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In wake of Oct. 7, Jewish Berliners teeter between fear and defiance

“The atmosphere is very tense and scary,” a Jewish mother told JNS. “I don’t feel safe. It’s really heartbreaking.”

In response to Hamas attacks on Israel, about 350 people gathered in front of the Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin to show solidarity with Jews and hold a vigil on Oct. 13, 2023. Credit: Mo Photography Berlin/Shutterstock.
In response to Hamas attacks on Israel, about 350 people gathered in front of the Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin to show solidarity with Jews and hold a vigil on Oct. 13, 2023. Credit: Mo Photography Berlin/Shutterstock.

As he lit memorial candles at Fraenkelufer Synagogue for the 1,200-plus Israelis that Hamas terrorists killed in southern Israel on Oct. 7, Uriel Aiskovich was surprised to see what he and other organizers of a vigil and Shabbat services describe as an “embrace” and “human shield.”

Hundreds of neighbors surrounded the Conservative synagogue, located in the heart of a multicultural Berlin neighborhood, to protect it and show support on Oct. 13—the same day that Hamas had called for a “Global Day of Jihad.”

“I believe in the importance of coming out and saying together that we don’t want to be afraid or ashamed,” Aiskovich, an Argentinian Jew and rabbinical student, told JNS. “I’ve never experienced this kind of selfless and spontaneous gesture from so many people, who wanted to confront antisemitism this way.”

Evoking ‘Jude’

Earlier that day, images had circulated with the opposite effect. Stars of David were shown graffitied on the doors of several Berlin apartment buildings where Jews lived. The hateful vandalism triggered comparisons to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when “Jude” (“Jew”) was plastered to the windows and walls of Jewish shops.

German Jewish and Israeli expat parents—like those in the United States and elsewhere—had debated on social-media groups whether to send their children to both Jewish and non-Jewish schools on Friday and beyond.

Moran Magal told JNS that she has opted to stop sending her daughter to daycare for the foreseeable future so that she can remain with her child. The Israeli singer and musician fears that the antisemitic attacks in Israel could happen in Berlin as well.

She told JNS that she is avoiding public transportation, especially since her daughter speaks mostly Hebrew, after witnessing people applauding videos of the Hamas massacre and shouting Alahu Akbar (“God is great”) on a train.

“The atmosphere is very tense and scary,” she said. “I don’t feel safe. It’s really heartbreaking.”

Past is prologue

As large pro-Hamas demonstrations spread across European cities, including London, Brussels and Amsterdam, some pundits have already begun charting the end of European Jewish life. That’s not how the Berlin Police sees it, however.

“We will protect Jewish life in Berlin with everything we can,” Jennifer Bähle, a spokeswoman for the Berlin Police, told JNS in German. 

Fraenkelufer synagogue
Neighbors gather outside Berlin’s Fraenkelufer Synagogue to show solidarity with the Jewish community in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, on Oct. 13, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

Citing danger to the public, Berlin Police canceled a series of pro-Palestinian rallies, as well as a pro-Israel one planned to take place in the heart of the Berlin neighborhood Neukolln, often called “little Gaza” for its sizeable Arab population.

Authorities are also cracking down on Samidoun, which is associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and which handed out candies in Neukolln on the night of the Hamas attacks.

German Police arrested a “ringleader” of Samidoun in Germany whom it did not name and who is of Palestinian-Syrian descent, according to reports in German media. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has since banned the group. (Scholz met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.)

“We will clearly oppose antisemitic [and] anti-Israel hatred or incitement of this kind in Berlin—of course, in full accordance with the rule of law—whether on the street, on the Internet or in other places,” Bähle, the police spokeswoman, told JNS.

Still, a skirmish broke out between pro-Palestinian protesters and Berlin police officers at an iconic city square, Potsdamer Platz, on Oct. 15. They held a vigil that soon turned rowdy, with glorifications of violence and antisemitic chants, per German media.

“Due to the considerable influx of people with pro-Palestinian symbols, the meeting was banned even before it began as a substitute event,” Berlin Police posted on social media. “The people were approached by our emergency forces and asked to leave. After they initially refused to leave, the situation has since calmed down.”

Berlin Police added on social media that its security agency, the State Criminal Police Office or LKA, is investigating Star of David vandalism. “Due to the current situation, our colleagues are particularly sensitive to the recording and processing of antisemitic crimes,” it stated.

‘Protection and safety highest priority’

The Jewish Community of Berlin runs most of the city’s synagogues and Jewish schools and works with the local police and LKA to ensure that the capital city’s Jewish institutions and Jews are safe.

“Hamas’s brutal war of aggression has now led to great uncertainty among our community members,” and parents of Jewish children want to know what schools are doing to keep their kids safe, Ilan Kiesling, a spokesman for the Jewish group, told JNS in German.

“At this moment, we see the protection and safety of Berlin’s Jews, especially our children, as our highest priority,” he said. “The security measures at the Jewish children’s and youth facilities, which have long been among the safest places in the city, are being tightened again.”

But Magal (the musician and mom) remains uneasy, particularly as she thinks of anti-Israel demonstrations in Berlin in the recent past, like in May 2021 during Israel’s 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza, when pro-Palestinian protesters chanted antisemitic slogans, burnt Israeli flags and called Israel a “child murderer.”

“It’s not the first time we’ve seen demonstrations like this in Neukolln and Kreuzberg when something like this happens,” she told JNS. “But this time, what happened is like a second Holocaust, and they’re still celebrating and it was still allowed at a certain point.”

Aiskovich, the rabbinical student, aims to carry on, as usual.

“The aim of terrorism—be it from Hamas or many others—is not just to cause death and destruction but to instill fear, panic and terror,” he wrote on social media.

“There’s nothing stronger for that purpose than spreading threats, gruesome scenes and unverified statements,” Aiskovich added. “While every decision is different and personal—and everyone experiences it differently—I firmly believe in the importance of standing together, of continuing to go outside, of supporting one another and longing for peace.”

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