Never Again? The Halle Attack and Everyday Anti-Semitism in Germany

Jews in Germany are taunted and harassed every day, often -- but by no means exclusively -- by the far right. This daily discrimination also sets the stage for violence against Jewish people.

Markus Nowak/ KNA

By , and Antonia Schaefer


It happened at a pharmacy in the center of Munich. Levi Ufferfilge had a migraine on his way to work and dropped in to quickly buy a couple of painkillers. Two Munich women stood at the door talking. "Excuse me, I'll just squeeze through," he muttered. One of the women angrily said to the other: "Now I even have to make room for a Jew!"

Ufferfilge says he still has a crystal clear memory of the incident, which happened in the summer of last year, and he posted an account of the incident on Twitter at the time. It was the moment when it became clear to him that it is apparently an imposition to move aside to allow a Jew to pass.

He says the well-dressed Munich woman with an up-do hairstyle spoke loudly, as if she was certain her anti-Semitic comment was socially acceptable.

Levi Israel Ufferfilge, 31, is the co-principal of a Jewish secondary school in Munich, and he's not the only Jewish person in Germany for whom such experiences are a frequent occurrence.

It seems it has become possible again to marginalize and denigrate Jews in public in Germany. Anti-Semitism never disappeared entirely, of course, but it is now becoming increasingly visible everywhere. The near bloodbath in the Halle synagogue last Wednesday is only the shocking climax of a development that Jews have been sensing for years.

A 'Worrisome Rise'

The number of reported anti-Semitic crimes in Germany increased by 19.6 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, with a total of 1,799 offenses.

Even before the attack in Halle, Holger Münch, head of the German Federal Criminal Police, spoke of a "worrisome rise" in anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism, with police statistics attributing most of those crimes to right-wing extremists. In 69 of those cases, the transgressions targeting Jews were violent in nature, causing 40 injuries. It is a disgraceful new highpoint. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated 27 times.

Graphic: Violent attacks on Jews registered with the police
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Graphic: Violent attacks on Jews registered with the police

But only part of the hate and agitation is being recorded. In the German capital city alone, the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism Berlin (RIAS) logged over 1,000 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year. An annual report compiled by RIAS describes a growing willingness by perpetrators to commit violent acts and indeed, the number of physical attacks has tripled. Researchers at RIAS also believe that if they were able to ascribe the acts to any political motivation, the biggest perpetrator group would be right-wing extremists.

But according to RIAS, the perpetrators also include Palestinian, anti-Israeli activists, anti-Semitic boycott groups and elements of the radical left -- in other words, they are by no means exclusively far-right extremists. "And you don't have to look very far to the right to find anti-Semitism," says Bianca Klose, the head of the Association for Democratic Culture in Berlin, RIAS' parent organization. "It's enough to look at the center of society."

Almost 75 years after the end of the Holocaust, Jews celebrating Yom Kippur in a synagogue must fear for their lives. When utterances one would expect from neo-Nazis or far-right crackpots are now coming out of the mouths of people who are supposedly normal, upstanding citizens, then an insidious hatred is spreading in the country. Jewish Germans are being insulted and taunted and labeled as outsiders. Annette Seidel-Arpaci, head of the RIAS chapter in Bavaria, speaks of a "frightening amount of everyday anti-Semitism" on the street, in the beer gardens and in neighborhoods.

Constant Hostilities

The examples are myriad:

Rabbis have been repeatedly attacked or spat upon in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. In Cologne, a local rabbi stopped taking public transportation because he could no longer stand the constant hostilities.

In mid-July in Freiburg, a 61-year-old man verbally accosted the head of the local Jewish community, yelling: "Are we here in Germany or in Jew-land?" And: "I'm not surprised Hitler gassed you, you idiots."

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In the city of Hemmingen, near Hannover, in May, an elderly Jewish couple found an incendiary device on their welcome mat one morning and the word "Jew" spray-painted in red on their front door.

In Berlin, on July 1, a Jewish driver wearing a kippa was called a "dirty Jew" and spat at by a man who had just passed him on the road.

In Bamberg, the spray-painted words "Don't buy from Jews" were left for months on the side of a bridge.

Anger and violence against Jews has become such a common occurrence that Germany as a society urgently needs to do some soul-searching. "Has Germany Forgotten the Lessons of the Nazis?" asked an editorial published in the New York Times last spring. The American paper of record also published a lengthy feature in May about the "New German Anti-Semitism."

