A Synagogue Attack on the Holiest Day of the Year

Whatever the motives behind the shooting in Germany, two lessons are already apparent.

Police officers at the site of the Halle shooting
Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

This morning, the small Jewish community in the city of Halle, in eastern Germany, assembled for the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. While 70 people were following the services, two armed men drove up outside the synagogue with firearms.

Judging from the information available so far, it seems the armed men tried to enter the synagogue with the intention of killing as many members of the congregation as possible. Thankfully, the policemen and security guards posted outside the temple’s gates managed to repel them. At least two people were killed and another two severely injured in the brutal attack, but under the circumstances, that might count as a particularly bitter instance of what Germans call Glück im Unglück: a small mercy amid horror.

Although the police arrested a suspect—according to early reports, a white German—it is as yet unknown what the attackers’ motivations were. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany has had a highly active, and frequently violent, neo-Nazi scene. From 2000 to 2007, an especially deadly terrorist cell called the National Socialist Underground (NSU) killed several immigrants and a policewoman before being apprehended. A few months ago, a conservative politician was murdered by a far-right assassin as a kind of revenge for the politician’s role in helping refugees settle in the country.

Whatever the motives, two lessons are already apparent. First, Germany needs to act more decisively to counter terrorists of all political and religious persuasions. The country’s law-enforcement apparatus has failed to deal with violent neo-Nazi cells like the NSU; for example, it initially did not connect the xenophobic murders committed by its members, because it assumed that they must have been carried out by disparate criminal gangs.

The police’s resolve to punish Islamist attacks has also been less than firm. Just a couple of days before the attacks in Halle, a knife-wielding assailant attempted to enter a historic synagogue in Berlin while muttering, “Allahu Akbar.” Although police detained him, he was set free a few hours later.

Compared with previous decades, Germany faces an elevated threat to its civilian population, and especially to religious and ethnic minorities in the country. When law-enforcement agencies react in a complacent manner, they embolden would-be attackers—and enable the intimidation of vulnerable groups.

A second lesson is even more melancholy because it concerns a problem even more difficult to remedy: Even if Germany does crack down on political terror, Jews—and other minorities in the country—may remain in need of constant protection for decades to come.

When I was growing up in Germany, I had to pass a police cordon on the rare occasions when I visited a synagogue. Feeling awkward about having to convince a bunch of policemen that I was Jewish in order to enter, I sometimes responded to their polite requests to see my passport with teenage sarcasm: “I’m afraid it no longer has a J stamped in it.”

I now feel a little embarrassed about my past surliness. The policemen were there to protect me. Some of their colleagues in Halle helped to save dozens of Jewish lives today. But though my feeling toward them is one of gratitude, I am all the more angry at the circumstances that make their presence necessary. How can it be that, more than 70 years after the Holocaust, every Jewish school, synagogue, and community center in the country still requires police protection?

I once hoped that Jewish life in Germany might come to look more like that in the United States: a natural component of a diverse country. But as Americans prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the even deadlier attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I worry that Jewish life in the United States may come to resemble that in Germany. Having to make your way past heavy security to engage in worship, a formative experience for generations of German Jews, is now common in the United States.