Sobering Exhibition in Berlin Is Anti-Semitism in Europe on the Rise?

A sober show in Berlin offers an introductory treatment -- if not a thorough examination -- of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East since September 11.
Von Michael Scott Moore

When an exhibition on contemporary anti-Semitism opened this month at the Foreign Office in Berlin, Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler said it was "appropriate" that the topic wasn't squirreled away in a historical museum but on display in the bright atrium of a German ministry.

"Anti-Semitism has sadly not been left where it belongs, in the poison cabinet reserved for the pathogens of hard-to-cure diseases of the past," he said. "Unfortunately it is a phenomenon of today's Europe which our foreign policy has to confront as well."

The exhibit, called "Anti-Semitism? Anti-Zionism? Criticism of Israel?" is a series of anti-Jewish posters and cartoons from Europe and the Middle East. It covers manifestations of anti-Semitism in the era of September 11, the second intifada, and the Iraq war -- from left-wing groups in Europe calling for boycotts of Israel to white supremacist bands and soccer hooligans behaving badly on the distant right.

"We have to uncover the roots of anti-Semitism," said Wolfgang Benz, director of Berlin's Center for Anti-Semitism Research, in an interview with the German daily Die Welt. (The Center organized the exhibition along with Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial.) "Above all we have to show that behind all forms of Jew-hatred there's some sort of instrumentalization: Jews are made responsible for grievances which they had nothing to do with."

The exhibition shows ugly examples of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that surfaced after the September 11 assaults in America and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. (Jews were blamed for both.)

Other parts show recent photos of virulent far-right graffiti and broken headstones in Jewish cemeteries in Germany. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2005 speech called "A World Without Israel" receives a wall panel's worth of commentary, and so do protests against "Zionism" by Palestinians in Europe who carry signs comparing Ariel Sharon to Hitler.

"The Islamic world," said Benz, "takes its recipes from the poisonous kitchen of 19th-century European nationalism. Racism originally was quite foreign to Islam, in contrast with European cultures."

One striking panel shows the lurid covers of various editions of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The book, which purports to describe a Jewish world conspiracy, was a hoax invented by an anti-Semitic Russian journalist in the late 1890s and propagated in Europe by the Nazis. Covers from Europe in the 1930s show grinning Jews squeezing blood from the globe; a cover from an Arabic edition shows Jews slicing open a bearded man's throat. But the Jewish "plot" outlined in the text still has currency in the Muslim world: The exhibit shows a cover from one edition that was on sale, illegally, in the Iranian pavilion at the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair.

The Difference Between Criticism and Anti-Semitism

The show also takes on the controversial subject of how to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from political debate masquerading as anti-Semitism. It devotes a wall panel to a cartoon by Dave Brown, published in Britain's Independent newspaper in 2003, which shows Ariel Sharon stalking a battlefield with a headless child in his mouth, half-naked, posed like the Roman god Saturn in Francesco de Goya's famous painting, "Saturn Devouring One of His Sons."

"What's wrong?" says Sharon in the cartoon. "Have you never seen a politician kissing a baby?"

The cartoon received sharp criticism from the Israeli government but went on to win first prize from the British Political Cartoon Society in 2003.

The award, back then, led to fierce debate on blogs and in the letters columns of British newspapers. But the exhibition in Berlin restricts itself to noting that Brown's image reminded many Jews of the blood libel, the ancient anti-Semitic horror tale that Jews use children's blood in religious rituals. It doesn't examine whether Brown meant to be anti-Semitic. "My cartoon was intended as a caricature of a specific person, Sharon," he said at the time, "in the guise of a figure from classical myth who, I hoped, couldn't be farther from any Jewish stereotype."

That's certainly arguable, but the exhibition would need a bigger venue -- maybe even a museum -- to handle such questions in detail.

Juliane Wetzel, a spokeswoman at the Center for Anti-Semitism Research, agreed that the topic was huge. "We just wanted to show current trends in anti-Semitism, and show what was lying behind them," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And we didn't want to restrict our treatment of anti-Semitism to the far right, because this comes up again and again in Germany -- that anti-Semitism only exists on the radical right. Which isn't true."

"Anti-Semitism? Anti-Zionism? Criticism of Israel" can currently be seen at the German Foreign Ministry  (Werderscher Markt 1, 10117 Berlin). It will move later this year from the capital to other German cities, including Magdeburg and Munich.

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