Most Jews don't want to leave Germany. Indeed, the number of Jews immigrating to the country vastly outnumbers that of those who are leaving. But many view the situation as depressing and increasingly threatening.

In 2018, the European Union released a study for which researchers spoke with Jews across Europe. Over one-third of respondents reported they had considered leaving Europe. Of those interviewed, 89 percent said anti-Semitism had grown in their country since 2013. In Germany, 85 percent said that anti-Semitism is either a very big or fairly big problem. France is the only European country in which that figure is higher, with almost all Jewish respondents in the country claiming to have been the target of hostile attitudes. Since 2005, at least 11 people with Jewish backgrounds have been murdered in France by perpetrators with anti-Semitic motives.

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Many French Jews are leaving the cities' banlieue suburbs out of fear. And they are avoiding neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of Muslim immigrants. "There's an exodus of Jews from France," says Francis Kalifat, head of CRIF, the umbrella organization for French Jewish groups. "Many French Jews today are living in a kind of exile in their own country." And thousands decide every year to leave the country entirely -- with most going to Israel.

This past year, 11 people died in an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh. In 2014, an Islamist murdered four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. There had not been any comparable outbursts of violence in Germany in recent years -- at least until the Halle attack.

'We Have a Special Responsibility'

Dieter Burgard, the commissioner on anti-Semitism in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, says that the hostility and hatred are "problems for all of us, not only the Jewish community." He adds: "Anti-Semitism exists across Europe, possibly even around the world. But we have a special responsibility."

Many other German states, as well as the federal government, also have commissioners focusing on anti-Semitism and related problems. Civil initiatives and protesters likewise demonstrate solidarity with Jews when attacks do take place. But most of the time, Jews feel like they are left in the lurch when it comes to the day-to-day racism thay face.

Levi Ufferfilge is a slim and extremely polite man. He wears a polo shirt buttoned up to the top, dark pants and a dark-blue skullcap. It's a day in August, and he's sitting in a café across from the impressive synagogue on Munich's St. Jakob's Square, a security guard making his rounds in front of it. The Jewish school where Ufferfilge works is located just across. It's also guarded.

When asked why he believes anti-Semitism is creeping back to the surface again, he argues that the limits of what is permissible to say have been pushed to the right, fueled by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the party's "new desire for Germanness." He describes how he is the target of insults several times a week. "What has changed is that Jews are seen as something foreign, as foreigners." He says that despite being born in the Westphalia region of western Germany, he is increasingly addressed as a foreigner, most often as an Israeli, "as if I had somehow come here from outside." And: He says that sometimes people feel driven to explain to him how things work in Germany.

Most recently, he recalls, a man with a Bavarian accent told him at a streetcar stop that "if I had learned something proper, a job using my hands, then I wouldn't be wearing something so silly on my head."

He also recounts how a man of Arab origins called him a "shitty Jew" on the street. Ufferfilge says other people almost never intervene to help.

'We Need To Finally Stand Up'

In a more recent conversation held in the wake of the Halle attack, Ufferfilge is agitated. He says he is shaken by the fact that the attacker was ablet to kill two people. "We need to finally stand up against hypocritical right-wing politicians who have created the fertile soil and right-wing media that are poisoning the minds of thousands of people online," he says.

Mascha Schmerling is doing what she can to prevent that poison from taking root in peoples' heads. She says people need to have a frank conversation and put all their prejudices bluntly on the table. Schmerling, 39, is the co-founder of Rent a Jew, a volunteer initiative in which Jews with various private and professional backgrounds visit schools, associations and political parties as speakers. "We want to give a face to Jews in Germany," says Schmerling, who works in corporate communications. The organization's motto: "Talk to us, not about us."

The Hamburg resident came to Germany from Moscow in 1992. She says people often tell her: "Oh, you're a Jew? You don't even look like it."

Germany is home to around 200,000 Jews, with about 100,000 registered with the Jewish communities. At 0.2 percent of the total German population, they are a tiny minority, meaning that most people don't know any Jews and believe that they all resemble the cliché of a certain kind of nose or side curls. One time, she held a speech at an interreligious event, with her talk being teased as: "Insight into Foreign Cultures." But, Schmerling says, "Jewishness is diverse and vibrant, there are Orthodox, secular and liberal, dark-haired and blond Jews."

