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A new antisemitism? Wolfgang Benz

INTERVIEW! The trial of the young Syrian involved the infamous "Berlin Kippa attack" is already underway as of Tuesday... with a verdict expected soon. But what's the real state of antisemitism in Berlin and Germany? We talked to the expert.

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The kippa from the “Berlin Kippa Attack”, now on display at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Photo by Yves Sucksdorff

If there is one expert on hate crime and discrimination in Germany, it’s historian and retired professor Wolfgang Benz. For over two decades he was at the helm of the TU Centre for Research on Antisemitism, the only one of its kind in Germany. His book What Is Antisemitism? is widely regarded as a must-read introduction to the topic. His groundbreaking work pointing out similarities between antisemitism and Islamophobia feels more relevant than ever.

Following the Echo music awards scandal and the incident involving a kippa-wearing youth in Prenzlauer Berg, there’s been a lot of debate surrounding a new wave of antisemitism in Berlin. What’s your take on this?

There is a huge uproar now, which has been strongly fostered and dramatised by the media. I am asked by friends from Munich or abroad: Is it dangerous to walk the streets in Berlin? Yet, so far I have not seen a new quality of antisemitism or threat. What is new is the enormously increased public attention. This morning I heard a Catholic priest on the radio and he again spoke about the Prenzlauer Berg assault with trembling excitement as if it had occurred thousandfold.

Papers from Israel to the UK write about how Jews have started feeling unsafe in Berlin…

Obviously it makes for a popular read that in Germany Jews are endangered, that “the Germans” are the bad guys. In fact, antisemitism is more strongly condemned in Germany than in any other country. The reality is that this outrage was sparked by a very small number of actual incidents. Which in a way shows how seriously we take antisemitism and how sensitive we are to it.

Chancellor Merkel herself spoke up on the very day the video was released.

Every antisemitic attack will get the Chancellor behind a microphone in no time. She is known to remain silent for too long on all sorts of problems. In all other cases the default reaction is to minimise the issue. If it is about a Muslim, they had probably provoked the other party. And a Roma has probably misbehaved, too. But a Jew never would. Everyone is scared they might be called antisemites.

Der Freitag journalist and publisher Jakob Augstein landed on Jewish NGO Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top 10 list of antisemitic slurs for tweeting: “How disturbed is our reality, that someone has the idea to use wearing a kippa as provocation – and is successful with that! Depressing. Germany 2018.” What do you think?

That’s what I’m saying! There is a real taboo here and anyone who voices a different opinion is pilloried. But the main point is that politics and the wider society are so sensitive in this one area that an incident like that is blown out of proportion entirely.

Are you saying it has to do with how rarely such incidents take place?

I say that an attack on a Jew is much more newsworthy than, say, an attack on a Muslim wearing a headscarf. This happens a hundred times a day in Berlin, but it is seen as normal. No fuss is made about it. A verbal or physical assault against a Sinto or a Roma who is called a dirty gypsy doesn’t trigger a response. We are extremely sensitive to antisemitism and this alarm is kept alive by activists, politicians and the media. Which is good.

So you don’t think there is a similar taboo when it comes to other cultural or religious minorities?

I don’t really see that at the moment. There is no great fear of criticising Muslims and being called an Islamophobe. We now have a party in our parliament which clearly defines itself as Islamophobic. It’s written in their programme.

The fact that the Prenzlauer Berg attacker was a Syrian refugee has fuelled talk of a new quality of antisemitism brought to Germany by Muslim migrants. CSU Interior Minister Horst Seehofer refers to a rise in so-called “imported crimes”. What do you think?

There is no such thing as a “new” antisemitism. It’s always the same old thing working with the same old resentment. This kind of talk is aimed against refugees. Before the refugees arrived, we were perfectly complacent in pointing the finger at Poland where anti-Judaism is openly justified with religious arguments, mixed with Polish nationalism. Now we have the Muslims and presume that they are dyed-in-the-wool antisemites. Meanwhile our own cryptic antisemitism stops being an issue. We cry “Stop thief!” and think the problem lies elsewhere, not with us. Now Muslims are blamed for antisemitism, end of story.

Would you agree with Felix Klein – Germany’s new Commissioner of Antisemitism – that some newcomers bring with them their background of “unacceptable perceptions of Jews and Israel”?

