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Around the Jewish World Terror Threat Has German Jews in a Panic, Community Leader Says

November 18, 2002
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German Jews are panicked by the possibility of terrorist attacks, according to the president of the country’s Jewish community.

Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, made his remarks at a Nov. 14 news conference with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Interior Minister Otto Schily at which the government announced greater financial support for the Jewish community.

The recently renewed threats by Islamic extremists, including an audio tape released this week that is believed to be from Osama bin Laden, have created a mood of “terror and anxiety” among German Jews, Spiegel said.

Twenty years ago, he said, Jews in Germany felt uncomfortable walking past police guards each time they wanted to attend services.

Today, however, “they are refusing to go to the synagogue if there is no security force outside,” Spiegel said.

Despite that concern, six Berlin synagogues opened their doors to the public on Saturday night for a “Long Night of Synagogues,” including tours, readings and performances.

“We have been talking all day with the security department,” said Adriana Altaras, director of Berlin’s 16th annual Jewish cultural program, late last week. “If there is a madman who wants to do something, he will do something. We know this from New York. We have to live with it.”

“I am afraid, too, if you want to know,” the 42-year-old director and actor told JTA. “I am not crazy about the fact that we have to be afraid, but I cannot let fear dictate my life.”

A spokesperson for Berlin’s Jewish community declined to discuss security measures. But embassies and Jewish venues have increased their surveillance since Sept. 11 and a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Schily said at the news conference that while Germany is taking terrorist threats seriously, there have been no concrete warnings about potential attacks.

But the fear of attacks against Jewish venues here is not unfounded. Germans had a wake-up call last April, when 19 tourists — including 14 Germans — were killed in a terror attack on an historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack.

Berliners also had reason for concern on their own turf. After two visiting American rabbis were attacked on the street last March, German Jewish leaders called for greater security for Jewish venues.

Then a young Jewish woman wearing a Star of David necklace was attacked in a Berlin subway station. In both incidents, police reported that the attackers appeared to be Arabs.

Also in April, a Holocaust memorial on Berlin’s Pulitz Bridge was vandalized, and there was an attempted arson attack at Berlin’s Frankeluefer Synagogue.

Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said at the time that protection was “urgently needed” to prevent anti-Semitic attacks in Germany.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Berlin police department has upped the number of police with machine guns posted outside most Jewish venues.

Some locations have double police barriers as well. New barriers recently were erected around a kosher grocery store located near a synagogue in former east Berlin.

Despite security concerns, Altaras said she was looking forward to the synagogue night, which she considered an important symbol for an open society and normalization of Jewish life in Germany.

As usual, visitors will have to pass through metal detectors. Based on past experience on open house nights, the lines are likely to be long.

“I think most Berliners have never been in a synagogue and most haven’t seen a Jewish person, not consciously,” Altaras said. “If they have a chance to go in and see, they will have less fear and they will know better that we are a part of their life, we are Berliner Jews.

“And they will understand how unhappy we are with all the police outside, and how nice it is inside,” she said. “I want to do something against anti-Semitism.”

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