By Erik Kirschbaum and Bethan John
BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany will do all it can to fight anti-Semitism, Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech on Sunday, following a surge of abuse against Jews and spreading anti-Israeli sentiment aroused by the Gaza conflict.
Merkel made her pledge to thousands at a landmark rally protesting a rise in anti-Semitism that authorities and Jewish leaders blame mainly on Muslim extremists and young immigrants, saying anyone who attacks Jews is attacking all of Germany.
"That people in Germany are threatened and abused because of their Jewish appearance or their support for Israel is an outrageous scandal that we won't accept," Merkel said. "It's our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism."
Merkel only rarely attends demonstrations, but she joined German President Joachim Gauck and Jewish community leaders for the rally at the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin.
"Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society."
The rally itself, organized by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was extraordinary. Jews in Germany generally keep a low profile, but community leaders have said Jews were feeling threatened by anti-Semitism after the Gaza conflict.
More than half a million Jews lived in Germany when the Nazis took power in 1933. That number was reduced to about 30,000 by the Holocaust. The population has since grown to about 200,000 – a source of pride for Merkel and many Germans.
The German government said 131 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in July and 53 in June. That was up from a total of 159 in the second quarter. Merkel said authorities would use all means at hand to fight anti-Semitism.
"That far more than 100,000 Jews are now living in Germany is something of a miracle," Merkel said in an unusually personal speech. "It's a gift and it fills me with a deepest gratitude.
"Jewish life is part of our identity and culture. It hurts me when I hear that young Jewish parents are asking if it's safe to raise their children here or elderly ask if it was right to stay here."
The Gaza conflict between Palestine and Israel has caused tension to flare between local Muslim and Jewish populations across Europe. Anti-Semitic chants and threats marred pro-Palestinian protests in France, Germany, and Italy in July.
European leaders rushed to reassure local Jewish communities of their safety.
In France, the French office of the American Jewish Committee said last week that French Interior Ministry figures showed there had been a 91 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents to 527 from January 1 to July 31.
In Britain, anti-Semitic incidents rose to a near-record level after an Israeli assault on the Palestinian enclave of Gaza began in July, the Community Security Trust, a Jewish advisory body, said that month.
The Trust said there were 304 anti-Semitic incidents between January and June, a 36 percent rise compared with a year earlier.
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, praised Germany's efforts to fight anti-Semitism at the rally.
"There are some places where I'd expect to see this," Lauder said. "But not in Germany. Since the end of the war Germany, has strongly supported the Jewish rebirth. So why has all this good work been darkened by the stain of anti-Semitism?"
In July, petrol bombs were thrown at a synagogue in the western town of Wuppertal and a man wearing a skullcap was beaten up on a street corner in Berlin.
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Larry King)