She says the name "Rent a Jew" was chosen to be deliberately provocative. "We want attention -- and a bit of humor, to take a bit of shyness out of people, who are supposed to articulate what they are thinking. That's the only way an open conversation is possible." When Schmerling visits schools and no one feels confident enough to say anything, she sometimes asks, "Well, what have you heard about Jews? Spit it out!" She says they will then often say things like: Is it true that Jews don't pay any taxes? Or that all Jews are rich, and that the Rothschilds control the banks.

Schmerling says she's happy with the outcome if "the next time people hear the word 'Jew,' they think of us."

Or of Mike Delberg, 29, a representative of the Jewish community in Berlin who is also active as a local politician with the center-right Christian Democratic Union party and works as a researcher in the federal parliament, the Bundestag. When Felix Klein, the federal government's anti-Semitism commissioner recently recommended out of concern that Jews not wear skullcaps everywhere they go, Delberg decided to do exactly the opposite. "The protection of Jews cannot consist of warning us to be cautious," says Delberg. "I call on politicians and society to do something to stop these agitators and not to hide Germany's Jews."

Even though he was born in Germany, grew up here and is active in politics and many groups, he says "there is always a small veil of foreignness that I cannot explain." Since he began wearing a skullcap, he has been recognizable as a Jew to many people for the first time, a new experience for him. He says he's received comments like: "Do you need to make such a public display of your faith?" But Delberg says it has also led to many good conversations.

The World's 'Oldest Prejudice'

Until last week, he thought Germany had been spared of the level of violence against Jews that has been seen in France and Belgium. "Since Wednesday, we have arrived at that point."

But the hate never really disappeared in Germany either. "There is no new anti-Semitism," says historian Wolfgang Benz, who has led the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism in Berlin for many years. "It's the old, monotonous anti-Semitism, with the same insinuations and prejudices." Hatred towards Jews, he says, is the "oldest prejudice" in the world.

Indeed, it has flourished since the end of the 4th century, when the Christian faith became dominant in Europe and Rome elevated Christianity to the state religion. Given that the Jews clung to their older faith, Benz says, they were henceforth viewed as being "intransigent." The Christian church saw itself as being questioned, and the Jews were consequently hated and fought against over the centuries.

The 'Fast Lane to National Socialist Ideology'

In the Middle Ages, ostracism of the Jews was ubiquitous. They were excluded everywhere and only allowed to practice certain professions. The distorted image of the Jew as well poisoner, usurer, parasite and exploiter originated in those centuries and persists in part even today. In the course of the emancipation movement, Jews were granted full civil rights for the first time, but the 19th century also gave birth to modern day anti-Semitism. Pseudo-science was used to declare the Jews as a "race," thus largely excluding them from life in the newly emerging nation-states and their respective people. "At this point, the Jews' supposed flaw could then be blamed on their genes, their blood," says Benz. "That was the fast lane to the National Socialist ideology of extermination."

So, how is it that anti-Semitism is still able to persist following the horrific crimes of the Holocaust, given all the time and considerable energy that has been spent in Germany processing and dealing with its difficult past -- through education, its culture of remembrance, visits by school children to concentration camps and other efforts? "Nothing is more stable than prejudice," says Benz. "It is passed on from generation to generation as some kind of devout whisper, passing it into a subcultural sludge where it stays alive." Recently, anti-Semitism has also been popping up in lyrics to rap songs. A lyric in one song by Farid Bang, who was awarded Germany's top pop music prize last year together with the hip-hopper Kollegah, goes: "My body is more defined than an Auschwitz inmate."

The Echo Chambers of Hate

So why is hatred of Jews breaking out again now? Many people are looking for scapegoats for the consequences of globalization, Benz says, consequences that they have trouble grasping. That's what makes the conspiracy theories, and prejudice against minorities they convey "so incredibly popular." Meanwhile, social media provides them with a platform. "You can let off steam to your heart's content in the echo chambers of hate."

And the internet does, indeed, fan the flames. The result is the "unfiltered and almost unlimited dissemination of anti-Semitic ideas on a scale never seen before in history," says Monika Schwarz-Friesel of the Technical University of Berlin.

