“It Could Have Also Been Our Synagogue”

On 17 November 2020, on the 20th day of the Halle trial, Benjamin Steinitz, Managing Director of the Association of Antisemitism Research and Information Centers (RIAS), testified as an expert on the effects of the Halle attack on Jewish life in Germany.

On 17 November 2020, on the 20th day of the Halle trial, Benjamin Steinitz, Managing Director of the Association of Antisemitism Research and Information Centers (RIAS), testified as an expert on the effects of the Halle attack on Jewish life in Germany. In addition, the expert Professor Leygraf completed his psychiatric report, in which he had concluded that the accused was fully culpable. 

At the beginning of the trial day, the court headed by the presiding judge Ursula Mertens rejected the defense’s motion from the 19th trial day to suspend or interrupt the proceedings as unfounded. 

The federal association RIAS, a civil society reporting office for antisemitic incidents, had used various interviews to investigate the effects of the antisemitic attack in Halle on Jewish communities in Germany. RIAS Managing Director Benjamin Steinitz presented the results of these investigations as an expert and classified them. First, he stated that the attack in Halle was a so-called message crime: The decision of the perpetrator had not matured in a social vacuum, but was based on social power relations. With his act, the perpetrator had intended to contribute to the intimidation of Jews in order to intensify their social exclusion and marginalization. According to Steinitz, message crimes work differently than other criminal acts. Even if they concern individual people, he said, they always involve a collective that is to be harmed in its sense of security and identity. The act of Halle also partly had this effect: For example, many of the Jews interviewed showed greater insecurity after the crime than before. The attack has reinforced the perceived threat to the normality of Jewish life, and in many communities, Jews thought: “It could have also affected our synagogue”. There were also antisemitic incidents in which the perpetrators made references to the attack.

Steinitz emphasized that the attack has not been unexpected to Jews, but there was a massive problem of antisemitism in Germany, and that those affected were very aware that it was aimed at killing Jews. On the basis of a list that the journalist Ronen Steinke had compiled for his book “Terror against Jews”, Steinitz pointed out that since 1945 there have been almost 30 antisemitic attacks in Germany alone, which RIAS classifies as “extreme violence”. These included acts aimed at the lives of Jews, such as arson attacks, bombings, and murders. The attack was thus part of a series of serious antisemitic crimes. He added that the transgenerational trauma was caused as well as reactivated by these attacks.

Steinitz reported that many of those affected by antisemetic crimes had withdrawn from the attempt to change society and the happening of antisemitic crimes. Too often, they had experienced that reports almost never lead to consequences for the perpetrators or that the police officers’ behavior has been neglected. The involvement of security staff within right-wing extremists, as shown in the threats made to the lawyer Seda Başay-Yıldız by the so-called “NSU 2.0” also led to declining trust in the police. 

According to Steinitz, those affected are also often left on their own when it comes to security measures of Jewish facilities: The assessments of their own endangerment are not listened to much, and sufficient financial resources are often not made available.

Steinitz concluded his remarks as an expert witness by saying that the committed and many-voiced joint plaintiff suit had counteracted the message of Halle’s crime. In recent months, considerable processes of solidarity have been initiated outside the courtroom which have had an empowering effect: “These processes should be the standard by which society’s future dealings with message crimes are measured”. The numerous expressions of solidarity from Germany and other countries, especially from other Jewish communities, also contributed to the fact that the message crime did not work out as planned.

After lunch break, psychiatrist and neurologist Professor Norbert Leygraf completed his expert opinion which he had presented on the 18th day of the hearing. In the hearing, he attested that the accused could be found guilty from a psychiatric point of view. The defense had then requested an expert opinion regarding a possible migraine aura, since the accused had described that he had literally “seen red” when he shot Jana L. The defense had rejected Professor Leygraf as an expert witness on this matter on the morning of the 20th day of the hearing with a bias petition. Leygraf had already made it clear that he had no knowledge of the alleged visual disturbances and had also made critical remarks about it. The court rejected this motion as unfounded.

Professor Leygraf explained that the accused’s description of red vision did not suggest an aura of migraine. Its symptoms would differ considerably from what has been described. Leygraf described it as “completely unlikely” that such a completely atypical symptomatology would begin with the beginning of a serious crime and then simply stop. In addition, even a migraine aura would not influence a person’s ability to be found guilty.

Defense attorney Hans-Dieter Weber made a further request after the rejected request for bias, according to which a further expert is to evaluate the described visual disturbance. The presiding judge Mertens announced that a decision would be made on this matter on the following hearing day.  

In the afternoon, several joint plaintiff attorneys filed so-called adhesion motions: These are aimed at the court to also decide in the running main proceedings on a possible compensation for pain and suffering or the claim to this, which the accused has to pay to the affected plaintiffs, without having to fight for this in civil court. The applications were granted. 

Attorney Kristin Pietrzyk who represents two affected people from the synagogue in Halle, among other things requested that the right-wing extremism expert Matthias Quent from the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society (IDZ) be heard as an expert witness on 18 November. He could be able to explain how the accused’s act was aimed at motivating and enabling imitators to perform similar acts. The need to hear him, he said, was particularly evident in light of the fact that the police investigators heard so far did not appear to be qualified or competent to make this assessment. With another motion, Pietrzyk wanted to have an openly antisemitic statement of the accused noted in the minutes of this 20th day of trial. Numerous representatives of the joint plaintiffs supported these requests.

The statements of the other parties to the proceedings and decisions on Pietrzyk’s motions are expected to be made on the next day of the hearing. This hearing will take place on Wednesday, 18 November 2020. If the defense’s request for evidence is rejected and no further requests for evidence follow, the final presentations could then begin.