Rise in antisemitism unsettles Gemany’s Jews
The denim kippah on display in the Jewish Museum in Berlin belongs to Adam Armoush, the young Israeli who was assaulted with a belt by a 19-year-old Syrian in Prenzlauer Berg in April. A symbol of religiosity, it amounts to an accusation. Look, it says, someone was attacked in central Berlin for wearing this kippah.
Florian is a 19-year-old high school student. He was on vacation in Israel when he heard about the attack. He was shocked. Prenzlauer Berg is his neighborhood and he has always felt safe there. He also wears a kippah, one that’s black and crocheted, held in place atop his red hair by two pins. He still wears it, but he’s become more cautious. He takes it off when he’s on public transport or if he’s out alone in certain neighborhoods. He’s afraid he could be attacked. For being Jewish.
Florian was in 11th grade when he first decided to wear a kippah in public. “Word had already gotten around anyway that I was Jewish,” he says. Of the thousands of students at his high school in Berlin’s Wedding district, only a handful are Jewish. That was two years ago. A lot has changed since then.
Berlin in mid-May. Florian has chosen the restaurant Masel Topf for the interview — a word play on the Hebrew expression “Mazel tov,” which roughly means good luck (tov, or good, has been replaced by Topf, the German word for cooking pot). It’s located on a pleasant street opposite a synagogue. “See the police?” he asks, pointing outside. “I’m so glad they’re there.”
Soon he’ll finish his exams and be done with school. He can finally turn the page on what in many ways has become an ordeal. He’s a slim, gentle young man, eloquent, well-read, politically aware. For five months, he would only enter the school via a side entrance and spent every recess alone in an art classroom in a far corner of the building. It was his decision, he says. After what happened in the school cafeteria, he didn’t feel safe.
This is how he describes it: He was listening to music and doing homework in a free period. “A group of Muslim students came up to me. They were seniors. They said they wanted to talk to me about Trump relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. The usual stuff came up: ‘You stole our land! Where are you Jews from anyway? You’re a bunch of child murderers!’ I explained it to them again: ‘You didn’t agree to the UN Partition Plan, you wanted to destroy us, you’ve always wanted the whole country.'” At some point, they all stood up and a Lebanese girl said: “Wallah! Hitler was a good man because he killed Jews.”
Florian was shocked, he says, but he tried to keep arguing. “I called out: ‘This girl is glorifying the Holocaust, she’s celebrating the mass murder of more than 6 million Jews!'” Then an Arab student grabbed him and “more or less dragged me around the cafeteria,” while others shouted “Israel is the murderer, Israel is the murderer.”
There’s a message from the principal on the Ernst Reuter High School website condemning the “antisemitic incident,” which occurred “in the context of a dispute over the Middle East conflict.” The principal did not respond to requests for further comment. According to Saraya Gomis, the anti-discrimination commissioner for the Berlin Education Department, the school is working through the issue. She sees antisemitism as being symptomatic of blatant racism in schoolyards and classrooms, and believes teachers are complicit.
Insults, Threats and Bullying
Along with the assault on the man wearing a kippah, the incident in the school cafeteria has sparked a fresh debate about antisemitism in Germany. Jewish students in a number of Berlin schools have been insulted, threatened or bullied. Just a few weeks ago in Bonn, a man approached a Jewish university professor and knocked his kippah to the ground.
The Police Crime Statistics Report for 2017 shows that antisemitic attacks are on the rise. These include racist taunts, assaults, desecration of memorial sites and the posting of inflammatory online content. According to the Interior Ministry, 94 percent of the perpetrators hail from the far-right. The statistics do not even reflect the full range of abuse, such as insults that go unreported, threats and nasty comments maligning Jews as outsiders. Many Jewish people say the hatred comes from Muslim immigrants who bring the Middle East conflict with them to Germany.
Perhaps most shocking of all is that antisemitism appears to have become so common, so routine: in schools, on public transport, in restaurants, on the soccer pitch.
To talk to Jewish people in Germany these days is to be confronted with a deep sense of insecurity. DER SPIEGEL met with Jewish students and talked to both secular and observant Jews in Berlin, Hamburg and Düsseldorf. Many of them have experienced antisemitism, including anti-Israeli invective. They wonder why they are seen as different and why stereotypes are so hard to shift.
