This Monday, the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) will negotiate a unique legal dispute: A Jewish citizen is suing a sandstone relief on the Wittenberg town church. Where the reformer Martin Luther preached and where Holy Mass was celebrated in German for the first time, a “Judensau” (Judensau) is emblazoned above the choir facade: a motif often used in the Middle Ages, which shows Jews with pigs, which Judaism considers unclean. Sometimes they ride the animals, sometimes they smell their anuses, drink their urine or suck on their teats.

These are outrageous anti-Semitic insults that differ from other anti-Semitic insults in that they are ancient. Probably the oldest can be found at the cathedral in Brandenburg an der Havel, it dates from the first third of the 13th century. The one in Wittenberg is only a little younger and is considered particularly precarious because of Luther’s anti-Judaism.

Does the Wittenberg “Judensau” now have to give way to a judge’s verdict? Despite its obvious character, little speaks for it. The plaintiff alleges a violation of his personal rights because he sees his faith as offended. Nobody has to tolerate an insult, it is punishable under Section 185 of the Criminal Code and is also punished accordingly in far less serious cases.

However, the Wittenberg relief has received a new setting, to which the complainant evangelical community, which owns the church, would like to draw all its attention. A bronze plate cast into the ground in front of the “Judensau” links Christian anti-Semitism, specifically that of Luther, with the Holocaust. There is also an explanatory board that relates bronze and sow. In the words of the Naumburg Higher Regional Court, which dismissed the lawsuit in 2020, this results in an “ensemble of objects of remembrance and remembrance” that should not be considered an insult.

Now the plaintiff counters that an insult remains an insult even if you comment on it. Motto: You’re a pig, but I don’t mean what I say. You hear this argument a lot, but it’s only of limited use. Because what matters is whether the context is only intended to disguise the fact that the sender wants to belittle someone – or whether it actually gives a new direction to what is said.

For Wittenberg one can assume that the distancing is sufficient. At least according to the current perception, which has been sharpened with the recent racism discussions. The evaluation remains time-bound: In 2005, the “Judensau” at the Regensburg Cathedral was provided with an information board which assigns the sculpture to a “past epoch” and which therefore seems “strange” today. One can hardly say more politely what was committed back then. For its part, the text seems strange today, because anti-Semitism is everything, it’s just not gone. With this in mind, there is now a new plaque that also names the perfidy with which the sculpture was aligned towards the Jewish Quarter. Today that would be called hate speech.

It’s probably a good thing if there’s no iconoclasm with legal remedies: the “Judensäue” remain as closely associated with the churches as they were with anti-Semitism. And the congregations have to explain this as long as their sacred buildings are standing. Hopefully forever.