Berlin: Hanukkah lights and anti-Israel demonstrations | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.12.2017
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Berlin: Hanukkah lights and anti-Israel demonstrations

In Berlin, the first candle of the city's massive Hanukkah menorah has been lit to mark the traditional start of the Festival of Lights. At the same time, Palestinians and Arabs held anti-Israel protests in the capital.

Barricades, riot police, dozens of police vehicles, a precautionary water cannon and thorough bag searches: security was increased at the traditional lighting of the Hanukkah menorah at the Brandenburg Gate this year in the wake of anti-Semitic protests over the weekend, during which Palestinians and Arabs burned Israeli flags.  

Shortly after 6:30 p.m. (1730 UTC), Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas and Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff stood together to light the first candle of Europe's largest Hanukkah menorah.

The menorah, which has been installed in front of the Brandenburg Gate to mark the eight-day-long Festival of Lights each year for the past several years, is 10 meters tall (33 feet). It stands right next to the city's 17-meter-tall Christmas tree. 

Bringing light into the darkness

"We stand here at Pariser Platz, a site which was the center of darkness during the era of National Socialism," said Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, who heads Berlin's Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center and is the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berlin, "to light the Hanukkah menorah, so that we can symbolically bring light into the darkness. It is exactly at this site that we want to say that we seek a positive and tolerant society."

"Especially now," added Teichtal, referring to the anti-Semitic demonstrations sparked by US President Donald Trump's announcement that the US would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Two days prior to the lighting of the menorah, angry Palestinians and Arabs burned Israeli flags and Stars of David in several neighborhoods around Berlin. They did so in front of the US Embassy at the Brandenburg Gate as well. Protesters announced they would demonstrate at the Hanukkah celebration, too. A pro-Palestinian demonstration was scheduled to take place here at 4 p.m. 

Fear of clashes

That was apparently too risky for police. At midday, the decision was made to move the demonstration about a kilometer (0.6 miles) away, to be held at Berlin's central train station.

Protesters demonstrate against Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital outside Berlin's main train station. (F. Bensch / Reuters)

The demonstrations against Trump's Jerusalem decision were closely monitored

A couple hundred protesters, many of them women and children, gathered there under the watchful eye of some 400 police officers and scores of journalists. Protesters unfurled posters of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, waved Palestinian flags and screamed slogans like: "Israel and USA: Human rights–ha,ha,ha," but also, "We will stab soldiers and settlers," "Bomb Israel" and "Allahu Akbar."

Read more: Opinion: Burning the Israeli flag has nothing to do with freedom of speech

At the same time, a speaker for the event organizers denounced all forms of anti-Semitism and calls for violence. Interpreters translated Arabic slogans for police, who had announced that they would immediately intervene if Israeli flags were again burned. When the demonstration ended, police moved officers over to the largely cordoned off Brandenburg Gate area. 

Criticism of the Berlin police

The heightened security measures were a police response to accusations that they had made mistakes when the anti-Semitic protests broke out on the weekend. "It seems that the Berlin Police Department misjudged the situation and acted too late or not at all when the free and democratic basic order was clearly breached," wrote the Federal Union of Jewish Students, the Youth Forum of the German-Israeli Society and the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute in an open letter to Berlin Interior Senator Andreas Geisel.

Demonstrators in Berlin burn a flag with the star of David on it, on December 10 2017

The burning of an Israeli flag in Berlin caused concern

"When demonstrators abuse the right of freedom of assembly in order to incite against Jews and the Jewish State in the heart of Berlin, that is a problem for the whole of society, one that affects us all, and one that also requires the state to act more decisively," the letter continued. 

That is something that the Central Council of Jews in Germany called for as well, along with proposing changes to current laws. Council President Josef Schuster demanded that demonstrations be immediately broken up when anti-Semitic slogans are chanted or Israeli flags burned. If existing law does not permit that, then the federal government must "urgently assess possible changes," according to Schuster.

Read more: German laws on burning the Israeli flag: What you need to know

Politicians have sympathy for concerns

The proposal was greeted with varying attitudes among German politicians. Thomas Heilmann, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told DW he was unsure that, "increasing penalties for things that are already prohibited will keep them from happening in the future. I think it is more of a moral question, and a thing that everyone in Germany, whether they be Christian or Muslim, must distance themselves from."

Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician Karl Lauterbach had an entirely different reaction. "We also have to think about whether we can deal with this more effectively from a crime perspective, so that it never happens again. We are looking at the beginnings of a very dangerous movement," said Lauterbach, adding that the situation brought "shame on Germany." Speaking with DW, he elaborated: "If someone burns a flag, it symbolizes the fact that they want to burn the country. That is typically something a person does when they call for war. That is not something that has a place here, it is unacceptable, and it has nothing to do with the right to assemble.

Taking a stand for tolerance

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal is also of the opinion that Germany must do all it can to stop hateful anti-Semitic demonstrations: "I think the proposals put forth by the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany were very positive and very important," he said at the Brandenburg Gate menorah lighting ceremony. "We must understand that no one is an onlooker in this instance, that everyone must do everything possible to ensure that we live in a tolerant society where everyone is respected. That will also create the trust needed for a lasting, positive Jewish life, and for a positive life together here in Germany." 

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