The anti-Semitism researcher and her team have reviewed more than 300,000 internet chats and news from social media. She describes how Jews are disparaged there as "filth, a plague and cancer;" how the Israeli singer Netta, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019, was called a "stupid, rotten, stinking Jewess," and how people post things like, "I hate Jews so much." Her conclusion is that hatred of Jews is a "phenomenon that affects society as a whole." Although she has spent years researching anti-Semitism, Schwarz-Friesel says she was shocked by "the scope and the vehemence of the old destructive desire on the net." And she says she sees "no significant differences" between right-wing, left-wing or Muslim anti-Semitism.

Many Jews find the anti-Semitism of Muslim immigrants and their children particularly aggressive. The bogeyman images of Israel and Judaism tend to be widespread in the countries they come from and the problem of anti-Semitism has been exacerbated by the influx of refugees from the Arab-speaking region. One of the central focuses of that anger is Israel. According to Schwarz-Friesel, Israel-related anti-Semitism is now a "predominant variant." She says, "The majority of modern anti-Semites aren't writing that the Jews are a nuisance. Rather, they write: The child murdering country of Israel needs to disappear from the map." She says it's an obsessive condemnation that ignores facts and empirical findings. And that's what distinguishes this form of anti-Semitism from legitimate criticism of Israel.

Left-wing anti-Semitism also adheres to this, but in reality, it is imbued with motives of secondary anti-Semitism. For example, when Israeli policy is compared to that of Nazi Germany, a way of rejecting the Jewish right to their own country.

The 'Familiar Stranger'

Ingrid Wettberg, chairwoman of the Liberal Jewish Parish in Hannover for 20 years, is extremely familiar with this. She says she increasingly finds herself confronted with anti-Israeli hostility. Things like: "What you're doing to the Palestinians is what Hitler did to you." "You?" she asks them in response. "Sorry, I'm German and I live here." She says people act as though Benjamin Netanyahu is her leader, not Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Wettberg is from Hanau in the state of Hesse and her great-grandfather was a highly decorated soldier in World War I. "My family was as German as it could be," she says. Perhaps the fact that she has to emphasize this is indicative of one of the problems. For security reasons, there's no name listed on the door to the parish building where her office is located. Wettberg says she's pleased, nonetheless, that people are now talking about anti-Semitism.

She recalls how, a while ago, she rented a truck for the parish, and it wouldn't start. The driver said: Why didn't you take a better car? You're Jews, you're rich. "Only a few years ago, no one would have dared to say something like that," she says.

Wettberg believes the only way to make a difference is through the schools. That's why the parish invites classes to visit the synagogue. At times, some pupils refuse to enter the church -- not just Muslims, also Christians.

And sometimes this leads Wettberg to despair, making her wonder, "how are we ever going to succeed? There are so few of us." She recently filed a criminal complaint when the right-wing extremist party Die Rechte plastered posters around Hannover during elections to the European Parliament that included the slogan "Israel is our misfortune" -- almost identical to the Nazi slogan "The Jews are our misfortune." But the public prosecutor's office saw no reason to open an investigation into incitement. The office found that Die Rechte likely merely "wanted to contribute to the political debate" with the posters. Wettberg says she was flabbergasted when she was informed of the decision.

The "New Anti-Semitism," an anthology published this year in which intellectuals seek to get to the bottom of the re-emergence of the phenomenon, notes that "anti-Semitism is the hatred of the universal and the particular of modern human existence." The universal is our modern globalized world, where borders are losing their meaning and everything seems to be in a state of perpetual motion. And all sorts of fears can still be projected over and over again on the figure of the Jew and the rootlessness attributed to him or her -- because the Jew is the "familiar stranger." German sociologist Georg Simmel, whose family was Jewish but converted to Christianity, wrote about the idea of the "familiar stranger" as early as 1908, and nothing about it has changed to this day.

It was only a few weeks ago that Levi Ufferfilge experienced a threatening situation again in Munich, when a man on a streetcar stood up in front of him and remarked: "I knew right away you were a Jew." He had recognized as much, he said, by Ufferfilge's physique, his "Jewish eyes" and by the fact that he had been wearing what the man described as an expensive raincoat. The man then demanded that he give him the coat. Ufferfilge says he kept raising his voice -- not only out of annoyance, but also in the hope someone else might help him out. Ultimately, someone did stand up to help him.

It was a man from Canada.

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