That could be a major contribution on Europe’s part.

Why is the AJC focusing so heavily in Germany and throughout Europe on the Hezbollah question?

In 2013, after many years of denial, the European Union listed the so-called military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but not the so-called political wing. This is a fiction. Hezbollah is one organization, not two. It says so itself. So do the U.S., Canada, the Arab League, and others. To show real determination in the war against terror, which is also taking place on European soil, the EU, led by Germany, should finish the job it began in 2013. Moreover, Hezbollah is a deeply antisemitic organization that calls for Israel's extinction. Germany is committed to fighting antisemitism and supporting Israel's security. Again, that's why Germany should take the lead in Europe on the Hezbollah question.