After deadly attack outside Halle synagogue, Jewish community worries about safety in Germany

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A day after an attacker livestreamed the killing of two people on the holiest day in Judaism outside a German synagogue, questions mounted on Thursday over what led to the attack and why authorities were unable to prevent or stop it. 

Authorities said the attacker most likely acted alone and that he was not known to authorities, but they have yet to publicly release the suspect’s name or other details. A senior security official said, however, identified the attacker as a 27-year-old man from the town of Benndorf, about 24 miles west of Halle.

Outside the targeted synagogue in the eastern German town of Halle, about 100 people assembled to mourn the two victims, as police officers stood by. But some of the mourners said the police presence came too late. 

“Had there been police here yesterday, this would have ended differently,” Max Privorozki, chairman of the Jewish community in Halle, told The Washington Post. He added that officials had rejected his requests for more police protection before the attack. “They considered the situation be under control,” he recalled. More widely known synagogues and Jewish institutions in Germany are usually protected by police officers at all times.

Igor Matviyets, 28, a resident of Halle and a member of the local Jewish community, said he and others had long felt unsafe. Anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen significantly in a number of European countries in recent years. Deadly synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh and in Poway, Calif., have also rocked the Jewish community in the United States. 

“Even before the events of yesterday, I wouldn’t have left my home with the kippah,” said Matviyets, referring to the traditional Jewish skullcap, as he stood in the historic old town district targeted by the attacker. 

His worst fears, said Matviyets, have now been confirmed. 

Wednesday’s attack could have resulted in a far higher death toll if the attacker had succeeded in entering the synagogue as he planned, according to a manifesto released online and verified by security analysts. In the document, the writer said, one of his aims was to “kill as many anti-Whites as possible, jews preferred.”

In chilling echoes of a far-right attack on two New Zealand mosques earlier this year, the helmet-mounted camera video from Halle shows the suspect arriving at the synagogue in a car. But his plan soon appears to go awry, as explosives and his firearm fail to enable him to enter the synagogue.

Inside the building, where 70 to 80 worshipers were present, a synagogue official almost immediately noticed the attack on a surveillance screen, said a witness, Christina Feist, 29. 

“He and others started barricading the front door,” Feist told The Washington Post. 

In his livestreamed video, the attacker swears repeatedly as he fails to enter and apologizes to his audience, at points blaming his homemade weapons. According to the manifesto attributed to the suspect, he also used 3-D printed components to manufacture his equipment.

“It took 15 to 20 minutes for officers to arrive,” Feist recalled.

By that point, the suspect had already shot a woman in the street and a man at a nearby kebab shop. Despite a shootout with the police, the suspect was initially able to escape, but he was later taken into custody. 

Oliver Malchow, a representative of the police union, said the incident showed “how thin the level of police coverage is.” Speaking on public German television, he also cautioned, however, that full protection of all religious sites was not feasible. 

Wednesday’s attack drew quick condemnation. 

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, said in a statement: “The leadership of the international community must declare that in our post-Holocaust global society, there is no room for antisemitism, racism or xenophobia.”

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Wednesday a “day of shame and disgrace.” Those who shows even only a “spark of sympathy for right-wing extremism and racial hatred,” he said, “will be complicit.” 

In Germany, there have been about 1,500 reported anti-Semitic verbal and violent attacks annually in recent years, but researchers say the actual figures are higher. One recent survey found that about 70 percent of anti-Semitic incidents go unreported, according to researchers at the Technical University of Berlin.

A number of mainstream German politicians singled out the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party on Thursday, blaming its officials for radical rhetoric, even though it condemned the attack. Members of the AfD, said Green Party senior official Katrin Göring-Eckardt, were still responsible for the transition from radical ideology “toward actions.”

“We’re at a point where we finally have to come around and face the facts: Right-wing extremists, racists and anti-Semites will not only try to spread hatred, but also use violence,” said Göring-Eckardt.

Noack reported from Berlin. Loveday Morris in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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