I am obviously aware that there are many Muslims who, out of solidarity with Israel’s Arab neighbours, display anti-Israeli resentment and of course there are actual antisemites, too. But these people have not come to Germany to spread antisemitism. That wouldn’t have been necessary anyway because we have enough of that here already. But they came as refugees and their resentment of Israel is something they share with many Germans. The difference is that Germans don’t usually express it because they know that here that can ruin careers. But those people say it, and for us and our Interior Minister who doesn’t seem to be a big fan of refugees, it’s a good opportunity to fuel animosity against them.

The yellow press has been wallowing in the confusion. Bild asked their reporters to hang Israeli flags in so-called problem areas of several German cities to see how long it would take until someone took them down. Their footage of two youths taking away a flag on Hermannplatz (and unsuccessfully attempting to burn it) was supposed to be evidence of Muslim antisemitism.

Taking down Israeli flags in the street does not make you antisemitic. Those who make that claim are doing very poor journalism.”

Taking down Israeli flags in the street does not make you antisemitic. Those who make that claim are doing very poor journalism. Some media try to provoke the things they want to happen and write about and use that to stir up resentments. Many people are not aware that criticising Israel is not the same as being an antisemite.

Stats show that 95 percent of hate crimes against Jews (92 percent in Berlin) are still perpetrated by the same old rightwingers, not newcomers. Do you think that the focus on Muslim perpetrators has somehow overshadowed the real problem?

What we have now are new political formations such as AfD and Pegida who have made hatred against Muslims their programme. They hide their own antisemitism behind their Islamophobia. There is a lot of antisemitism there too and it is voiced clearly in the AfD groups in state parliaments and the Bundestag. The most prominent example is Wolfgang Gedeon [who has called Islam Christian culture’s enemy from outside, and Judaism the one from within]. He was expelled from the AfD group in the Baden- Württemberg parliament, but not excluded from the party.

But what about antisemitism in German society at large?

Here we get to a topic that is much more relevant: The Echo music award. This prize for creative achievement is given to two men who not only act in an antisemitic fashion but also in a shockingly, nauseatingly misogynist way and who insult other minorities as well. Because of their huge success, these people who poison hundreds of thousands of young souls with their hateful lyrics are put on a podium and given awards.

But antisemitic insults are illegal in Germany, aren’t they? Couldn’t they be prosecuted?

In principle, yes, but it is really difficult with artists because then they can fall back on artistic freedom. In those cases it is hard to press charges. And at the end of the day public condemnation is more important than legal battles. But these are grey zones, subject to interpretation. Take the cartoon published in Süddeutsche Zeitung [Netanyahu holds a bomb with the Star of David on it in front of a Eurovision banner and says “Next year in Jerusalem!”] which got the caricaturist fired. The Jewish community is convinced that it is a case of antisemitism and the media sell it that way, too. I disagree with that. So, it’s difficult…

For two decades you led the country’s only academic centre dedicated to antisemitism research. What was your main focus?

I was looking at why majorities discriminate against minorities using the same methods throughout history. Why yesterday it’s the Jews, the day before the Sinti and Roma and tomorrow the Muslim? What are the mechanisms? And the result is quite simple: It’s got nothing to do with those groups. It’s all in the way majorities need these projections. What’s interested me is how random and replaceable the victims are.

In Germany, where antisemitism is still seen as a unique form of discrimination, your theory of the common denominators, by which you put Jews and Muslims in one basket as victims of the same principles of discrimination, got you a lot of flak, right?

I’ve actually been subjected to vicious campaigns from people who didn’t understand that I wasn’t comparing or equating Jews with Muslims but the methods of discrimination. Their battle-cry was “Benz is equating Jews and Muslims and he must not do that, because Jews are good and Muslims are bad.” They’d ring up the TU press office and ask what kind of criminal history I have. They asked the TU chair’s office whether the money for the teaching position my wife held at the university, in a completely different area, came from my institute’s budget. They wanted to silence me. It was mostly activists from the far left and pseudo-scientists with highly dubious credentials. But in academic circles it was never a problem, and I consider it a success of mine to have brought up this wider understanding that animosity towards different minorities has the same roots. It doesn’t matter if it is religiously motivated or ethnically or what not. It almost seems as if humanity is beginning to learn that there are no good or bad minorities, but that the causes for ostracism are to be found in majority society. Unfortunately, the commotion we are seeing at the moment is getting in the way of such understanding.

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