Anti-Semitism rows highlight challenges of religious pluralism in Germany

Germany is often perceived as a country that has dealt exceptionally well with the ghosts of its past, most notably with respect to the reflection on the Holocaust. Yet upon closer inspection, the old demons do resurface and intermingle with contemporary political predicaments.

Nothing shows this more clearly than a series of ongoing rows that touch upon the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the context of a pluralistic society marked by strong immigration. Several events in recent months have shone a particularly harsh spotlight on the question of the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes among Germany’s growing Muslim population.

 

Anti-Semitic bullying at a Berlin school

In spring, a case of anti-Semitic bullying at a public school in Berlin made headlines. A 14-year-old pupil of Jewish faith was withdrawn from his school by his parents after having experienced four months of what appeared to be anti-Semitically-motivated taunts as well as severe physical aggression. The perpetrators had mostly been of Arab and Turkish extraction.(( http://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/antisemitismus-junge-verlaesst-schule-in-berlin-friedenau-nach-angriffen-a-1141494.html ))

The boy’s parents accused the school of having done too little too late to protect their son. The Friedenau Comprehensive School prides itself on being a multicultural and diverse environment and has the tagline “school without racism” as its motto. Consequently, the reproach implicit in many of the ensuing criticisms of the school’s handling of the case revolved around the fact that ‘political correctness’ towards mainly Muslim children appeared to have prevented a clear and resolute stance against anti-Semitism.(( https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article163675459/Der-hilflose-Anti-Antisemitismus.html ))

Defending the school

This, in turn, propelled into action a group of parents, who issued a public letter defending the school against what they deemed “unreflective and one-sided” reporting. The parents asserted that they were “left aghast by the attack” on the Jewish pupil and declared their solidarity with him and his family.

Yet they also stressed that tensions between different groups of students were the “outgrowth of international conflicts” in the Middle East, which made “religiously motivated disputes” inevitable.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/antisemitischer-vorfall-in-berlin-eltern-der-friedenauer-schule-nehmen-stellung/19623020.html )) The letter was met with a sceptical echo from Jewish voices, as well as from politicians.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/nach-uebergriff-an-friedenauer-schule-volker-beck-sieht-antisemitismus-in-elternbrief/19635496.html ))

Muslim anti-Semitism

The Friedenau school case highlights the complexities of religious coexistence in an increasingly pluralistic society. In recent years, Germany has witnessed a marked growth of both its Muslim and its Jewish population.

At the same time, a sociological study conducted in Germany has highlighted a persistently higher level of anti-Semitic attitudes especially among young people of Arab extraction, but also among their Turkish counterparts.(( https://causa.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/antisemitismus-unter-muslimen/muslimische-jugendliche-haben-haeufiger-antisemitische-einstellungen-als-deutschsstaemmige.html ))

Derviș Hızarcı, chair of the Initiative against Anti-Semitism in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, nevertheless sought to stress in an op-ed for the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper that while there is Muslim anti-Semitism, “there has also never been more Muslim engagement against anti-Semitism and for Jewish-Muslim dialogue than today.”(( http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/28253 ))

Islamic voices for inter-religious dialogue

Subsequently, a group of six Imams and 12 Muslim organisations based in Berlin issued a brief public statement in which they condemned anti-Semitic hatred and urged all Muslim believers to “act in ways that are worthy of our faith”. The statement also suggested that Muslim and Jewish representatives join hands for joint visits to schools in Berlin where anti-Semitic incidents have been reported.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/downloads/19752144/2/gemeinsamer-brief-von-muslimen-gegen-die-diskriminierung-und-ausgrenzung-von-juedischen-mitschueler.pdf ))

Responding to the Friedenau case, Ármin Langer and Ozan Keskinkılıç, the respectively Jewish and Muslim founders of the “Salaam-Schalom” initiative for inter-religious dialogue, stressed that both Jews and Muslims are often made to feel foreign in Germany. Similarly, both groups are constantly identified with external political groups and agendas – with political Islam or jihadism in the case of Muslims, with the policies of Benyamin Netanyahu in the case of Jews.(( http://www.fluter.de/antisemitismus-und-islamophobie-bei-salaam-schalom-kaempfen-juden-und-muslime-gemeinsam-dagegen ))

Against this backdrop, the two men urged a Muslim-Jewish entente against various racisms. Muslims should not be presented as a homogeneous anti-Semitic problem group; rather, care should be taken to strengthen the potential for inter-religious dialogue and to harness Muslim voices to a quest against discrimination targeting Muslims and Jews alike.

