BERLIN — Muslim teenagers in Hanover attack an Israeli dance troupe, reportedly yelling “Juden raus” as they hurl stones.
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.
This is happening in a country where Holocaust education has long been mandatory and where expressions of anti-Semitism and the dissemination of hatred are illegal. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany.
But generational and demographic changes are converging in Germany today, and a shift is 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 percent of those polled agreed that Israel is waging “a war of annihilation” against the Palestinians (up from 51 percent in 2009).
In 2008 — the most recent year the question was asked — more than 40 percent 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 percent 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 percent in 2009).
Yet, at the same time, 67.5 percent 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,” Beate Küpper, one of the researchers who produced the report, wrote 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.”
Mirko Niehoff, a 31-year-old social worker who works with Muslim youth, said he 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.
Observers say that Muslim and classic right-wing anti-Semitism are combining with a 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.
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..
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.
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 anti-Semitic networks promote Holocaust denial.
“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 via Egyptian and Saudi Arabian satellites. Both countries have refused repeated German requests to stop transmitting Al-Manar. 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 the lines are blurred between opposition to Israeli actions and policies and anti-Semitism.
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.
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.
Still, Ben-Zeev conceded, 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, German leftists like Petra Pau, a member of the Left Party in the Bundestag, condemn Israeli actions while demonstrating steadfast opposition to anti-Semitism.
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.
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 another program, at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Murat Akan, a 32-year-old German of Turkish ancestry, is one of five Turkish guides the museum employs in order to encourage Muslim youth to learn about Germany’s rich Jewish heritage. Some 200,000 Muslims live in Berlin, a city with a population of 3.5 million. While some of the Muslim teenagers sympathize with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Akan said, others are openly anti-Semitic.
“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.”
Another innovative program, Kreuzberger Initiative Gegen Antisemitismus, or Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, concentrates its efforts on the predominantly Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg. The initiative also conducts workshops on anti-Semitism and the Middle East conflict.
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 in a trip sponsored by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organization that combats neo-Nazism, racism and anti-Semitism. The foundation honors the memory of a black man from Angola who 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.”