Wearing a kippah or a star of David these days can be dangerous. Many Jews are debating whether they have a reliable future in Germany. In 2016, a study conducted by the University of Bielefeld on Jewish perspectives on antisemitism in Germany found that a majority of those questioned had recently felt they were not part of German society.
German antisemitism may not be as palpable as the hostility expressed by immigrants but is “no less toxic,” says Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German nongovernmental organization that works to strengthen democratic civic society and eliminate neo-Nazism, right-wing extremism and antisemitism. Kahane is Jewish and the recipient of regular hate mail filled with insults such as “despicable Jewish filth.” On Twitter, one user said he’d “make a lampshade out of Kahane’s face.”
The Department for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) registered 947 antisemitic incidents in 2017 in Berlin alone. RIAS aims to document the incidents that aren’t included in police statistics. Every day, RIAS head Benjamin Steinitz hears of two to three acts of hostility, he says. The perpetrators usually speak Arabic or Turkish. However, “acts or expressions of antisemitism, primarily vilification of Israel, occur at all leves, including mainstream German society,” says Steinitz.
‘Always Ready To Leave at a Moment’s Notice’
Such as what happened in a doctor’s waiting room in the German state of Lower Saxony on March 5, 2018. A patient wearing a Star of David necklace helped two elderly women out of their coats. One of them asked him what it symbolized. When he explained, she looked disgusted and said: “Oh, did they forget you?” Just one of many episodes on RIAS’ list.
Not long ago, it appeared that Jewish life had finally returned to Germany. Jewish communities were once again growing thanks to the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. New Jewish day care centers and schools opened in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Düsseldorf and new synagogues were consecrated. In 2006, the first rabbis were ordained in Germany since the Holocaust. Just last year, Hannelore Kraft, the then-governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, talked of Jewish life rediscovering its natural place in Germany.
Over 11,000 young Israelis now live in Berlin, drawn by its hip reputation. A new generation of Jewish writers have also found their voice, including Lena Gorelik, Jan Himmelfarb, Dmitrij Belkin, Olga Grjasnowa and Juna Grossmann, who co-curate the blog “Irgendwie jüdisch” (Kind of Jewish). Actress and singer Sharon Brauner, the niece of Artur (“Atze”) Brauner, a film producer who survived the Holocaust, has made a name for herself performing Yiddish songs that evoke a lost world and revel in the warmth of the old Jewish language.
“Well into the 1980s, there was this image of the packed suitcase. We had settled here, we had jobs, our children went to school, but in some ways we were always ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” says 57-year-old Sigmount Königsberg from the Jewish Community of Berlin. He says it was Helmut Kohl’s policy of positioning Germany firmly within the European Union and NATO that was especially helpful in encouraging Jews to take active part in life here. “We put our suitcases in the basement and there was a growing sense that we had arrived.”
And now? “The suitcases are still in the basement, but many are asking themselves where exactly they are and if they’re still usable,” says Königsberg. “We’re being vigilant and we are weighing our options. Our antennae are up.”
Was that new sense of normalcy merely an illusion? Was Rabbi Daniel Alter not beaten up in front of his daughter in Berlin back in 2012? Attacks took place even before that, Königsberg points out. Antisemitism doesn’t steadily increase, he explains — “it comes in waves and spikes.” He regrets the absence of public outrage. “We need to act now, before the fire gets out of control,” he says.
Königsberg is the antisemitism commissioner for the Jewish Community of Berlin. Parents often come to him with tales of hostility encountered by their children. Many are apparently used to it. These days, parents often tell their children not to mention the fact they are Jewish, he recounts.
Königsberg is not an anxious man. He’s tall and usually walks everywhere. But even he says that he wouldn’t advise anyone to travel through Berlin on their own wearing a kippah. He doesn’t wear one himself. An estimated 200,000 Jews live in Germany, and like the majority of them, Königsberg isn’t observant. Half are registered members of Jewish communities. “With most of us, you wouldn’t even know we were Jewish,” he says.
Every synagogue, every Jewish day care center and every Jewish school in Germany has police protection. “This is a thorn in our side,” the chancellor recently told Israeli TV station Channel 10. But is she doing anything to change this state of affairs?
‘How Can This Be Normal?’
Fifteen-year-old Karina attends Moses Mendelssohn High School in Berlin’s Mitte district, a Jewish school, not far from Hackescher Markt. The school is surrounded by a tall metal fence and police patrol the street outside. She has to pass through a security check every morning and the students have a police escort when they walk to the school gym, a few streets away. There’s even a police presence at the youth club she frequents. “It’s all I’ve ever known,” says Karina. “But how can this be normal?”
