Skip To Content

In a Rich Irony, German Jews Defend Muslims

In Germany today, Muslims are often cited as a driving force behind contemporary German anti-Semitism — and are increasingly a target of ethnic-based prejudice and bigotry.

Yet leaders of Germany’s Jewish community have joined others in combating what many view as a tidal wave of German Islamophobia.

Though this is rich in irony, Jewish leaders see their position as a matter of Jewish self-interest in a Germany in which old ghosts remain laid to rest.

Concern about German Islamophobia comes against a backdrop in which experts who track anti-Semitism in Germany cite a trend of Muslims joining with extreme leftists and traditional anti-Semites to protest Israel while invoking Jews, explicitly, as their targets.

Among other widely publicized events, a group of Muslims in Hanover attacked an Israeli dance troupe in June 2007, yelling “Juden raus” as they hurled stones at the members, according to press reports. And in January 2009, Muslims and German leftists marched in Berlin chanting “Death to Jews” to protest Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Yet at the same time, Muslims themselves are increasingly a target in Germany: a product of the country’s long-running failure to integrate Muslim immigrants into German society despite their presence — by invitation — in large numbers since the early 1960s. Still, a Germany rife with rising anti-Muslim prejudice offers little comfort to those worried about the welfare of Jews here.

Those hostile toward Muslims “have suddenly invoked the Judeo-Christian heritage in Germany, whereas previously there was more emphasis on the country’s Christian heritage,” explained Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Berlin. “[By creating] a bulwark, so to speak, against the Muslims by invoking ‘Judeo-Christian’ in this debate, you are creating a religious divide. The Jews want to be part of the majority society, but not at the expense of putting other minorities outside mainstream society.”

Recently, an obscure member of Germany’s Central Bank has turned up the flame on anti-Muslim sentiment to an unprecedented boil, though it cost him a seat on the bank’s board.

In “Germany Does Away With Itself,” author Thilo Sarrazin offers an indictment of Germany’s 4.2 million Muslims — 5.5% of the population — blaming them for dumbing down German culture and draining the nation’s welfare budget. Disturbingly, Sarrazin, a member of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party, at times appears to come close to a genetics-based condemnation of the community.

“Culturally and morally the Muslims represent a step backward for German society,” Sarrazin declares in his book, published last August. “If the birthrate of the migrants continues to remain higher than the indigenous population, within a few generations, the migrants will take over the state and society and create a nation of dunces.”

Jewish leaders have been quick to denounce Sarrazin. Writing about him in the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, the former vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Michel Friedman, insisted that there could be “no more tolerance for this intolerance,” adding, “We need bridge builders, not people who preach hate, much less on the board of the German Bundesbank.”

Friedman’s criticism was inspired in part by a sense that Sarrazin was introducing — or reintroducing — a broader, unhealthy viewpoint into Germany’s public discourse. In an interview after the publication of his book, Sarrazin angered Jews when, in defending and expanding on his views of Turkish Muslims as a group, he seemed to defend sweeping ethnic generalizations, saying, “All Jews share a certain gene; Basques have certain genes that differentiate them from others.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel has soundly repudiated the book, terming Sarrazin’s views “totally unacceptable.” The Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung articulated mainstream liberal reaction, editorializing, “What should be done if 65 years after the banning of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf,’ another treatise on racial theory turns into a best-seller in Germany?”

But Sarrazin’s book has acted like a match on long built-up tinder, and the firestorm it has ignited has refused to die down.

“The Germans have been politically correct about race and religion for 65 years, since the end of [World War II],” Israel’s envoy to Berlin, Yoram Ben-Zeev, told the Forward. “Now, Sarrazin has become the trigger — the spark — to get them to openly speak their minds.”

A poll conducted by the center-left Friedrich-Ebert Foundation last October, soon after the book’s publication, showed that more than 30% of Germans believe that the country “is being overrun by foreigners.” Sixty percent of Germans said they would “restrict the practice of Islam.”

In the view of Clemens Wergin, an editorial writer at Die Welt, Germany’s leading conservative newspaper, Germany’s Turkish immigrants, who make up the bulk of the country’s Muslim community, “are socialized by Muslim satellite programs.”

