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Why is anti-Semitism in Germany on the rise?

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A year ago, I was waiting inside a crowded German bus station with my classmate from Trier University.

“Don’t talk to me in Hebrew here,” she said. “You never know who’ll recognize that it’s a Jewish language.”

I myself am not Jewish, so I often ask her questions about Jewish life, about Israel, her family roots and Hebrew. But in public places, she is afraid that someone might attack her if he or she discovers she’s Jewish.

Just last week, on July 21, 2020, 69 prominent Germans received threats via fax, e-mail and text signed “NSU 2.0.” NSU is the German acronym for “National Socialist Underground,” a right-wing terror group that murdered at least ten people between 2000 and 2007 out of racist motives.

There is speculation that the suspected harassers probably found personal contact information about their victims through computers in police departments located in the central German state, Hessen. The fear that right-wingers may have access to weapons through the military or that some police officers might be part of right-wing networks is indeed terrifying and reveals that we do indeed have a problem with neo-Nazism that’s been ignored far too long.

Anti-Semitism is once again a serious issue in Germany. The Research and Information Institute on Anti-Semitism (RIAS) registered 881 anti-Semitic incidents in the year 2019 for Berlin, including 38 cases of vandalism, 59 cases of harassment and 33 physical attacks.

The Bavarian branch registered 141 incidents against 62 Jewish people in Bavaria for the year 2019, and reported that many of the incidents took place near the victims’ schools or homes. But these are only the official statistics. Every day, people are menaced or threatened for being Jewish (or for being perceived as Jewish), and so some people, like my classmate, hide their Jewish identity.

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Three factors seem to have led to the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.

In 2015 Germany began taking in many asylum seekers and migrants from Middle Eastern countries where anti-Jewish sentiments and hate against Israel are openly expressed. The Washington Post addressed this concern in an article in April 2018, mentioning Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan as examples. People who were educated this way since early childhood don’t give up their anti-Semitism upon their arrival in their new country.

Farid Bang and Kollegah perform at the Echo Awards on April 12, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Image by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

In a 2016 op-ed in the widely-read daily German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Director of the Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, expressed concern that many Muslim migrants are openly anti-Semitic and urged Germany to adopt serious integration measures.

But he also made clear that anti-Jewish chants on Berlin’s streets had been taking place even before the 2015 refugee arrivals. He pointed out that in Frankfurt, some Muslim imams had made anti-Israel statements in interreligious dialogue, and that when a man set a synagogue on fire in Wuppertal in the summer of 2014, he only received a probational sentence at the trial in February 2015.

In 2018, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee with Palestinian roots physically attacked a kipa-wearing Israeli in Berlin. In the same year, a rap duo composed of a German Muslim and a German with Spanish-Moroccan descent caused a scandal, after winning the most prestigious German pop award Echo, in which the award-winning album contained a song which mocked Holocaust survivors, stating “my body is more defined than an Auschwitz prisoner’s.“ Due to public outrage, the Echo award was abolished. The reason why the album was nominated at all was because of its commercial success. There’s obviously a broad audience willing to pay to hear this kind of music.

Blaming Muslims as the sole problem would not be fair, but the growing influence of foreign Muslim organizations in Germany is indeed alarming. Some of them do promote anti-Semitic or anti-liberal values – a dangerous situation for a democratic society. Germany’s Federal Agency for State Protection has mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Hizbollah as prime sources of concern regarding the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany.

A second factor is the growing popularity of the right-wing. In 2017, for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, a right-wing nationalist party made it into the Bundestag. Many neo-Nazis and right-wing sympathizers who had kept themselves under the radar in the past were encouraged by this development to express their views openly. Hate speech in social media in all of Europe fuel the tensions since they can now openly connect with others who share their ideology.

But the problem goes even deeper. According to a letter that a soldier from an elite group in the military sent to the Ministry of Defense this year, right-wing nationalists even exist within a military special unit. To her credit, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer immediately called for an investigation to find out who was involved and divided the elite group into two units based in two locations.

German vegan chef Attila Hildmann, seen here on an American morning show, has said Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is Protestant, is really part of a Jewish “Zionist regime” aimed at committing genocide. Image by YouTube

Through hate speech on the Internet, some people even radicalize further, such as the gunman who, immediately after uploading a document on the Internet encouraging his readers to kill Jews, tried to forcefully enter a synagogue in the city of Halle on Yom Kippur last year. The only reason his plan didn’t succeed was the stability of the locked entrance. The gunman streamed his rampage live on the Internet. After he failed to enter the synagogue, he killed a 40-year old female passer-by and a 20-year old diner at a fast-food restaurant. At the trial which began on July 21, 2020, the suspect was admonished several times for using racist language in court.

Fighting the Trend: A rally against anti-Semitism in Berlin this past September. Image by Getty Images

But anti-Semitism is also flourishing in a third group: celebrities who advocate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. These people have a wider influence on the public, due to their prominent status, and for this reason, they also reach people outside the right-wing milieu.

The most recent examples are vegan chef Attila Hildmann who posed with a flag of the former German Reich on a demonstration in Berlin, as well as seemingly pro-QAnon and anti-refugee social media statements made by soul singer Xavier Naidoo. Naidoo had already been criticized in 2017 for releasing a song that could spread anti-Semitism. But he managed to win a legal fight about this when the court ruled that he is not anti-Semitic, but rather that some lyrics might be understood as anti-Semitic. In 2020, videos made by him, which were posted on Telegram, included racist sentiments, and he also published statements containing conspiracy theories.

Halle, Germany

Synagogue in Halle, Germany, the site of an anti-Semitic attack that left two dead. Image by Getty Images

What these two celebrities share in common is that they were both probably inspired by the Reichsbürger movement, which denies the existence or legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany. Some groups claim that Germany is only a limited company and that the German Reich, within the borders delineated in 1937, continues to exist. A further claim from this ideology is that Germans are brainwashed and controlled by so-called “dark forces.” In this context, names of Jewish personalities or families, such as George Soros or the Rothschilds are frequently mentioned, as is Zionism. It’s believed that about 19,000 people belong to this movement.

Indeed, the word “Jew” has become a common swearword to denounce others on the schoolyards, and anti-Semitic sentiments appear frequently in the soccer fan scene. Hate speech is now very common in social media in general, including the posting of anti-Semitic codes and minimizing of the Holocaust. Some highly influential politicians of the right-wing party AfD used anti-Semitic wording and minimized (at least indirectly) the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II.

Such discourses, whether openly anti-Semitic or at least highly provocative, as well as the half-hearted integration of migrants raised in anti-Semitic environments in their homelands, is allowing people to show their hate more openly, and causes members of the Jewish community to worry more about their safety.

It would be unfair not to mention that a number of politicians are indeed battling the growing anti-Semitism, but in a digital era, it’s a difficult fight. Some people spreading hate speech on the Internet use pseudonyms, or post anonymously through servers in foreign countries on which the German authorities have no control or influence. Some social media platforms, most notably Telegram but also Facebook, are not effectively deleting posts containing hate speech, claiming that this would infringe on the posters’ freedom of speech.

Timo Schmitz is a journalist and poet born and raised in Germany with knowledge of seven languages, including Yiddish.

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