The school is housed in the historic Boys School of the Jewish Community, which the Gestapo shut down in 1942. It was merged with the retirement home next door and turned into a collection point for Jews about to be deported.
Karina was born in Berlin. Her parents moved here from Odessa in 1996, seeking “a better life for us,” as Karina puts it. She says her family isn’t religious but that her identity is Jewish. Karina wears a Star of David pendant. “I want to show that I’m Jewish,” she says. She deliberately chose an especially large Star of David, even though lots of people told her she should keep it out of sight. “I’m not going to hide,” says Karina. She only puts it away in the presence of Arab men, “in an elevator and so on.”
She was recently sitting with a friend in a café when she noticed a few German-Turkish girls staring at her pendant. “They kept staring, then went off sniggering and came back,” says Karina. “Can I help you?” she asked them. At that point, the girls turned around to leave again but one of them whispered back to her: “No one likes fat Jews.”
Karina does her best to keep her cool when she tells this story, but it’s clear that it upset her. Who could have a problem with a 15-year-old high school student in black studded jeans and a pale pink T-shirt printed with roses who enjoys singing and listening to German hip-hop?
She plans to stay in Berlin. But even so, she has a niggling feeling that “however long I live here, however fluent my German is,” Germany will never really be her home. “Let me put it this way: I’m a Jew with Ukrainian roots who’s a guest in Germany.”
Many people “have never even met anyone Jewish,” Karina points out. “I’d like to tell them about us.” She’s taking part in a program organized by the Central Council of Jews in Germany to train young people to go into schools as ambassadors of Judaism.
Antisemitism in Germany is rooted in a thick layer of ignorance of Judaism. Clichés and prejudices are deeply entrenched. A recent survey conducted by the pollster Allensbach Institute revealed that one-fifth of those questioned believe Jews are “avaricious” and “acquisitive.” In a 2016 documentary made by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), teachers from 21 Berlin schools described the sort of antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices that are bandied about in classrooms, from “the Jews control the media and finance sector” to “I don’t like Jews” and “it’s a pity Hitler didn’t kill them.” One teacher said that as soon as the issue of Judaism is raised, “a small intifada erupts in the classroom.”
Berlin-born Leonard Kaminski works for the AJC, an advocacy group for Jewish civil liberties and social equality. The Berlin branch is based near Potsdamer Platz. For security reasons, there’s no sign outside.
Kaminski, 31, wears a dove gray suit and a white shirt. As a secular Jew, he only wears a kippah on special occasions and he too is more cautious than he used to be. “When I go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, our most important holiday, then I keep my kippah in my pocket until I get there.” He avoids speaking Hebrew on public transport if he’s talking on his mobile phone to colleagues in Israel. “Lots of Jews are trying to figure out what’s going on now, so that if need be, they can leave in time,” he says.
His own school days were trouble-free. “Growing up in Germany was completely natural to me.” He went to a Jewish day care center and elementary school, then switched to a public high school in the district of Grunewald, where a third of his classmates were also Jewish. There might have been a comment here or there, but “nothing threatening” ever happened.
Kaminski’s problems began in 2015, when he co-founded a third men’s soccer team at the Jewish sports club Makkabi Berlin. “There’s a Star of David on our jerseys and sometimes there’s a strong reaction when we come out on the pitch,” he says. Players have had “Jewish dogs” and “filthy Jews” yelled at them. Games have been called off twice, first when the team played Meteor 06 from Berlin’s Wedding district and again when they played a club from the Neukölln district. “One of the Meteor players came at me with a corner flag,” recalls Kaminski. Players with Neukölln threatened to pull out knives. Once, he heard them say: “We’re going to stab you.” Some of them wore pro-Palestinian t-shirts under their jerseys, including one showing a map of Israel covered in the Palestinian flag. On the pitch, they pulled up their jersey to show it. Both clubs were penalized by the Berlin Football Association, with Meteor explicitly charged with “racist misconduct.”
Parallels with France?
Today, Kaminski is in Paris a lot for work. He finds the situation for Jews there “more critical” than in Germany. Violent antisemitism, attacks and even murders have prompted some Jewish communities in France to disband. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, the situation in France was much like it is today in Germany. The mistake back then was that nothing was done about it.”
