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April 3, 2022 7:55 am
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Fabricating Antisemitism: The Case of Gil Ofarim

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

Opinion

German singer and actor Gil Ofarim. Photo: Sven Mandel / Wikimedia commons

JNS.org – Back in October, I wrote about the strange case of Gil Ofarim, a popular German Jewish singer who leveled a charge of antisemitic discrimination against an employee of the Westin Hotel in Leipzig, Germany. The case drew forensic interest from the German media and much soul-searching among German politicians about the levels of antisemitism in their country.

As it turns out — and as many feared at the time — Ofarim’s allegations were entirely false. Last Thursday, the public prosecutor in Leipzig announced that not only were charges being dropped against the hotel clerk accused of antisemitism, but Ofarim was himself being indicted on charges of libel and defamation — charges that could result in a jail sentence if he is convicted. The conclusion was reached after months of painstaking investigation that included a close review of CCTV footage from the hotel reception, several police interviews with Ofarim and even a reconstruction of the fateful encounter that the singer alleged had taken place.

The Ofarim saga began on Oct. 5 last year when the singer attempted to check into the Westin following a performance in Leipzig. An emotional Instagram video that quickly went viral showed the singer sitting on the steps outside the hotel, nursing the Star of David necklace he said he always wore on his chest. As he told it, he had been stuck in the line at the check-in, becoming frustrated when, he claimed, other guests were receiving their room cards ahead of him. When Ofarim asked why he was being ignored, a clerk allegedly told him “pack up your star and you can check in.”

As ugly as an incident like this would have been had it actually occurred, it would by no means have been the worst example of antisemitism in Germany, which frequently involves violent assaults and anti-Jewish invective far cruder than that quoted by Ofarim. Nevertheless, perhaps because of Ofarim’s local celebrity, and the fact that he is the son of Israeli pop singer Abi Ofarim, the case set the German media alight.

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Politicians and community leaders were almost falling over themselves to condemn the incident. The then federal interior minister, Heiko Maas, said that Ofarim’s supposed ordeal demonstrated the need for all Germans to stand “shoulder to shoulder” against antisemitism. Felix Klein, Germany’s federal commissioner tasked with combating antisemitism, declared himself “appalled that a person is discriminated against and attacked in an antisemitic fashion in public in a busy hotel lobby.” The head of Germany’s Jewish community, Josef Schuster, remarked that Ofarim had encountered “the everyday antisemitism to which Jews are repeatedly exposed” in Germany.

Some politicians even went as far as to call for the hotel employee identified by Ofarim to be fired. Karin Prien (CDU), the Minister of Education in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, urged that the accused clerk be terminated immediately, while Katja Meier, the Minister of Justice in Saxony, where Leipzig is located, wrote: “This open antisemitism in the Hotel Westin in Leipzig is unspeakable and unbearable. It must have consequences — and an apology is not enough.”

These sentiments were, mostly, noble and welcome (calling for someone to be fired without due process is hardly fair play, though). Ofarim’s allegations also increased the attention paid to the very real problem of antisemitism in Germany. However, within a fortnight of the alleged incident, cracks in his story began to appear.

CCTV footage from the hotel lobby published in German news outlets showed that Ofarim wasn’t wearing, at least visibly, the Star of David necklace he claimed had sparked the clerk’s antisemitic comment. It also emerged that the hotel clerk accused of antisemitism had filed a defamation suit against Ofarim the very day after the alleged incident. In media interviews, Ofarim became worryingly vague on detail, on one occasion answering the question of whether he had been wearing the necklace in the hotel with the breezy response, “Anyone who knows me knows that I always wear the Star of David.” Moreover, several interviews with the police reportedly revealed inconsistencies in Ofarim’s account of what happened­ — or didn’t.

In a carefully worded statement once the probe was concluded, the Leipzig prosecutor said it was plain that the incident described by Ofarim “did not actually happen.” Instead, it is Ofarim himself who now stands accused of the serious offense of fabricating an act of discrimination.

There is an unjust absurdity about this situation. Last year, there was a 30% increase in antisemitic outrages in Germany, with more than 3,000 incidents reported — likely only a fraction of the total number, given that successive studies have shown that many victims of antisemitic harassment in Germany don’t file a report with the authorities. Some of those incidents were related to the COVID-19 conspiracy theories that have been lapped up in Germany, while many more occurred last May when the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was accompanied by a wave of antisemitic agitation and violence. Moreover, during the last decade, antisemitic incidents have risen year on year, demonstrating beyond doubt that the land of the Holocaust has failed to excise the oldest hatred.

None of that excuses Ofarim’s appalling act. Awareness of the urgent need to fight back against antisemitism in Germany shouldn’t blind us to the sheer injustice of accusing an innocent person of such vile prejudice, as Ofarim has apparently done. And in a world driven by social media chatter, Ofarim has provided an important boost for the narrative that Jews exaggerate antisemitism today, just as they talk too much about the Holocaust of 80 years ago.

Ofarim has made the job of those in Germany working diligently to combat antisemitism that much harder. But there is also an important lesson here about caution, for with hindsight, no German politician should have spoken out so definitively without a proper investigation of Ofarim’s allegations. Not to mention that the next time someone reports such an incident — particularly one that involves service workers in a hotel or a restaurant or an airport — Gil Ofarim’s example could well encourage the too-hasty dismissal of such a complaint.

We can only hope that the twists and turns of the news cycle will speedily move on from this sorry affair. As for Gil Ofarim, he would be well-advised not to open his mouth in public again, unless he’s singing.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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