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Berlin synagogue firebombed, Israeli community feels ‘broken’

Mati Shemoelof
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Berlin synagogue firebombed, Israeli community feels 'broken'

Published: 20 October 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The 10,000 Israelis living in the German capital don't know where to turn, what they can say in public and what to tell their children.

On that damned day the number of victims only continued to rise and there was no response from the IDF. The biggest act of terrorism that Israel has known, the end of which is still unclear, with 199 hostages still in the hands of the Hamas terrorists, has broken the national morale of Israel.

I feel that the Israeli community in Berlin is also broken. Both the radicals and the moderates, the leftists and the rightists, the Jews and the Palestinian-Israelis feel this fracture. They all feel that something was lost and will never again be found.

A Berlin synagogue was attacked with Molotov cocktails on Wednesday, the most extreme of the antisemitic incidents in the German capital following the violent escalation in the Middle East.

In all circles of my life in Berlin people are trying to deal with it. A good friend with a child consulted asked me last Saturday about whether to go to Friday night's Kiddush in Fraenkelufer synagogue in Kreuzberg. She told me that she spoke to the organisers of the Friday prayer, and they told her that they were not bringing their own daughter because it was going to be very emotional and sad.

They added that they didn't tell their daughter that there was a war. The friend stayed at home with her daughter. I did tell my daughter about the war. She wanted to see the photos of it. I told her they are not pleasant. I told her not to worry but I am sure she senses the fear inside of me. I said no to the photos. Most of my friends still hide them from their kids. And like them, only at night, do I break down in tears.

The radicals and the moderates, the left and the right ... all feel the fracture.

On Shabbat people Fraenkelufer synagogue held pictures of hostages and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke. He said, among other things: “Jews in Germany should never again have to fear for their lives. Protecting Jewish life in Germany is part of the self-image of our democracy. The safety of Jews is written into the foundation of our democracy. And only if our Jewish fellow citizens live in peace and security, only then can our entire country do so." Later, hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish people came to the synagogue to form a kind of symbolic human protective shield.

So Steinmeier promised a sense of security, but the Jews are afraid in Berlin. My daughter is in a group of Israeli children in Berlin and our WhatsApp group is in panic. People are afraid that their children will be in Hebrew-speaking groups outside in a park or even in an unsecured building (without a guard).

Recently, a gathering was cancelled because there is another Arab group in the same building (although our meetings are not made public, and their location is also kept confidential). An Israeli family relative of mine called and suggested that we should not speak Hebrew on the street in Berlin. I told him that if I don't speak Hebrew on the street, then I should find another country to live in. I feel the panic is coming from Israel, not really from here.

There is a deafening silence. Now, Germany bans demonstrations against the war in Gaza in fear that Hamas supporters would take to the streets and voice their sympathy with the Hamas terrorist organisation. It turns out that the large Palestinian community also cannot raise their voice and tell us their opinions. Furthermore, Jews critical of Israel are prohibited from opposing the war and expressing an opinion. Some got arrested for doing so.

The tension between the Arab and Jewish communities is increasing now. In the media they reported an Arab sweet shop on Sonnenallee street, not far from my house, gave sweets to people after the news spread that Israel was under attack (I want to believe that he just celebrated the fall of the fence because Gaza is under siege and that he didn’t celebrate the terror). Another friend told me that he does not go to the antiques market. Some of the Arab dealers come from Gaza, and he is afraid.

And what are we left with? To stay locked in our houses and scroll again and again for news that is getting worse every day? It looks like the Jews are mourning the victims of the terror attack and now the pro-Palestinian camp mourns the Palestinian victims of the bomb attacks in Gaza. Suddenly, one must obey his/her national borders. Only a few activists and organisations try to connect and talk about the mutual loss of both countries.

A large part of the immigration comes from disgust at Israel's inability to reach peace. But the sense of brokenness is great.

But when I tried to say these things on social media, my Israeli friends found it hard to talk about the people from Gaza. For them, like President Hertzog said, they are all Hamas supporters. I know an Israeli Jewish activist who shared a clip of a girl from one of the kibbutzes that were attacked. She gave a great speech about the need to bring peace and that the Iron Dome defence system will not solve the situation.

However, my friend didn’t notice that Instagram shortened his clip to 30 seconds. So a lot of his Palestinian friends who just heard the girl’s cry about the Jewish situation, without staying to watch the message of the peace and co-existence that only came after 90 seconds, were angry at him.

A large part of Israeli immigration to Berlin comes from a sense of disgust and political protest at Israel's inability to reach peace. We thought we would move to Berlin and find the feeling of calm and peace. But even though we are thousands of kilometres from all the bereavement and death, the sense of brokenness is still great. It seems that something inside us is broken and cannot be repaired.

Immigration to Berlin will not find a cure for it either.


Berlin Synagogue attacked with firebombs while antisemitic incidents rise in Germany (Haaretz) 

Photo: Rally in Berlin on October 8 (Leisa Johannssen/Reuters)

About the author

Mati Shemoelof

Mati Shemoelof is a poet and an author. His writing includes seven poetry books, plays, articles and fiction, which have won significant recognition and prizes. He has written a radio play for German radio WDR. A German edition of his bi-lingual poems was published by AphorismA Verlag.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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