“The TV is on all day,” he said. “That’s why they don’t learn German fast enough when they are young. Their cultural values are different than the German cultural values that they would get from German television — which many of them are not watching.”

Many of the basic facts of the Muslim failure to integrate in Germany are not in dispute. A 2009 report by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development found that Turkish immigrants — who make up almost two-thirds of the country’s Muslims — are the least integrated ethnic group in the country, despite being the second most numerous immigrant group.

Turks were first invited into the country as guest workers in 1961, during West Germany’s post-World War II economic boom. The war’s death toll had left the democratic, Western-allied section of t he divided land with huge labor shortages. Workers were needed for the country’s steel mills and mines, and for other industrial jobs. Germany negotiated an agreement with Turkey under which the latter sent 1 million of its citizens to fill these jobs — mostly desperately poor peasants from Turkey’s countryside who were often illiterate.

Neither country anticipated that these workers would stay long. But they did, and today they and their descendants constitute some 3.2 million of the country’s 4.2 million Muslim population. The overall proportion of Muslims in the population may not be that large at 5.5%, but they are concentrated in key urban areas. In Berlin, 22% of the population is Muslim; in Frankfurt, more than 30%. But until groundbreaking legislation in 2000, Germany, whose citizenship laws historically required German kinship ties, did not grant citizenship to these long-term residents, nor to their German-born children and grandchildren, who knew no other country.

Meanwhile, the industrial jobs that had brought the first generation of Turks to Germany disappeared. The second and third generations, ghettoized in poor schools and with little culture of academic achievement, failed to move into the modern high-tech sector, where the new jobs were. Living in a largely Turkish environment, many failed to learn fluent German even two or three generations into their residence in Germany. Almost all married strictly within their community, or took spouses from Turkey, thereby enlarging the family circles eligible for immigration, though not for citizenship.

“We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn’t stay, but that’s not the reality,” Merkel recently told her Christian Democratic Union party.

Acknowledging the failure of the multicultural concept — the co-existence of parallel German and Turkish societies — the German leader urged the nation’s Muslims to master German and respect the constitution. Germany’s Muslims, she said, “should integrate and adopt German values.”

That may be easier said than done. “There is hardly any other country in Europe where immigrants are so poorly educated,” Reiner Klingholz, a demographer and director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, wrote in the news magazine Der Spiegel, referring to the Turks. ”No comparative study can hide the fact that people with roots in Turkey have the greatest problems with integration.”

Sarrazin’s book has only widened this large divide. “Many Germans see Islam in their midst as an existential threat to their way of life,” said Wolfgang Benz, the recently retired head of the center for anti-Semitic research at the Technical University in Berlin. Kenan Kolat, vice president of the Turkish Community in Turkey, said that Sarrazin’s book “has given Germans permission to be openly racist.”

Kolat said that many Turks, including qualified professionals, face job discrimination and feel marginalized in Germany. Some are returning to their homeland. In 2008, the most recent year with available data, 10,147 Turks in Germany went back to their native country. The net immigration of Turks to Germany was 10,130 in 2000, but dwindled to 1,746 in 2005, according to a poll done by Der Spiegel.

Implicitly rebuking Merkel’s call for greater integration, Kolat told the Forward: “Ninety percent of Turks have been here for decades and are fully integrated, and I can’t bear to hear this discussion anymore. Integration to Germans means that Turks must adapt to German society and its values, and that is not acceptable.”

Contact Donald Snyder at [email protected]

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning journalism this Passover.

In this age of misinformation, our work is needed like never before. We report on the news that matters most to American Jews, driven by truth, not ideology.

At a time when newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall. That means for the first time in our 126-year history, Forward journalism is free to everyone, everywhere. With an ongoing war, rising antisemitism, and a flood of disinformation that may affect the upcoming election, we believe that free and open access to Jewish journalism is imperative.

Readers like you make it all possible. Right now, we’re in the middle of our Passover Pledge Drive and we need 500 people to step up and make a gift to sustain our trustworthy, independent journalism.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Our Goal: 500 gifts during our Passover Pledge Drive!

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.