BERLIN (JTA) — Jewish officials blasted a German appeals court for failing to question a lower court over its verdict that three Palestinian men who tried to set a synagogue on fire in 2014 were not guilty of anti-Semitism.
The highest court in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia found in November there were no procedural errors by the lower courts in their 2015 and 2016 trials of three men of Palestinian background found guilty of felony arson in the attempted arson of a Wuppertal synagogue. It was not within the court’s mandate to review the verdict and its reasoning.
The men were found guilty in 2015 of felony arson and given suspended sentences, but the court found that while the targeting of a Jewish place of worship was serious circumstantial evidence, it could not conclude that the act was committed out of anti-Semitic motives. The defendants claimed they were angry over Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza.
In a statement Friday, Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, said it was “unbelievable that attempts to burn a synagogue have been equated with displeasure of Israeli government policies.” He said the verdict back in 2015 had equalled “open season on Jews.”
“This was a clear-cut case,” said Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, in an e-mail, equally critical of the verdicts from 2015 and 2016. “So why is it so difficult for the law enforcement officials to say the obvious, namely, that a hatred of Israel often masks anti-Semitism?”
The arson attack on the Bergisch Synagogue in Wuppertal took place in the early morning hours of July 29, 2014, following the end of a Ramadan celebration and during the height of anti-Israel protests in Germany and elsewhere. Damage was minimal and there were no injuries.
During their 2015 trial, the three defendants claimed they were drunk and high on marijuana when they tried to take out their anger at Israel by throwing Molotov cocktails at the synagogue. The men insisted they had not wanted to hurt anyone and apologized to the Jewish community.
The men were given suspended sentences in 2015 and threatened with jail if they got into trouble. Following an appeal by the state prosecutor in 2016, the threatened jail terms were lengthened. A further appeal by one of the defendants on procedural grounds was rejected last month.
This was “not a new verdict in the case itself; just a confirmation that no violations of significant procedural rules have occurred,” Nathan Gelbart, a Berlin-based attorney who deals with legal aspects of anti-Semitism, told JTA. He explained that the higher court would not have commented on the verdict once it confirmed that procedural rules had been followed.
Anger at the court was surely justified “in 2015 when the magistrate court ruled that no anti-Semitic motivation could be identified in the arson committed by the defendants,” Gelbart said.
Last year, a court in Essen upheld a verdict that anti-Israel chantings of “death and hate to Zionists” at a demonstration were tantamount to anti-Semitism.