Vicious Cycle Middle East Crisis Ratchets Up Anti-Semitism in Germany

The effects of the renewed violence in the Middle East can be felt in Germany. In the past several days, anti-Semitism has spilled out into the open. What can be done about it?
A pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin

A pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin

Foto: M. Golejewski / Adora Press

Munzer Al-Awad is sitting on the floor of his small apartment in Berlin smoking cigarette after cigarette and thinking of his time as a schoolboy. He shakes his head. "When we children drew pictures that had a sky, for example, we had to be careful,” Al-Awad says. They had to make sure the stars didn’t look at all like the Star of David. "That was forbidden. The Jew was the devil.”

The 38-year-old Syrian grew up in Dubai and went to a public school there. He says the Palestinian conflict was omnipresent. "The teachers collected donations from us,” he says. In fact, Israel wasn’t even depicted on the maps in his schoolbooks. His teachers insisted that Jerusalem would at some point be liberated and all the Jews beheaded, just as the Prophet foretold. Al-Awad says that he has never been a particularly religious person, but the image of a Muslim community unified in the fight against Israel determined his thinking for years.

Then, the civil war erupted in Syria. Al-Awad says he participated early in the protests in the country, filming the unrest and sending his videos to media outlets critical of the regime. Then, he says, he was apprehended by President Bashar Assad’s henchmen and thrown into prison, where he was tortured. When he got out, he fled the country. He now lives in Berlin.

"I experienced on my own body what Muslims do to other Muslims,” he says. He no longer finds the notion of a large, global community of Muslims convincing. Today, he believes: "Of course there needs to be a Palestinian homeland, and the expulsion of the Arabs must cease. But so, too, must the rockets from Hamas.”


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 21/2021 (May 22, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Not everyone who recently attended pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany, though, shares Al-Awad’s views. In the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln last weekend, the situation grew out of control. Instead of the 80 participants organizers had predicted, some 3,500 showed up – and some chanted anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic slogans. "Muhammad’s army will return!” or "Take aim at Tel Aviv!” Many participants wore Palestinian headscarves and some of the men wore camouflage or Salafist clothing. Others waved Turkish flags and made the hand signals from the Grey Wolves, a Turkish right-wing extremist group. Marching along with them was a group of left-wing extremists flying the red, communist flag with a hammer and sickle.

There was plenty of activity on social media channels as well. One Jewish resident of Berlin received a comment in English on Instagram reading: "I miss Hitler. He should come back for a quick extermination.” It was far from the only comment of this kind.

It is far from the first wave of aggressive anti-Semitism to have broken in Germany over the past several years. The coronavirus pandemic, most recently, has added fuel to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. According to central crime statistics, the number of anti-Semitic crimes in the country has risen each year since 2015 – from 1,366 that year to 2,351 now, a rise of more than two-thirds. The police believe right-wing extremists are responsible for almost 95 percent of them, which is also a function of the fact that incidents in which the perpetrator cannot be identified are frequently assumed to have been the handiwork of right-wing extremists.

Berlin café operator Nidal Bulbul

Berlin café operator Nidal Bulbul

Foto: Milos Djuric / DER SPIEGEL

A survey conducted five years ago by the Independent Expert Group on Anti-Semitism in German parliament made clear, though, that Jews in Germany believe Muslims are responsible for a far greater share of the attacks than revealed by official statistics. RIAS, the nationwide reporting portal for anti-Semitic incidents, says there has been a "significantly accelerated dynamic” for anti-Semitic incidents since the recent eruption of violence in the Middle East, which has seen Hamas, the radical Islamist group, firing rockets at Israel and the Israeli military countering with strikes of their own.

It has become even more clear just how deep are the roots of anti-Semitism in some Muslim milieus. And not just among recent arrivals, but also – especially disturbingly – among those who have been here for quite some time.

Because of the Holocaust, Germany has an elevated sense of responsibility for Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has identified Israeli security as being among Germany’s national interests. During World War II, the Nazis murdered 6 million people of the Jewish faith. Merkel emphasized a week ago through her spokesman that "our democracy does not tolerate anti-Semitic protests.”

