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

How does it feel to be Jewish in Germany in 2018? After decades of successful reconciliation and integration, an increase in anti-Semitic attacks has many Jews in Germany wondering: Is the pendulum swinging back?

Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

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for the interview -- a word play on the Hebrew expression "Mazel tov," which roughly means good luck (tov, or good, has been replaced by Topf, the German word for cooking pot).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."

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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 "anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitism in Germany found that a majority of those questioned had recently felt they were not part of German society.

German anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism. 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 Anti-Semitism (RIAS) registered 947 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism, 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. Anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism 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.


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