'Our Antennae Are Up' Rise in Anti-Semitism Unsettles Gemany's Jews

Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

Part 2: 'A Small Intifada in the Classroom'


Anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism." 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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism. 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 anti-Semitism 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."

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