Anti-Semitism in Germany: A Partial Lesson Learned

Jewish Museum Berlin
Jewish Museum Berlin


Yesterday, at the Brandenburg Gate, the country’s political elite, union and religious leaders, and high-profile personalities, gathered to protest anti-Semitism in Germany. Chancellor Merkel spoke out strongly, reiterating that Jews are not unwelcome but rather ‘at home’ in Germany. The lessons learned here, however, have clearly been partial.

Last week in Cottbus, a small former East-German city, a newspaper building was besmirched with graffiti: a swastika and the words ‘Jews’ and ‘Sieg Heil’. Earlier in the summer, protests, mostly within Berlin’s Muslim community, against Israel’s operations in Gaza, brought with them reported anti-Semitic incidents (159 in 20 days, reported the Bundestag in late August). One example is that an Imam from a local mosque was investigated for the posting of a hateful video on Youtube calling for the murder of Jews. The Jewish Council (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland) has described this a ‘shockwave of anti-Semitism’. The events are disquieting, three quarters of a century after the beginning of the Second World War and the resulting liquidation of Europe’s Jewry.

And yet, there are reasons for Germany also to be proud of its record. The State continues to be extremely conscious of its dreadful history; it is one of the few places in Europe where anti-Semitic acts are taken with utmost seriousness. I have been few places where Jewish institutions are so protected by police, or where a single graffito in a small city can cause a national scandal. The extreme right wing here has fewer and fewer supporters (down to 5% this year, which you can compare to France where the far-right might elect a President), and statistically anti-Semitic attitudes in Germany have had a falling trend in the last decade. The Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism (based in Israel) quotes a study from the University of Leipzig that says that while 20% of Germans exhibit xenophobic attitudes, these attitudes are directed not primarily to Jews, but rather to Roma and Muslim populations. I like to quote Israeli friends who have moved here who say they feel safer as Jews in Berlin than they do back home under the fire of Hamas missiles.

All this brings me to yesterday’s rally. It was a media stunt, of course, and a rather disappointing one at that: high-profile leaders giving speeches from behind a security cordon, while elderly Jewish families languished, exposed under grey skies in the Tiergarten. There were a very small (‘disgracefully small’ was the wording of Deutsche Welle) number of spectators (6000 people). I wonder if the paucity of numbers is because Germans are not sufficiently worried about anti-Semitism? Or that anti-Semitism is no longer as much of a problem here as it once was? I think one can answer yes to both questions without being contradictory. Yet, there is another element at play, which bodes ill for the future of fighting anti-Semitism in Germany, a country which continues to have (and, here, I agree with Hadas-Handelsman, the Israeli ambassador to Germany) a special responsibility for its past crimes.

Over the summer, during the Gaza operation, critics of Israel’s operations were increasingly accused of anti-Semitism. In the heat of the war, anti-Semitism was conflated with ‘anti-Israel-policy-in-Gaza-ism’ to silence opposition to Israeli policies. 86% of Germans, according to Stern magazine, did not believe that Germany should give public support to Israeli’s operation in Gaza, and more than half blame Israel as much as the Palestinians for the conflict.  But that does not mean that most Germans are anti-Semitic. At street level, in a similar vein, a young Muslim protestor chanting that Jews should ‘go to the gas’ at an anti-IDF demonstration in Kreuzberg is of course being anti-Semitic. This is a clear articulation of the word in German, Judenhass, or ‘hatred of Jews’, an expression which has none of the etymological blur of  ‘anti-Semitism’. But his brother marching next to him chanting that Israel should stop bombing schools in Gaza is not hating Jews, he is expressing an opinion about a security operation. My first fear is that the more critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, the more that the very important charge of anti-Semitism will be cheapened. The words ‘anti-Semitism’, and thus a recognition of anti-Semitism’s terrible historic consequences, need to keep their value in Germany, as a charge against racism and intolerance. They should not be used as part of a  reaction to silence opponents in the area of foreign and military policy. If we do not use this charge clearly, then the majority of Germans, who find themselves unjustly accused, will no longer respect its strength.

Finally, it must be added that the lesson of the Holocaust has too often been articulated in Germany as one simply of historic anti-Semitism** instead of xenophobia more generally understood.

For what is the lesson of the Holocaust? One narrowly defined in terms of Judenhass? Or one which recognises the fragility of all those who are scapegoated because they are different––outside looking in, subaltern, minorities, however you wish to articulate their experience–– and victims of the nationalistic majority. Focusing simply on anti-Semitism allows politicians to turn a blind eye to the much wider problem of xenophobia. Because Germany today still still has its ‘others’ and still describes its citizenry in national and ethnic terms (nationality laws here still largely reflect that perspective despite reforms––and until 2000 they were very much the descendant of Nazi laws). I am often frustrated in conversation with Germans repentant for the Holocaust, who will nonetheless make outrageously racist comments about Turks or Arabs at a dinner party. The community that faces the most xenophobia statistically is not, these days, Germany’s Jewish population, decimated by past crimes, but rather the nearly 4 to 5 million Muslims living in Germany, many of whom struggle for legal status and social and economic mobility.