In October 2000, two young men with Arab backgrounds carried out an arson attack on the synagogue in Düsseldorf. Germany was horrified by the attack, with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder calling for an “uprising of all decent people.” At the time, Michael Szentei-Heise, 63, was already the administrative head of the city’s Jewish Community. He sees one of the young men who threw the Molotov cocktails now and then – he lives nearby. The man was given a suspended sentence and ordered to do community service at the Jewish cemetery.
Szentei-Heise has the jovial nature of many Rhinelanders, and generally takes a relaxed view of the world. But he too is worried. Last year saw a steep rise in the number of cases reported to the Jewish Community of antisemitic abuse in Düsseldorf’s schools. He made a list of comments that Jewish children have had to endure, from “Why are there no more gas chambers any more?” to “You have such a Jewish nose” and “Do Jews still murder children and use their blood to bake matzo?”
It’s especially shocking, says Szentei-Heise, because the Jewish community feels like such a part of the city. “We see ourselves as an integral part of society in Düsseldorf.” This year, the community participated in the annual Carnival parade with a Heinrich Heine-themed float. It was Szentei-Heise’s own idea, and he’d stood on the float next to a representative from the city’s Muslim community. “It was great,” he marvels. “There was such a sense of kinship.” Instead of the usual Carnival cry of “Helau!” everyone on the float yelled “Düsseldorf Shalom!” and threw 1.3 tons of kosher caramel treats that Szentei-Heise had ordered from Israel.
“We’ll be back next year,” he says. He sees it “as a response to antisemitism.” His mother was a Holocaust survivor. She died in Düsseldorf in 1991.
Liat Golan, 45, and her parents moved to Minden in West Germany from Israel in 1979. “I was six. Later, when I realized where we had ended up, in the land of the perpetrators, it was a shock,” she says. The family lived above a synagogue. “At night drunk people would stagger by,” she remembers. “Sometimes they’d stop at the Star of David at the entrance and mutter: Shame they didn’t gas all the Jews. Children would call her a “fucking Jew.” She switched schools several times.
She didn’t want her son to experience what she had. She’d moved to Hamburg, and when a Jewish school opened there in 2007, Golan was one of the first to enroll her child. Today she works in the secretary’s office, and 14-year-old Yaniv is in the ninth grade. He wears a Jewish youth club t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Chasak” — Hebrew for strong. He’s with 16-year-old Michelle, who’s also been at the school since the first grade. She wears ripped black jeans and white trainers.
‘I Feel Completely Free in Germany, But Not as a Jew’
Question: Have you ever experienced antisemitic abuse?
Yaniv: Yes, playing football. People shout “Jew” or “fucking Jew.” Not long ago, a friend who I never thought would say something like this, proclaimed: ‘All you Jews are rich!'”
Michelle: My Jewish friends who attend public schools have it even worse. They try to hide the fact that they’re Jewish. One friend always calls in sick on Jewish holidays.
Do you feel safe and free in Germany?
Michelle: I feel free but I wouldn’t necessarily tell everyone I’m Jewish. Some people might say: ‘Oh, you’re Jewish, how great, tell me about it.’ But then there are the others. That’s why I’d never go downtown wearing a Star of David.
Yaniv: I feel completely free in Germany, but not as a Jew.
Michelle: Well said!
Yaniv: Lots of people think we’re rich and that we have big noses. It’s pretty sad.
Michelle: Exactly. Then they’re like: But you don’t look Jewish! What exactly is a Jew supposed to look like?
Do you think you’ll stay in Germany?
Michelle: Yeah, I think there are a lot of opportunities for me here.
Yaniv: I don’t think I will, I think I’ll go to Israel. I can do whatever I want there as a Jew. I don’t have to put up with people saying: Hey, I’ve never met a Jew! Like I’m some alien from Mars!
The Jewish school that Yaniv and Michelle attend, on the other hand, is what Yaniv’s mother calls a “tiny paradise.” The students pray together every morning. At lunchtime, kosher food is served. It’s dairy day today — shredded pancakes are on the menu. The boys only have to wear a kippah at mealtimes and at prayer. There’s a box of kippahs at the door to the cafeteria. On Friday, the school celebrates Shabbat. All of the students learn Hebrew and about Judaism — and the schools marks all the Jewish holidays.