Division tactics by the populist right

Needless to say, bringing about this unity is far from easy. In the aftermath of the events at the comprehensive school, Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the far-right AfD party, sought to play upon the tension between Jewish and Muslim communities by asserting that her party was the “guarantor of Jewish life” in Germany.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/frauke-petry-nennt-afd-garant-juedischen-lebens-a-1142090.html ))

She went on to suggest that the increased immigration of Muslims was a direct threat to Germany’s Jewish population. This particularly blatant justification of the AfD’s Islamophobic agenda came shortly after a high-ranking AfD politician had disparaged the central Holocaust memorial in Berlin as an objectionable “memorial of shame” and called for “a 180 degree turn” in the ways in which Germans remember their past. Unsurprisingly, leading Jewish voices thus retorted that the AfD continued to be “unelectable” for Jewish voters.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/frauke-petry-nennt-afd-garant-juedischen-lebens-a-1142090.html ))

Shelved anti-Semitism documentary

The debate on anti-Semitic attitudes among Muslim immigrants and their descendants received further nourishment when the Franco-German TV channel Arte refrained from airing a documentary on anti-Semitism that it had commissioned in a joint venture with German public broadcasters WDR and ZDF.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany demanded that the documentary be shown and a range of public figures accused Arte of censorship. Conservative circles’ particular ire was reserved for the fact that the movie, which had focused on anti-Semitism of Muslim populations, had been shelved for what was deemed ‘political correctness’.

To right-wing commentators, the decision not to air it pointed to the widespread complicity of the liberal media in the Jew-hatred of the Islamic world.(( https://www.welt.de/kultur/article165401199/So-ist-die-Doku-die-von-Arte-zurueckgehalten-wird.html )) Conservative German-Israeli historian Michael Wolffsohn spoke for many like-minded observers when he accused Arte of “caving in to Islamist terrorism in preemptive obedience ”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/medien/streit-um-antisemitismus-doku-zensur-bei-arte/19907424.html ))

Bumbling defence of the broadcaster

Initially, the WDR broadcaster’s editorial team asserted that the documentary had been shelved for its “one-sidedly pro-Israeli” stance.(( https://www.welt.de/kultur/article165401199/So-ist-die-Doku-die-von-Arte-zurueckgehalten-wird.html )) Subsequently, Arte issued a second, more elaborate press statement defending its decision not to air the documentary.

The channel’s director for programming, Alain Le Diberder, asserted that the commission for the documentary feature had explicitly demanded that the film provide “an overview of the contemporary strengthening of Antisemitism in various countries of Europe […], including in Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, Hungary and Greece”.

However, the directors had taken the liberty to fundamentally alter the project by creating a product focused on the Middle East. “We cannot accept that a producer and writer attempts to choose his subject freely in a unilateral manner and without consultation with Arte.” Le Diberder argued that Arte had been “consciously left in the dark with respect to these fundamental changes” to the film.(( http://www.arte.tv/sites/de/presse/files/antwort-von-alain-le-diberder-an-den-zentralrat-der-juden-in-deutschland.pdf ))

Limited Muslim reactions

Public comments by Muslim figures on the affair surrounding the documentary were relatively scarce. Ahmad Mansour, a well-known psychologist and public commentator on issues of (de-)radicalisation, wrote in a Facebook post that while he had not been part of the film crew, he “support[ed] the movie and its contents”. He castigated Arte’s decision to shelve the movie as “unacceptable and worrisome”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/medien/streit-um-antisemitismus-doku-zensur-bei-arte/19907424.html ))

Yet for the most part, the discussion of the documentary subsequently turned into a shouting match as to whether and how the critique of Israel and of Zionism could be distinguished from anti-Semitism.(( http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/kultur/-maischberger–zur-antisemitismus-doku-wolffsohn-lobt-wdr-haemisch-fuer–gelungene-pr–27839684 ))

Ultimately, the documentary did air on German public TV, yet with critical commentary and an additional “fact checking” feature. Of course this fact-checking device was hardly able to counter-balance the fiercely ideological positions that many of the documentary’s viewers undoubtedly held already before the turned on the TV to watch the film.