As Spiegel reported earlier in the year, there is an ‘Islamophobia boom’ in Germany, and this was the central plank (not anti-Semitism) of disgraceful political posters of the far-right party, the NPD, posted all over the country, in recent elections (the image of a flying carpet and minorities on it wished a ‘good flight home’). But Islamophobic views are articulated not only among the diminishing NPD vote, but over much of the political spectrum. The Ebert foundation reports 56% of Germans believe Islam is not complementary with ‘modern life’, despite the fact that only 1% of Germany’s Muslim population is estimated to be fundamentalist by the BfV (German domestic intelligence). I predict this number to rise with the increasing attention in the press to the religious fundamentalism of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The Council of Europe rebuked the German government in March for not strengthening hate-crime provisions in the penal code. And so while it is encouraging to see those same German leaders take so public a stand against some forms of hatred before the Brandenburg Gate today, one can only feel that their accomplishments are partial by not more fully extending the lesson of the Nazi period: which is to protect all of Germany’s most hated and vulnerable minorities.



**The story of anti-Semitism in Germany, of course, is not so linear, not simply because, as Israeli commentator Amos Elon eloquently observed, Jews in Germany despite the historic challenges of assimilation and acculturation became an integral and, in fact, very successful part of German society in the decades preceding the Nazi disaster. That legacy of success and integration is being restored to some extent by the rise of ‘returning’ Jewish descendants (more than 100 000 have successfully obtained German passports already), mostly from Israel.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

4 thoughts on “Anti-Semitism in Germany: A Partial Lesson Learned

  • 03/10/2014 at 14:43

    While I admire that you point out Germany’s obligation to remain vigilant against all types of xenophobia, I was surprised that this followed the causal association of the muslim ‘outsider’, rather than ‘native’ German, with anti-semitism:

    “But that does not mean that most Germans are anti-Semitic. At street level, in a similar vein, a young Muslim protestor chanting that Jews should ‘go to the gas’ at an anti-IDF demonstration in Kreuzberg is of course being anti-Semitic.”

    As a Jew in Germany, I have bonded with Muslims over the historical and current xenophobia and had nothing but positive experiences. I have only observed anti-semitism (along with other xenophobias) from ‘native’ Germans, (Christian Germans would be more appropriate, since it bothers me that Muslims and other minorities in Germany, who were born here, are still not considered ‘native’).

    I’m certain you didn’t intend to (and the biased German media coverage doesn’t help), but by specifically pointing out a Muslim anti-semite, you are scapegoating a new group.

    • 06/10/2014 at 08:57

      Thanks for your comment, Kay, but I disagree. I don’t believe I am scapegoating a new group, the media has already done this for us. I appreciate that your personal experience may be different, but the mass media has not been so compassionate. Take a look at the BBC, also the German outlets (you can follow the links in my blog post), and how they reported widely over the summer that ‘Muslims’ in Germany (a very problematic category, I agree—most are ‘Germans’ after all) peppered the Gaza protests in Berlin with blatantly anti-Semitic slogans, including that Jews should ‘go to the gas’. Unfortunately, the press here, as I’m sure you’ve read, has ascribed anti-Semitism to the entire protests because of a few nasty slogans by a minority. I’m not scapegoating anyone, or creating a new category, but rather reacting against what has already been reported in the news. The effort in the post is to be more nuanced about those reported protesting and to break down growing stereotypes about Germans of Muslim background rather than perpetuate them.

  • 10/10/2014 at 18:39

    I’m not entirely sure what sort of Muslims were participating in these anti-Semitic riots, I’m also not sure – with all the respect – if you, dear author, properly understand meaning of word “Semitic”. Well, here comes the explaination:

    While the aforementioned Muslims surely share their religion, it’s also quite likely that they share their north African or Arabian origin. That said, most of them are indeed Arabs, and that makes them Semitic, since Arabs are Semitic people.

    I don’t see how a society that mostly consist of Semitic people would be anti-Semitic. I think the whole thing is about Muslims being aither anti-Jewish, or anti-Israeli (I’m going to generalize a little bit more; they also often claim themselves as anti-Western and anti-Russian – take it as a bitter irony, of course), or both at time, and reasons for that doesn’t originate in native German society.

    Also, I would like to note that – probably, of course – the hate between Arabian and Jewish people has nothing to WW2 (it seems to be, sort of, older) and talking holocaust over and over again is just irrelevant.

    The reason for the so called “new-wave” of anti-Semitism is growing group of people who originate from societies involved into Israel-Arab conflict and simply cannot remain unbiased while their families and friends die, just like we – western people – can’t stand religious extremism from these groups and tend to generalize on them, telling how hateful, simple, unemployed, blablabla, they are.

    One more thing. Don’t take my comment as an offence; I just want to communicate how differently I understand whole this topic, and as a Polish person – living in Berlin – I also understand that history doesn’t treat everyone equally; I wish these people could sometimes distance themselves from things they take so emotionally and realise that unless they stop incite the conflict, it will never stop.

    • 14/10/2014 at 11:08

      Dear Grzegorz,
      Thanks for your comment. The Oxford English dictionary defines anti-Semitic as “hostility or prejudice against Jews”, so I have used the term correctly. You are quite right that Arabs are also a Semitic people, but the term anti-Semitic has evolved in the English language to refer strictly to prejudice against Jews—the term is more restricted in its use in English than you might expect by looking at its etymology. I agree there has been discord between Jews and Arabs in Palestine well before WW2, but the memory of the Holocaust gives the combat against Anti-Semitism a particular context in Germany—which is my subject. Best wishes, Joseph

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