BERLIN — The brutal daylight beating of a rabbi in front of his six-year-old daughter sparked furious condemnation in Germany Thursday, with some Jewish groups saying they feared a rise in anti-Semitic behaviour.
The attack on the 53-year-old by four youths, thought to be Arabs, left him hospitalised and the Jewish community outraged, already up in arms over a court ruling in western Germany that outlaws religious circumcision.
One youth smashed the rabbi in the face several times after asking him if he was Jewish, apparently because he was wearing a traditional head covering, police said.
The assailants fled, but not before aiming death threats at the young girl, according to authorities, who have launched an investigation into the Tuesday attack.
Berlin rabbi Andreas Nachama told AFP that Germany had seen over the past few years “a rising hostility towards Jews due to the conflict in the Middle East.”
“Verbal attacks against Jews have increased,” said Gideon Joffe, head of the Jewish Community of Berlin, in an interview with local daily Tagesspiegel.
Meanwhile, the rector of the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, an academic seminary for rabbis, warned his students against wearing the yarmulke, or traditional Jewish head covering.
“If you are no longer seen as a Jewish person, you are safer,” Walter Homolka told Friday’s edition of the Berliner Morgenpost daily.
Another Berlin-based rabbi, Walter Rothschild, told German radio: “I have been spat on in broad daylight in (the central Berlin square of) Wittenbergplatz and had slogans linked to the Middle East shouted at me.”
The attack came amid a fierce row over a ruling by a court in Cologne, western Germany, that circumcision of young boys for religious reasons was tantamount to grievous bodily harm and therefore illegal.
The ruling has prompted fears that religious freedom is being restricted in Germany and has brought Jews and Muslims together in condemning the judgement.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has reportedly said the ruling risks making Germany a “laughing stock” and diplomats admit privately it is “disastrous” for the country’s image abroad, given its Nazi past.
Other religious leaders also condemned the attack, with Catholic group Pax Christi saying it was an “attack on Jewish life in Germany.”
However, the spokesman for the Jewish forum for democracy and against anti-Semitism, Levi Salomon, sought to downplay the problem, saying: “We are shocked (by the attack) but we do not feel unsafe” in Germany.
Nevertheless, he said the atmosphere in Germany had become more difficult given the circumcision row, as well as a public spat following the publication of a poem by German literary figure Gunter Grass lambasting Israel.
The Jewish community in Germany has undergone a renaissance since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with a flood of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc.
Often victims of anti-Semitism in their home countries, they were automatically awarded German citizenship.
Since 1989, some 220,000 Jews arrived from the former Soviet Union in Germany, which had only 30,000 Jews before 1989. But before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, there were 600,000 Jews in Germany.