The Three Ds

Where, though, does anti-Semitism begin? When does it cease being legitimate criticism of Israel’s government? Many don’t really know. Yet there are clear delineations. When, for example, German Jews are condemned for Israeli military strikes in Gaza. Or when "the Jews” are allegedly to be blamed for something. When they are equated with the Nazis or when someone calls for another Holocaust. When assignments of blame go beyond Israeli policy to include some allegedly evil Jewish collective, that is anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews begins when a person is insulted or maligned simply because he or she is Jewish.

RIAS uses the "three Ds” to differentiate hatred of Jews from criticism of Israel. It is anti-Semitic, the platform notes, when Israel is demonized, when it is delegitimized – by questioning its right to exist – or when double-standards are applied – in situations where Palestinian violence is seen as legitimate but violence from Israel is not.

Levi Israel Ufferfilge, 32, is the head of a Jewish elementary school in Berlin. Because of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations last weekend, he left Berlin for a few days for the countryside. "I didn’t want to sit at home and be afraid of going out on the streets,” he says. He says he hasn’t forgotten 2014, when a seven-week war erupted between Israel and Hamas. During that period, three Palestinians set fire to a synagogue in Wuppertal. Now, Ufferfilge again feels threatened. When school resumed on Wednesday, he elected to cover the kippa on his head with a hat to be on the safe side. "I don’t want to lure anyone to the school. I have to think about the safety of my students.”

Otherwise, he confidently wears his kippa in public as a "part of my identity,” even though he is aware that doing so could put him in danger. He says he has experienced anti-Semitism on many occasions and has just written a book about it. Called "Nicht ohne meine Kippa” ("Not Without My Kippa”), it discusses what it is like "to live with a target on my back.”

He says he has been the target of insults -- mostly "shit Jew” – everywhere, including in the supermarket, on the train or at the bus stop. He says he was once pursued by young men with an Arab background and pelted with bottles when he was walking home from the cinema. He says he was even more bothered, though, by the police, who asked him if he had "given the youths a reason” to attack him.

But Ufferfilge, who has lived in Munich and in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in recent years, says it’s not just Muslims who insult him in anti-Semitic ways. Germans do it too.

Rebecca Seidler, 40, is head of the liberal Jewish parish in Hannover. And she has had direct experience of how people’s current anger with Israel has translated into hatred of Jews in Germany. Three days after the beginning of the recent violence in the Middle East, she says, a man with an Arabic accent called the parish office and threatened to light the synagogue on fire.

Since then, she has been more concerned than usual. "Following the attack in Halle, the Culture Ministry promised us extra money for security.” Now, though, she says, there is no money available.

Seidler says congregation members have been berated at work, at school and on the streets. "What you are doing in Gaza is just as bad as what the Nazis did to the Jews,” some say. Or "If Israel didn’t exist, we would have peace in the world.”

"We are Jewish Germans, but are being made into Israel’s representatives,” Seidler says, who works as a management consultant. "I think it’s OK to criticize Israel, but what is happening is pure anti-Semitism.” She says the number of different groups in society from which anti-Semitism is now emanating is "shocking.” She has noticed recently at protests "how many Turkish flags are also being waved.” Apparently, Seidler says: "anti-Semitism is a link that is easy to agree on.”

Felix Klein, the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner

Felix Klein, the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner

Foto: Andreas Chudowski

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where the most recent conflict began, lies around 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) away. The conflict isn’t just a weight on the shoulders of Jews in Germany, but also of Palestinians. Since the eruption of violence, hundreds of people have died and more than 1,000 have been injured, most of them on the Palestinian side.

Some nights, Nidal Bulbul has stayed up the entire night speaking on the phone to his family in Gaza. He says that he paces through his apartment in the Schöneberg neighborhood of Berlin during those talks, from the living room to the bedroom and back. He can hear bombs detonating nearby, Bulbul says, and the screams of the children in his parents’ home. He says his mother, father, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces – a total of 15 family members – crowd into a single room during the air strikes. Its windows were shattered by blast waves.

"Then All of Us Together"

"I told my mother that they should spread out, that they shouldn’t all be in the same room,” Bulbul says. "But she said, 'If we die, then all of us together.’”

