BRUSSELS, Belgium — European and US officials on Monday slammed a German court’s ruling earlier this month that an arson attack on a synagogue was an expression of anti-Israel protest and should not be considered anti-Semitism.
Speaking at the European Jewish Association’s annual Jewish Leaders Conference in the Belgian capital, representatives of both the European Union and the US State Department questioned the Dusseldorf High Court’s decision, which found no procedural errors in the 2015 and 2016 trials against three men of Palestinian descent for felony arson against a Wuppertal synagogue.
“We believe that when a Jewish house of worship is firebombed in response to Israeli policy, it is anti-Semitism,” Holly Huffnagle, from the US State Department Office of Religion and Global Affairs, said.
Huffnagle, who acted as an adviser to Ira Forman, the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism under former US secretary of state John Kerry, said that while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic,” in the Dusseldorf case case, “a line had been crossed between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism.”
Katharina Von Schnurbein, the European Union’s coordinator on anti-Semitism, speaking with Huffnagle on a panel exploring “The new anti-Semitism,” said she and her office agreed.
“In my opinion, throwing Molotov cocktails into a synagogue is always anti-Semitism,” Von Schnurbein said.
The arson attack on the Bergisch Synagogue in Wuppertal took place in the early morning hours of July 29, 2014, following an end of Ramadan celebration and during the height of anti-Israel protests in Germany and elsewhere over the Gaza war.
The men were found guilty of arson and given suspended sentences in 2015 with a threat of jail if they got into trouble again; their threatened jail terms were lengthened in January 2016 following an appeal by the state prosecutor. The high court last month rejected the defendants’ appeal on procedural grounds.
In a statement last week, Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, said it was “unbelievable that attempts to burn a synagogue have been equated with displeasure with Israeli government policies.” He said the verdict back in 2015 had been equal to an “open season on Jews.”
The three defendants had claimed during their 2015 trial that they were drunk and high on marijuana when they tried to take out their anger against Israel over the war in Gaza by throwing Molotov cocktails toward the synagogue. A neighbor witnessed the incident and alerted police. Damage was minimal and there were no injuries.
The men insisted they had not wanted to hurt anyone. They apologized to the Jewish community.
Though the head of the local Jewish community, Leonid Goldberg, said he saw the attack as a sign of “pure anti-Semitism,” the court did not agree. The targeting of a Jewish place of worship was “serious circumstantial evidence” but did not allow the court to conclude it owed to anti-Semitic motive, the judges wrote in 2015.
Last year, a court in Essen upheld a verdict that anti-Israel chants of “death and hate to Zionists” at a demonstration were tantamount to anti-Semitism. After losing his appeal, the defendant’s sentence of probation was increased to ten months.
JTA contributed to this report.