By Toby Axelrod
Oct. 22, 2023
(JTA) — Several thousand Berliners joined a rally in support of Israel and against antisemitism on Sunday at the city’s famed Brandenburg Gate as incidents targeting Jews, tied to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, continue to rise across the continent.
Organizers estimated over 20,000 participants turned up for the rally, which included exhortations from politicians, Christian leaders and relatives of families held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. Police did not report any disruptions but estimated a crowd closer to 10,000, which would still make the gathering likely the largest in Europe since Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.
The rally came against the background of a surge in antisemitic incidents in Germany, as well as several large anti-Israel protests across the country. A subsequent crackdown on hate speech related to Israel and Jews has drawn resentment from some on the left who say German authorities are curbing their freedom to criticize Israel.
But speakers at Sunday’s rally urged Germany to take an even tougher stand against those who call for Israel’s destruction and who threaten Jews living in Germany.
Speakers, including Germany’s president, Jewish leaders and Israel’s ambassador to Germany, stood up for Israel’s so-called special relationship with Germany, as an outgrowth of the Holocaust. Pacifists and hawks alike agreed that Israel has the right to defend itself and that Jews in Germany must be protected from antisemitic acts. And several called on German and European politicians to harden their positions against Iran, which they described as an exporter of terror.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that protecting Jewish life was a “civic duty” as well as a federal mandate. “Nothing has been the same since Oct. 7th,” he said at the event, which was broadcast live.
“Never since the end of the Shoah have so many Jews been murdered in an attack. Israel has the right to defend itself against this terror,” Steinmeier said, turning to address relatives of German-Israeli hostages, who stood with him on the stage. “We Germans are suffering, we are praying, we are pleading with you.”
Many speakers referred to the suffering of Gazan civilians under Hamas and called for humanitarian corridors to be set up. Steinmeier said Hamas only “pretends” to represent the population under their control. It is left to others, like Germany, to protect them.
In Germany, Jews and their institutions must be protected from terrorist threats, said Daniel Botmann, managing director of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, noting that perpetrators tried to firebomb a synagogue in Berlin last week.
“The mobs in the streets of Germany don’t represent the Palestinian people,” Botmann said at the rally. But perpetrators and agitators who turn out not to be citizens should be deported, he said, and there should be severe punishment for those who are citizens, so that they will think it over “100 times” before trying something like this again.
“We need more than just empathy and promises of solidarity. We need action,” he said.
If Germany does not crack down on extremists in its midst, “the terror from the Gaza Strip will also reach Germany,” said Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to Germany.
“Synagogues in Germany have become targets. Stars of David have been painted on houses where Jews live. This cannot be tolerated,” he said.
“We will be measured by deeds and not just words,” continued Prosor, whose grandparents and father fled Nazi Germany. “All of us here are on the right side of history and we are strong if we stand together.”
Much mention was made of Germany’s support for Israel and Jewish life, given the history of the Holocaust. “There is a clear line between good and evil,” said Green Party leader Omid Nouripour, who is Muslim. “Hamas is evil, and we have to reject it.”
“It is high time that all those who were abused and taken away, all those whose suffering … come home,” he added. “We have to do everything possible” to that end. “We stand firmly on the side of Israel and democracy.”
In Berlin “there were people who were happy, who handed out candy and celebrated” after the events of Oct. 7, said the Iranian-born politician Bijan Djir-Sarai, who is general secretary of the Free Democratic Party. “We don’t want these people here.”
But most Muslims in Germany reject such attitudes, emphasized Social Democratic Party leader Saskia Esken. “The Muslims who live with us do not deserve this hatred,” she said, warning against allowing right-wing extremists to whitewash themselves by “turning the Hamas’ terror into a fundamental hatred of Islam.”
The event included words by relatives of Israeli hostages who hold dual citizenship with Germany, musical performances, and recitations of Jewish prayers for healing and mourning, led by Yitzchak Ehrenberg, a local Orthodox rabbi.
It was organized under the motto “Stand up against terror, hatred and anti-Semitism – in solidarity and compassion with Israel,” and it included a broad alliance of political initiatives and parties, trade unions and religious groups — including the Council of the Protestant Church of Germany and the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference.