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Why Anti-Semitism Is Growing in Germany

A group of Muslim teenagers in Hanover attack an Israeli dance troupe, reportedly yelling “Juden raus” as they hurl stones at them.

German leftists march in Berlin with Muslims to protest the 2008–2009 Gaza military conflict. “Death to the Jews!” the marchers chant.

At a soccer game between teams from the St. Pauli section of Hamburg and the city of Chemnitz in eastern Germany, the Chemnitz fans shout “Sieg heil” and wave imitation Nazi flags. “We’re going to build a subway from St. Pauli to Auschwitz,” some chant — not because the St. Pauli team is Jewish, but simply as a way of expressing contempt through casual use of Holocaust imagery.

This is happening in a country that has confronted its Nazi past, where Holocaust education has long been mandatory and such expressions of anti-Semitism are illegal. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany.

But generational and demographic changes are converging in Germany today, and there is a shift afoot in the zeitgeist. While Germany continues to contend with vestiges of traditional anti-Semitism, a new and more deeply embedded strain has emerged related to Israel. Polls show that this strain is distinguishable from mere opposition to Israeli policies, or even from anti-Zionism. In a 2010 report by the University of Beilefeld’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence, institute researchers, who conduct an annual poll on anti-Semitism, found an increase linked specifically to Israel. Among their findings:

More than 57% agreed that Israel is waging “a war of annihilation” against the Palestinians (up from 51% in 2009).

In 2008 — the most recent year the question was asked — more than 40% agreed that “what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is basically no different from what the Nazis did with the Jews during the Third Reich.”

More than 38% of Germans polled agreed that “considering the politics of Israel it is easy to see why one would have something against Jews” (up from 34% in 2009).

Yet at the same time, 67.5% in the 2010 poll agreed with the statement, “I like it that increasingly more Jews live in Germany.”

“As a psychologist, I think that this reflects ambivalent attitudes,” wrote Beate Küpper, one of the researchers who produced the report, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Germans are happy if there are some Jews in their country as this gives us release. It shows off that we are tolerant…. However, the strong blaming of Israel common in Germany (because we like peace and go for the weaker…) is full of anti-Semitic stereotypes [and] associations.”

She summarized: “When it comes to anti-Semitism I strongly believe that the old myths are still around, even though they are usually not awakened in their traditional forms today… [It’s] definitely less than some 60 years ago, but it is still around.”

Mirko Niehoff, a 31-year-old social worker who works with Muslim youth, sees aspects of these trends in his daily work. “We realized we were dealing with a new anti-Semitism with roots in the Middle East conflict,” he said.

Muslim and classic right-wing anti-Semitism are combining with left-wing demonization of Israel to produce a toxic mix, despite Germany’s postwar efforts to ensure that future generations continue to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. This new strain renders old ways of combating anti-Semitism less effective. According to some observers, in Germany the Holocaust narrative is no longer the powerful antidote it once was.

“There is so much exposure to World War II in the news media that the Holocaust has lost its shock effect,” said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office.

When former public school teacher Sebastian Voigt, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Leipzig, told his teenage students they would study the Nazi period, many complained that they had already studied the Holocaust. “No, not again,” they would say.

Confronting the Nazi past is now far more difficult, because non-Jewish immigrants, especially Muslims, don’t identify with German history. “Germany is a very different country today,” Berger said, referring to the large influx of immigrants that have different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives on history. “If you grew up with parents who came from Serbia, Turkey or Iraq, you don’t identify with Jews as victims. It doesn’t touch you emotionally.”

This alienation from German history is compounded by the fact that many Muslim youths don’t feel accepted as Germans themselves. They show little interest in this dark chapter of German history.

When Alexander Ritzmann, a senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, told a 14-year-old Muslim boy about the Holocaust, the boy said, “Very interesting, but what did I have to do with it?”

Meanwhile, many of Germany’s 4 million Muslims stay connected with events in the Middle East via cable television networks, such as Hezbollah’s Al-Manar and Hamas’s Al-Aqsa. These are anti-Semitic networks that promote Holocaust denial.

Videos justifying the persecution of Jews and promoting child martyrdom for Islam are shown daily on these networks, fueling anti-Semitism among Muslim youth in Germany.

“You cannot undo with education what these satellite broadcasts are doing,” said Matthias Kuntzel, an author and political scientist, in a phone interview from Hamburg.

The programs are fed to Germany on Egyptian and Saudi Arabian satellites. Both countries have refused repeated German requests to stop transmitting Al-Manar. German law prohibits the dissemination of hate. Although Al-Manar was banned in 2008, private homes with satellite dishes continue to receive its programs, making the ban ineffective.

To be sure, both Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and its invasion and blockade of Gaza are substantive issues criticized by the majority of Germans. Taken at face value, opposition to Israel need not be assumed to be anti-Semitic. But the majority who tell pollsters they view Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians as a “war of annihilation” and “principally not different than what the Nazis did with the Jews during the Third Reich” reflect a country in which there are blurred lines between opposition to Israeli actions and policies and anti-Semitism. As evidenced in the call for “death to Jews” in the Gaza protests, opposition to Israel sometimes goes beyond mere criticism — not only among Muslims, who tend to blame all Jews for Israel’s actions, but also among Germans on the right and left.

According to Lars Rensmann, an expert on anti-Semitism from Germany who teaches political science at the University of Michigan, for reasons peculiar to his native country, hatred of Jews may lurk below the surface even at protests that stop short of overt anti-Semitism.

“It’s not so legitimate to attack Jews in Germany, so you attack Israel as a state — the collective Jew that represents the memory of the Holocaust,” Rensmann said. “This helps you understand Germans who say what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians is just as bad as what the Nazis did to the Jews.”

Despite widespread criticism of Israel within Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government continues to strongly support the Jewish state. Yoram Ben-Zeev, Israeli ambassador to Germany, spoke enthusiastically about his relationship with the chancellor during an interview at his embassy. The German-Israeli relationship remains strong despite differences over the West Bank settlements.

Still, Ben-Zeev conceded that the German public has a negative view of Israel, as does most of Europe. Germany’s support for Israel, normally unwavering, is no longer automatic. Last July, the Bundestag unanimously condemned Israel for its attack on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship bound for Gaza with humanitarian aid.

“The resolution condemning Israel was scary,” said Lala Susskind, president of the Jewish Community in Berlin. “It was the first time the left and the right were united in criticizing Israel.”

Still, there are German leftists like Petra Pau, a member of the Left Party in the Bundestag, who condemn Israeli actions while demonstrating steadfast opposition to anti-Semitism. In an interview, Pau noted that at least one Jewish cemetery is desecrated each week in Germany.

Others, such as Alfred Grosser, a prominent Franco-German Jewish intellectual, maintain that Israeli actions fuel anti-Semitism throughout the world.

Grosser, 85, a controversial figure who survived the Holocaust as a protected French citizen during World War II, equates Gaza with a concentration camp. And he accuses the Central Council Of Jews In Germany of silencing any criticism of Israel. “As soon as a voice against Israel rises up, it’s immediately called anti-Semitic,” he told the German newspaper Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger.

Frankfurt Mayor Petra Roth invited Grosser to speak November 9 at the annual commemoration of Kristallnacht, the day that Hitler’s gangs destroyed Jewish property in 1938 in a foreshadowing of the Holocaust.

The German Council of Jews and the Israeli Embassy protested the invitation, but Grosser spoke without incident at the commemoration.

A number of organizations in Germany are trying to combat the new anti-Semitism.

One innovative program is “Active Against Anti-Semitism,” designed by the American Jewish Committee for Muslim children in Berlin schools.

In Wedding, a working-class district in Berlin, Muslim 10-year-olds at the Ernst-Schering Oberschule learn about the Sabbath. And at the Neue Synagogue. on OraniEnburger Strasse, Muslim children learn why keeping kosher is important to Jews.

In another program, at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Murat Akan, a 32-year-old German of Turkish ancestry, talks with a group of students. He wears the deep red scarf identifying him as a museum guide. The students stand before a montage of fraying black-and-white pictures showing the Nazi boycott of Jewish stores in the 1930s, the torching of synagogues and the murder of a people.

Akan is one of five Turkish guides the museum employs in order to encourage Muslim youth to learn about Germany’s rich Jewish heritage. There are 200,000 Muslims in Berlin, a city with a population of 3.5 million. Many of them live in neighborhoods that were predominantly Jewish before the Holocaust.

While some of the Muslim teenagers sympathize with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Akan said, others are openly anti-Semitic.

For example, earlier this year, five Muslim teenagers refused to enter the museum on their class visit, because they believed that the Quran forbids them to enter a Jewish institution. Akan convinced them that this prohibition is not in the Quran. They finally joined their classmates.

“They often ask me why they should feel connected to anything that happened in German history, like the Holocaust,” Akan said. “We have to teach them why it’s so important to learn what hatred can do,” he added, speaking slowly and thoughtfully.

Another innovative program, Kreuzberger Initiative Gegen Antisemitismus, or Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, runs out of a spacious apartment in a prewar building at Oranienstrasse 34, next to stores selling dresses and Middle Eastern food. The program concentrates its effort on the predominantly Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

Niehoff said that one of the Kreuzberg Initiative programs teaches local teenagers the histories of Jews who lived in the Kreuzberg neighborhood before the Nazi slaughter. He showed me a red-bordered book with the title printed in black, “The History of the Kreuzberg Jews 1933–1945.”

The Kreuzberg Initiative also conducts workshops on anti-Semitism and the Middle East conflict. Common questions are: “Why do we hear so much about Jews in Germany?” “What about our history? We have our own Holocaust.”

“It’s very important to let these kids voice their opinions,” Niehoff said, adding that many have never heard of the 1947 partition of Palestine and don’t know how the Jews got to Israel.

These innovative programs suggest ways in which the Holocaust narrative can still speak to future generations.

Last October, Andres Nader, 41, a Doctor of Comparative Cultures, took a group of Palestinian teenagers to Auschwitz. The trip was sponsored by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organization that combats neo-Nazism, racism and anti-Semitism. Amadeu Antonio, a black man from Angola, was murdered by young Germans.

Nader said that something shifted for these teenagers while in Auschwitz. The young people were shocked by the murder of so many Jews in this place. They said they would never again use the word “Jew” as an insult.

“I don’t know how people could do this to other human beings,” one boy said. “I just can’t imagine anyone murdering my little sister.”

Contact Donald Snyder at [email protected]


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