The 37-year-old has been living in Germany for 11 years and runs a popular café in Kreuzberg. Bulbul wears a leg prosthesis: He knows what war feels like. In 2007, he was working as a video journalist for the Reuters news agency in Gaza when he was injured in an explosion while sitting in his white Range Rover. Bulbul believes it was an Israeli attack. It led to his leg having to be amputated. Bulbul says the army knew his car.

This past Saturday, he took part in the pro-Palestinian protest in Neukölln. "I’m not protesting here against Jews. I have Jewish friends here in Berlin,” he says. "I’m fighting against the permanent violation of human rights, not only in the Gaza Strip. Piece by piece, more and more of my homeland is disappearing.”

He says Germans can’t imagine what it’s like to live in such an occupation -- that people are imprisoned there, with catastrophic levels of supplies, without any perspective of improvement. He says nothing justifies violence against Israel’s civilian population, but that it is understandable that many people in Gaza can no longer be convinced to act reasonably.

The issue is emotional for Bulbul. On the table, there is a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlements construction as illegal. "That the Israeli army bombed the media tower in Gaza is a war crime. But Israel is never held accountable for anything. It’s always only about Hamas rockets,” Bulbul says.

Diyanet head Ali Erbas

Diyanet head Ali Erbas

Foto: Ahmet Bolat / picture alliance / Anadolu Agency

He shows an old report from Gaza by Al Jazeera, a TV channel for which he sometimes worked. The footage shows a group of reporters with cameras on a hill, with the word "press” written in large letters on their bulletproof vests. The scared journalists are ducking behind a car, with Israeli soldiers seemingly shooting at them. A few scenes later, the 24-year-old cameraman Fadel Shanaa dies while filming an Israeli tank from afar. The tank shoots in his direction and the screen goes black. Fadel Shanaa was Bulbul’s friend.

Bulbul’s stories help explain why he took to the streets. But the demonstrators aren’t just Palestinians worried about their families in Gaza. Some of those expressing their hatred of Israel are second- or third-generation residents of Germany with no connection to Palestine. How is it that these young people identify so little with German values that they post statements like these on social media: "You sons of whores, you schmucks, Hitler didn’t fuck you enough!”

Educator Derviş Hizarci was an observer at the Neukölln protest where the anti-Semitic slogans were being shouted. It’s his job to keep an ear on the street. For many years, the Berliner was a teacher at schools in Kreuzberg. Today he works for a foundation that focuses on countering conspiracy ideologies and he heads KIGA, the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism. It’s the most important migrant initiative against anti-Semitism in Germany. Hizarci saw many of the boys he works with at his workshops at the riot – boys with few prospects but seemingly large amounts of self-confidence. "There were more of them than in past years at similar events, and the anger was greater,” Hizarci says.

Burak Yilmaz, 33, is also an educator. For years, he has been leading workshops with youths in Duisburg and the surrounding area on anti-Semitism, masculinity and honor. He says that for those who act out violently on the street, Islamism also often plays a role. "It’s about the notion of a global Muslim community: Brothers and sisters are being shot at, and we need to hold together.” He says that conspiracy theories are also circulating online. "Fundamentalist clerics, in particular, have lots of followers and call for hatred there. There are imams whose content is shared thousandfold.” In some Turkish TV shows, he explains, the Jew is always the enemy. "These are the things that shape people.”

The Turkish Connection

Many men with Turkish roots are soccer fans and eagerly follow the games in the Süper Lig. A few days ago, the Fenerbahçe team was warming up wearing T-shirts with the words "Özgür Palästina,” or "Free Palestine.” These included Mesut Özil, the former member of the German national team, who was born in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen and is a supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has a lot of fans among younger migrants in Germany. They identify with him, not with Armin Laschet, the head of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), or Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party chancellor candidate.

It’s not surprising that a soccer star can steal the spotlight from German politicians. It’s tougher to swallow when a foreign autocrat like Erdoğan is doing so. The Turkish president just recently "cursed” the Austrian government for raising Israeli flags on government buildings as a sign of solidarity. "They are murderers, they kill children who are five or six years old. They are not satisfied until they suck their blood,” Erdoğan said.

