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Jewish communities in Germany: 'We are afraid'

October 14, 2023

After the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, concern has been mounting in Germany's Jewish communities.

Police officer standing outside the synagogue in Dusseldorf
German Jewish communities' trust in security measures has been shaken by the Hamas terrorist attacks in IsraelImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

Esther K., a real estate agent based in Berlin, who prefers not to share her real name, says she will never forget the moment she got a text message from a friend on Saturday morning reading: "Look what's going on in Israel."

K's first thought was: "We're all used to something happening in this crazy little country." But then she read the news that the Islamist militant group Hamas had unexpectedly attacked Israel from Gaza and armed fighters were advancing into the country by land, sea and air, killing people and taking hostages. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU and others.

Her cellphone was suddenly flooded with photos from Israel and calls for help from people asking for assistance in finding relatives who had disappeared. 

Esther K. says she has felt nothing but a black void since.

"The bodies of parents who were shot dead, next to the dead bodies of their children, video games on the Playstations still running ... those are images I can't forget," K. says.

Like many others, she said she stared at her phone and thought, "what is this? What is this? Where is the military?" 

More vulnerable than ever 

Along with having one of the strongest armies in the world, Israel is secured by the Mossad intelligence service and Iron Dome missile defense system.

Leo Latasch, a board member and head of security for Frankfurt's Jewish community organization, is one of the many people stunned as to why the terrorist attack was not discovered in time. 

From afar, the medic watched helplessly as Israelis tried to save lives without any military protection.

"I don't know how this will end. We don't know how many more people will die," Latasch says in reference to Israel's possible ground offensive in Gaza. 

Berlin authorities ban pro-Palestinian protest

Jewish life behind protective fences 

It is seen as especially significant that more than 100,000 Jews reside in Germany today, and that Jewish life — with its festivals, customs, schools and sports clubs — is possible just decades after 6 million Jews were killed at the hands of German Nazis during the Holocaust.

Still many Jewish institutions have reinforced secuirty, with police guards and protective fences. 

"There has been an increased security level for our facilities for quite some time," the spokesman for Berlin's Jewish community organization Ilan Kiesling told DW in an email.

"Since the 1970s, for example, our community members have become accustomed to community life taking place behind protective fences and monitored by surveillance cameras. Due in no small part to the alarming rise in attacks on Jewish institutions and individuals across Europe, we continue to be compelled to provide a high level of protection for our members and facilities." 

For a long time now, large portions of Jewish community organizations' budgets have been devoted to security. Most have their own security departments, working closely with police and state criminal investigation departments. 

Parents fear for their children 

But now, after the attacks on Israel by Hamas, which Germany, the US and other countries consider a terrorist organization, many Jews have lost faith in those security measures. 

"The parents are scared, just scared," a staff member at a Jewish daycare center in Berlin told DW. In many Jewish kindergartens, children stayed home this week. 

Leo Latasch has been in charge of security for the Jewish community in Frankfurt for 37 years.

He said he has been trying to reassure parents, explaining again and again that the conflict is taking place in Israel, not Frankfurt. He says he is advising them not to panic at every — possibly fake — news report.

But he is finding it harder and harder to reassure them. "We've never been in a situation like this before," Latasch says.  

The Islamist terrorist group Hamas has been seeking to mobilize the Arab and Muslim world for protests. Latasch says he doesn't blame Jewish parents if they prefer to keep their children close to them during this time. 

Synagogue door with bullet holes
In recent years there have been antisemitic attacks in Germany — such as in 2019 in Halle, when the attacker tried to shoot his way into the local synagogueImage: Heiko Rebsch/picture alliance/dpa

Antisemitism, however, is by no means only an Arab-Muslim problem in Germany. In 2022, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) commissioned a representative study by the Allensbach Institute for Demography looking into attitudes of the population as a whole. The survey showed that antisemitism is not exclusively a problem of the political fringes, but "deeply rooted" in the middle of society.

This is a very real threat to all Jews in Germany, says founding executive director of the OFEKcounseling center and head of the Competence Center for Antisemitism, Marina Chernivsky.

She says Jews in Germany are currently facing a twofold burden. On the one hand, there is the deep-rooted antisemitism in Germany, which is a very real threat, she said. In addition, she added, "they are experiencing the most massive violence against the civilian population in Israel since the Shoah. This is re-triggering a deep-seated trauma. And they now have to deal with that too." 

Since the attacks, the OFEK counseling center in Germany has been very busy. There has been a sharp increase in the number of people calling its crisis hotline for advice. Some include parents trying to understand how to talk to their children about war. 

Holocaust survivors in post-war Germany

For the Germans, it's just one more disaster 

When Russia attacked Ukraine, Esther K. was one of the helpers organizing clothing and housing for the Ukrainian refugees. Now, she has been trying to quickly find accommodation for Israelis stranded in Germany since the suspension of air traffic with Israel. Many are women with children. 

However, only one elderly lady responded to K's request for help.

"For the Germans, this is just one more disaster in the world," she says. She said she feels disappointed and completely alone in Germany.

When members of Samidoun — a front for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) group, widely considered a terrorist organization — distributed sweets in Berlin-Neukölln in apparent celebration of the Hamas terrorist attacks, Berlin's Jewish community in Berlin demanded the group be banned. 

"We don't want to see such images in Berlin anymore," Ilan Kiesling stressed. 

On Thursday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced bans on Hamas-affiliated activities in Germany and a ban on the Samidoun association. 

This article was originally written in German.

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