On Sunday, senior German and Israeli diplomats took to Twitter to denounce what sounded like a horrifying attack on an Israeli tourist in Berlin over the weekend that is being blamed on unidentified Arabs.
But so far there is a lot that does not add up.
“This is disgusting, hopefully these thugs get caught,” wrote Steffen Seibert, the German ambassador in Tel Aviv. “It’s unbearable that something like this can happen to a young Jew in Berlin.”“Another Israeli is brutally attacked in the German capital. This is unacceptable!” thundered Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador in Berlin.
“Israelis and Jews should not feel unsafe walking the streets of Berlin or any other German city,” the Israeli official added. “The German authorities must take every measure to stop these attacks and incitement against Israel and Jews before it is too late.”Not surprisingly, Israel’s envoy painted the alleged incident as part of a broader pattern of attacks on Jews and Israelis, hinting perhaps that Germany was sliding back towards Nazi days.
Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, denounced the alleged attack as “shameful for a cosmopolitan European capital.”Sawsan Chebli, a pro-Israel German lawmaker of Palestinian ancestry from the ruling Social Democrat Party, used the occasion to repeat her demand that Palestinians and Arabs be sent on compulsory visits to former German government death camps in order to rid them of the hatred of Jews and Israel with which they are supposedly raised. The incident quickly made its way into the German, Israeli and Jewish communal media, with all the reports stressing a suspected anti-Semitic motive for the alleged attack.
The Associated Press even reported on the alleged attack, adding as context that anti-Semitic incidents “are common in Germany.”
That the alleged incident is being blamed on Arabs – even though no suspects have been apprehended – has the potential to feed the already pervasive racism in Germany against refugee and immigrant communities, especially Muslims.
Germany does indeed have a serious problem of anti-Jewish bigotry, but according to German police, a surge in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years has come almost exclusively from the far right and not from Muslim and immigrant communities.
An estimated 10,000 Israelis live in Berlin – many having flocked there in recent years – and yet attacks on them are apparently rare enough that this one made international headlines despite there being little to corroborate it so far.
An examination of the circumstances raises questions and suggests a need for caution.
Skepticism is especially warranted given a history of false claims of anti-Semitic attacks in Germany and Europe in recent years.
At the very least, the overheated reactions by top diplomats are premature and opportunistic – and smack of an effort to paint Israel and Israelis as the ultimate victims at a time when Israel’s barbaric and escalating colonial violence against indigenous Palestinians is generating ever more international horror.
“When will the nightmare end?”
Here’s what we know so far.
The Berlin police on Sunday issued a statement about an alleged incident the night before.
The statement is based on the victim’s own account. The 19-year-old tourist claimed he was walking with his 18-year-old friend on Hedemannstrasse, in the trendy Kreuzberg section of the German capital around 10:15 pm on Saturday evening.The tourist, who has been identified in Israeli media as Yonatan Yisraeli, was “talking on the phone in Hebrew” when “suddenly, a car occupied by four men is said to have stopped next to the couple,” the police state.
Three men then allegedly got out of the car and “one of the men is said to have spoken to the 19-year-old, which he did not understand due to his lack of German.”
Suddenly, one of the men allegedly knocked Yisraeli to the ground. “The three men are said to have hit and kicked the young man lying on the ground,” according to the Berlin police.
They then got back into the car and headed off in an “unknown direction.”
Yisraeli and his female friend, who was unharmed, went to a hospital “where minor injuries to the arm and face were treated on an outpatient basis,” according to the Berlin police statement.
Significantly, the Berlin police say they are investigating the alleged attack as a potential anti-Semitic incident.
Statement from @polizeiberlin (machine translated) relies entirely on account of the Israeli “victim” & makes no sense. How did attackers riding in a car hear him speaking Hebrew? How were his injuries so “minor” after such a supposedly savage attack?https://t.co/f10sKW9ngE pic.twitter.com/uNeK0lc20l— Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) August 7, 2023
Yisraeli provided more details of the alleged attack in interviews with German and Israeli media.
He told the tabloid Bild that while he was being beaten, he thought to himself, “When will the nightmare end?”
As he was attacked, his companion – identified only as Avia – “cried and screamed,” according to Bild.
“When they were done with me, they drove away in their car and listened to loud Arabic music and really celebrated,” Yisraeli added. “I was beaten up by Arabs because I’m Jewish!”
Bild also claims that Yisraeli was “diagnosed with a concussion,” even though the Berlin police statement makes no mention of such a potentially serious head injury.
A photo of Yisraeli’s elbow published by Bild purports to show bruises he received during what by his account was a nightmarish attack. It is difficult to see much by way of injuries in the photo.
Bild headlined its sensational article, “They drove away and listened to Arabic music.”
“I think they were Arabs”
Yisraeli also spoke to Israeli state broadcaster Kan.“Me and a good friend of mine left the flat to buy something at the supermarket,” Yisraeli tells Kan. “And we are walking on the way back. Suddenly a red car stops next to us, they ask us something in German, how to get to – I have no idea.”
“We tell them in English that we are not from here, that we don’t understand,” Yisraeli adds. “We continue walking, talking amongst ourselves and suddenly two seconds later they start beating us. Beating me, like. On principle, it turns out they don’t beat girls. But to beat me is okay.”
Asked if his attackers were “Germans,” Yisraeli responds, “I think they were Arabs, I can’t say for sure.”
“After they were finished with what they’d done, then they got in the car and played music at full volume and drove off. In my opinion, it was Arabic. I don’t know.”