The Turkish government’s hatred for Jews is a large problem for Germany, because what Erdoğan says and does radiates to his supporters here. It’s not clear how many of them there are in Germany, as the community of people with Turkish roots is extremely heterogeneous. But what is clear is that about half of the 1.4 million people in Germany who were able to vote in the most recent Turkish presidential election did so, and of those, 65 percent voted for Erdoğan.

Integration experts criticize the dependence of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), one of Germany’s largest Islamic organizations, on the Turkish government. Most imams who preach in the approximately 900 DITIB mosques in Germany were trained by Diyanet, a state religious authority in Turkey which also pays their salaries.

DITIB’s state director in the central German state of Hesse called on people to "stay away from hate-filled gatherings,” but Diyanet head Ali Erbas spoke out in Ankara a short while later: "The tyranny of Israel, the baby killer who mercilessly destroys and annihilates houses of worship, must be stopped as soon as possible.” A few days earlier, he had showed up to a sermon in the Hagia Sophia holding a sword.

It’s therefore hardly surprising that the DITIB community from Aalen, in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, wrote in a Facebook post: "Free Jerusalem from the siege of the tyrants, my Allah!” The DITIB group in the southern German city of Biberach also wrote that the ummah, ie. the community, of "Commander Mohammed” will never submit, adding: "May Allah bring disaster upon the infidels!” In Unterschleissheim, a suburb of Munich, DITIB published photos on Facebook of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque painted by children, with the Turkish and Palestinian flags alongside one another. One boy had written "freedom” in Turkish on his work in a scribbly script.

Even when the situation in the Middle East calms down, Germany can hardly ignore the problem. The anti-Semitic slogans might disappear from the streets, but they will stay in people’s minds. What then?

Efforts at Improvement

Jewish teacher and book author Levi Ufferfilge calls for better education and opportunities, including in migrant communities. "There are people who live in bad neighborhoods, who do not sit at the big table in our society, live only in their Arab or Turkish context, only follow those media and are very susceptible to anti-Semitism.” He says that there are also lots of young people who are very sensitive to anti-Semitism, and this gives him hope.

Experts who work on site with youths likewise maintain a certain sense of optimism. Derviş Hizarci of KIGA in Berlin says, "with the right approach, anti-Semitism cannot be eradicated from the world, but it can almost always be contained.” Especially schools contact Hizarci and his team when they need help or counseling. The strategy: Take the youths seriously, initiate a conversation with them and then gradually trip them up in their contradictions.

"Would you want people to talk about you like this? What does this situation have to do with Palestine?” Hizarci says that every teacher can do this, and many of them do. KIGA team members have led hundreds of workshops in recent years – and they have almost always borne fruit. Kreuzberg’s Refik Veseli school, for example, now bears the name of a Muslim "Righteous Among the Nations” who saved Jews during the Second World War. This name-change, he says, had been desired by the students as well. But this work is difficult and never stops. And it requires them to call out anti-Semitism among Muslims without seeing it as inevitable – and to avoid pushing the youths into a particular corner from the start.

Felix Klein, the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, warns against "pointing at the Muslims in order to distract from the anti-Semitism that exists in most of society.” He says that those agitating against Jews are often German citizens. Klein has seen first-hand how difficult it is to strike the right tone in the debate. When he said in an interview that people need to explain to "youths with an immigrant background” that anti-Semitism is not acceptable in Germany, Jewish pianist Igor Levit accused him of placing youths with an immigrant background "under general suspicion.” When asked about this, Klein says that he didn’t intend to do this and that "every form of anti-Semitism needs to be named: hatred of Jews comes from the left, the right, from Muslims and also from the middle of society.”

According to participants at a meeting in a CDU/CSU parliamentary group at the Bundestag, Merkel told the group that there would be no tolerance for people burning Israeli flags or attacking synagogues. That sounds resolute, but what will be the consequences?

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Hermann (CSU) said that one should check if someone who is "so intolerant” could be deported. That sounds more resolute. But Hermann also knows one thing: that German citizens cannot be expelled. And neither can Germany’s anti-Semitism problem.