“This is a place where Judaism is lived in a completely natural way,” says school principal Franziska von Maltzahn, 44, who is not Jewish. There are 170 students at the Joseph Carlebach School, over half of whom are Jewish. The others belong to other religions. The school is designed to “normalize the coexistence of Jewish and non-Jewish students,” explains Maltzahn. Places at the school are in such demand that space is running out. Containers have been installed in the schoolyard to serve as additional classrooms. An extension that can accommodate another 500 students is in the pipeline.
Yaniv’s history teacher is Oliver Thron, one of the school’s many non-Jewish teachers. “What brings you to a Jewish school?” is a question he hears a lot. His reply: In summer, my bike. “We’re a school for everyone, with a multicultural and interreligious staff.”
He’s currently covering the Nazi era with his ninth-graders. Last night, Yaniv and his mother studied a family photo. Nearly everyone in the picture was murdered in the Holocaust, only his great-grandfather survived. Yaniv had to give a presentation about him and how in 1941, when the Nazis arrived, his great-grandfather handed his dentistry practice in Holland over to his assistant, who hid him in return. “If my great-grandfather had acted differently, I wouldn’t exist,” says Yaniv.
‘There’s So Much Talk About Dead Jews’
There was once a synagogue on Bornplatz, the plaza next to the school. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. Yaniv’s school used to be called the Talmud Torah School. The inscription is still there above the entrance.
In 1932, a little boy called Loeb began first grade. His father was Markus Bistritzky, a blubber and fish oil merchant. Loeb survived the Holocaust and fled with his parents to the U.S.. His great-grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz. Today, Loeb’s grandson, Shlomo Bistritzky, is Hamburg’s chief rabbi.
Bistritzky first came to Hamburg in 2003 as a shaliach, a member of the Chabad Hasidic movement sent to promulgate Judaism in the world. When he became a German citizen in 2015, the city’s then mayor Olaf Scholz called the occasion “a special honor for Hamburg.”
Bistritzky, 41, wears the long beard favored by orthodox Jews and a black suit. Since he assumed office, the tensions that once divided the city’s Jewish community have subsided. The reopening of the Jewish school in the Grindel neighborhood, historically a hub of Jewish life, was a milestone. The rabbi seminary that Bistritzky established recently ordained six rabbis, the first to be ordained in the city since World War II.
In his living room, Bistritzky takes a book from a shelf heaving with heavy tomes on Judaism. It is a commentary on the Talmud “written in Hamburg 250 years ago,” he explains — a time when Hamburg was home to influential rabbis. The commentary explores controversial religious questions of its day. Bistritzky reads an excerpt out loud: A woman cuts open a chicken and finds it has no heart. Is it kosher? One rabbi says: Every chicken has a heart, a cat must have eaten this one’s heart, therefore it is kosher. Another one says: If you cannot see the heart, it is not kosher.
Back then, the community leaned toward the first interpretation, says Bistritzky, who is considered liberal Orthodox. Unlike him, most of his community is not religious. Only 120 of the 2,400 members of Hamburg’s Jewish community regularly attend services. He doesn’t permit himself to drive a car on the Shabbat, turn on a light or use a computer or mobile phone.
Nor does he shake hands with women. “It is a border, a symbolic distance that protects both parties so that a man doesn’t risk entering an illicit relationship with a strange woman, nor a woman with a strange man,” he says. “It is not a denigration of the opposite sex.” His wife Chani also abides by the principles. Ahead of meetings, his secretary gets in touch to explain the ground rules.
They don’t have to be understood, but “can they not be respected?” asks Bistritzky. He has observed a growing unease, especially in liberal circles. “No one says anything, but I can see it on their faces.” People who used to be friendly now keep their distance. It seems as though many take issue with the fact he is a devout Jew and that “Orthodox Judaism is on the rise.”
To him, treating the Jewish religion as undesirable is an example of antisemitism. Bistritzky, a friendly, even-tempered man seems agitated. “I have been in Hamburg for 15 years, but am I integrated?” he asks. This bothers him more than the snowballs thrown at him in winter three or four years ago, which hit him in the face so hard that his spectacles broke. More than the children who yell “Jew” and its Arabic equivalent, “yahudi,” at him.
Florian graduated from high school in June. He’s planning to study business administration at a Jewish university in Berlin. “I won’t have problems with antisemitism there.” And then? “Then I’ll be off.” He wants to move to Israel, “because I love the country,” and also because he feels safer there. Politically, he identifies as national-religious.
He believes that Germany needs to do more “to fill the gaps in the education” of its immigrants. “There’s so much talk about dead Jews, ” he says. “It’s time something was done for living ones.”