The Kan interviewer then asks Yisraeli, “Do you think it’s really related to your speaking there in Hebrew? That you’re from Israel?”
Yisraeli responds: “I think so because we spoke on the phone and my name is Yonatan Yisraeli and everyone calls me Yisra. So we were talking a lot and saying, ‘Yisra, Yisra, Yisra.’ Because that’s what they call me. So I do think it was related. We also spoke in Hebrew. And it wasn’t softly. And they called me by my name Yisra.”
As he was speaking to Kan, Yisraeli may have realized that this made little sense: People driving in a car would generally have a difficult time clearly hearing the conversation of two people on a sidewalk.
It is also difficult to believe that the men would have figured out from an overheard conversation that Yisraeli’s nickname “Yisra” indicated any connection to Israel.
Assuming they were Arabs and indeed overheard “Yisra,” they might well have thought it was the common Arabic girl’s name Israa.
But Yisraeli gives Kan additional details, perhaps to account for these potential problems with his story.
“They drove alongside us for a bit with an open door, I mean an open window,” Yisraeli asserts.
Is Yisraeli claiming here that he and his friend were being followed? If so, that is at odds with his claims that the car had stopped “suddenly.”
In the Kan interview, Yisraeli also provides more inconsistent details about his alleged injuries, even suggesting he suffered traumatic head injuries severe enough to cause loss of memory – again, something the Berlin police statement does not mention.
“And my memory… There was a fear of concussion. I don’t recall exactly what happened after the first strike,” Yisraeli says, adding, “they gave me a CT brain scan at the hospital.”
Notably, Yisraeli does not claim that his alleged attackers ever said anything to indicate that they knew him specifically to be Israeli or Jewish. He does not allege that they made any slurs against Jews or comments about Israel.
In the published photos and video of Yisraeli, he is not visibly identifiable as Jewish or Israeli nor does he refer to any visible identifiers he was wearing on the night of the alleged attack.
He is simply assuming that the men driving in a car somehow heard him and his friend speaking Hebrew, recognized that it was Hebrew, and on that basis decided to stop their car and attack him.
While Yisraeli has yet to provide evidence that his alleged assailants were motivated by knowledge that he was Israeli or Jewish, he does appear willing to make assumptions about them.
In a second interview with Kan, Yisraeli is asked if his assailants were Muslim.
“They were apparently Muslim,” Yisraeli replies. “And after they got in the car, they were jovial and played Arabic music at full volume. And also after we told them we were not from Germany, that set them off – ‘Mmm let’s beat them’ – like that.”
No video, no suspects, no motive
Patricia Brämer, the spokesperson for the Berlin Police, confirmed to The Electronic Intifada in an email on Tuesday that there was no surveillance video of the alleged attack and that no independent witnesses or suspects have yet been identified.
At this point, Berlin police do not attribute any particular motive to the alleged attack.
“Something can only be said about the motivation when the suspects have been identified,” Brämer wrote.
It is also odd that neither the police statement nor any of the media reports contain any testimony from Yisraeli’s female friend – the only person other than Yisraeli and his alleged assailants said to have witnessed the incident.
It would be understandable if she did not wish to be publicly named, but any reputable media organization would grant her anonymity to allow her to give her account of a terrifying attack from which she was fortunate to escape totally unharmed.
On Tuesday, the Berlin Police updated their public statement with an appeal for any witnesses to come forward.
The police are looking for suspects aged 20 to 30 years old, “possibly of Arab origin.” They are also asking anyone with information to contact them, especially if they witnessed the attack or saw a red car near the time and place it reportedly occurred.
History of hoaxes
What caught this writer’s attention is how reminiscent Yisraeli’s account is to a 2013 case in which an Israeli film director, Yariv Horowitz, claimed to have been brutally attacked by a gang of Arab youths while visiting France. That was a lie.
Currently, German-Israeli singer Gil Ofarim is facing criminal charges in Germany for falsely claiming that he was a victim of anti-Semitic abuse by a hotel worker.
In that case, surveillance video proved that Ofarim lied about an alleged incident that had generated sympathy and outrage across Germany.
Of course it is not just Israelis who perpetrate such hoaxes.
Famously, Black American actor Jussie Smollett faked a racially motivated attack on himself in Chicago in 2019, and the following year white New Yorker Amy Cooper gained international notoriety when she called the police to falsely accuse Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) of threatening her in Central Park.
And in recent years in Germany there has been an escalating witch hunt against Arabs, particularly Palestinians, falsely accusing them of anti-Semitism.
This includes the firing of several Arab journalists by state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, dismissals that have been ruled baseless and unlawful when challenged in court.
None of this is to say that Yonatan Yisraeli is necessarily lying or perpetrating a hoax. He may be telling the truth, or perhaps something happened even if it was not exactly as he describes it.
It goes without saying that if Yisraeli suffered the horrible attack he describes, he deserves justice and protection like anyone else, regardless of his assailants’ motivation.
But given the inconsistencies in Yisraeli’s account and the lack of corroboration, witnesses or actual suspects, his case warrants maximum caution from outside observers, especially when it is already being used by propagandists to score points for Israel.
At the very least, public officials like Steffen Seibert, Germany’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, should refrain from pouring fuel on a potentially volatile situation when the facts are so far from clear.
Hopefully the police in Berlin will swiftly get to the bottom of it and anyone who has committed a crime in this case will appropriately be held to account – no matter who they are.
David Sheen contributed translation.