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Attacks on Jewish Body and Soul in Germany

How disparate stories out of Germany this week are linked

Adam Chandler
August 31, 2012
Rabbi Daniel Alter in 2007(Reuters)

Rabbi Daniel Alter in 2007(Reuters)

Rabbi Daniel Alter, who lives in Berlin, was ordained in Dresden in 2006. Alter is one in a group of three who were the first rabbis to be ordained in Germany since 1942–when the Gestapo destroyed Berlin’s College of Jewish Studies. Alter is also the son of the Holocaust survivor.

According to reports, on Tuesday night, Alter was walking down the street with his six-year-old daughter when he was approached by four men, who upon seeing his kippah, asked if he was a Jew. The men assaulted then Alter in front of his own daughter, fracturing his cheekbone and sending him to the hospital.

“This [attack] was followed by insults against the man, his faith and his mother, and death threats toward his daughter,” according to the police report. All four men were probably of Arab descent, police stated.

Klaus Wowereit, the three-term openly gay mayor of Berlin, said this in response to the attack:

“Berlin is an open city in which intolerance, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are not tolerated.”

Jewish life in Germany has come into sharp focus in recent weeks as challenges to the practice of circumcision have unleashed fears that respect for religious tradition in Germany has been imperiled. Earlier this week, a second criminal complaint was filed against a rabbi who vowed to continue carrying out circumcisions in defiance of a June court ruling in Cologne, which ruled against the legality of circumcision.

The charges against the rabbi were reportedly dropped yesterday, a welcome note, and German politicians have also been quick to vow that they will protect the religious rite. But until legislation is actually enacted, it will seemingly remain in a legislative grey zone, subject to prosecutorial whims–as we saw this week. Meanwhile, north in Scandinavia and west in the Netherlands, talks about bans on both ritual slaughter and circumcision have entered the discourse, no doubt pulled along in a slipstream set by the German precedent. To the south and east, narratives of an anti-Semitic loam clouding the water in places like Hungary have arisen without even the veil of “discourse” or “public opinion.”

It might seem hyperbolic to link the attacks on Jewish tradition by politicians and activists to physical attacks on Jews by street thugs. But seemingly impulsive legal challenges to centuries of Jewish tradition sends signals that state protection for religious pluralism isn’t open-ended. The attack on Rabbi Alter may have nothing tangibly to do with the challenges to Jewish practice in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people looking to exploit any signs of weakness.

A telling reaction to Tuesday’s attack: The Abraham Geiger College–just miles outside of Berlin in Potsdam–instructed its 28 rabbinical students to don more conventional head coverings. Walter Homolka, the school’s rector said:

“We have advised them not to wear their skullcaps on the street, but to choose something inconspicuous to cover their head with.”

Skullcap-wearing German Jew sustains head injures in brutal attack [Times of Israel]
Berlin rabbi seminary instructs students to remove skullcaps in public [Haaretz]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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