Berlin: Good for the Jews?

Can you safely walk through the streets of Neukölln wearing a kippa? How much anti-Semitic crime is there in Berlin? In our October issue, we tackled the debate over the "new" anti-Semitism and its effect on the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Image for Berlin: Good for the Jews?
Illustration by Pol Guillen

Can you safely walk through the streets of Neukölln wearing a kippa? While official stats point to a decline in anti-Semitic crime in Berlin, anti-Israel protests and headlines about “no-go zones” for Jews have sparked new debate on the nature and reality of anti-Semitism in the capital of Germany. They’ve also triggered uncomfortable questions on the dangers of scapegoating the Muslim minority.

Here we go again? In the wake of the 2014 Gaza-Israel conflict, the international media’s been quick to seize on any and every bit of evidence that Judenhass is back in Germany – this time in an anti-Israel and, yes, mostly Muslim guise. In summer 2014, a series of much-publicised protests in Berlin saw chanters on Ku’damm draped in Palestinian flags chanting, “Jude, Jude, feiges Schwein! Komm heraus und kämpf allein!” (“Jew, Jew, cowardly pig – come out and fight on your own!”)

In February 2015, a spokesman from Berlin’s Jewish Community declared they would henceforth deliver their magazine, Jüdisches Berlin, in unmarked white paper envelopes to “reduce hostility” towards members. In June, an anonymous schoolteacher wrote an op-ed in Tagesspiegel describing how her students used “Du Jude!” as an insult.

Last August, when the European Maccabi Games (aka Europe’s “Jewish Olympics”) were held in Berlin, Alon Meyer, the German organiser of the Games, warned visitors not to make themselves recognisable as Jews in ‘sensitive areas’ of the city. This primarily meant Neukölln, where athletes were housed in the Estrel Hotel “900m from the radical Al-Nur mosque”, as the papers breathlessly reported.

During the games, a man with “an Arab background” was arrested for hurling anti-Semitic insults at the security guards in front of the hotel, and police reported anti-Semitic vandalism painted on a section of the East Side Gallery that showed the Israeli flag superimposed over a German one. The Jerusalem Post went so far as to call the games “marred by anti-Semitism”.

No-go zones?

These incidents weren’t surprising to Rabbi Daniel Alter. Since a 2013 interview with the Morgenpost, Alter hasn’t budged from the viewpoint that it is dangerous to be identifiably Jewish in what he calls Berlin’s ‘no-go zones’ – the predominantly Muslim areas of the city, especially Neukölln. He himself has taken to wearing a baseball cap over his kippa when he visits the area. “Being a martyr doesn’t have a high value in Judaism. There’s no point in being identifiable as Jewish just to get beaten up again.”

In August 2012, Alter – of German Jewish descent, and among the first to be ordained at Potsdam’s Abraham Geiger rabbinical school after WWII – was accosted by a group of young, Middle Eastern-looking men in Friedenau. They asked him whether he was Jewish; when he responded in the affirmative, he was brutally beaten.

“It was very clear that I should try and combat the circumstances that led to that event,” says Alter now. In November of that same year, he became the Jewish Community’s first full-time “Antisemitismusbeauftragter” (representative on combating anti-Semitism). His job is twofold: to counsel those who have been affected by anti-Semitic incidents, and to engage in “interreligious dialogue” with the Christian and Muslim communities. But clearly, and controversially, the latter is the real issue.

His feelings are echoed elsewhere in the city’s Jewish community. With his black hat, sidelocks and full beard, Rabbi Yitshak Ehrenberg of Mitte’s Central Orthodox Synagogue might be the most stereotypically identifiable Jew in Berlin. Sipping a Milchkaffee at the kosher café Bleibergs in Wilmersdorf, he comments that yes, of course he hears about anti-Semitism in Berlin, but “I don’t feel it in my surroundings.” What about Neukölln? “Oh, it’s dangerous there! I go there sometimes, to talk to imams, but never without police protection.”

Voiced again by Josef Schuster, president of Germany’s Jewish Central Council, on RBB last February, the allegation of anti-Semitic ‘hotspots’ prompted immediate refutation on the part of Berlin government officials: “There are no ‘problem areas’ for Jews in Berlin,” hammered integration senator Dilek Kolat in the press afterwards.

As for Armin Langer, a 24-year-old Hungarian rabbinical student who lives in Neukölln, the “no-go zone” allegations are nothing but subjective, mostly unfounded feelings expressed by “the Jews from the parallel world of Charlottenburg. They lack any scientific evidence and fully ignore our experience.” Langer co-founded Neukölln’s intercultural Salaam-Schalom Initiative in direct response to Alter’s 2013 statements. “I know that there is anti-Semitism among Muslims, as there is among all segments of society – but I’ve never experienced it in the two years I’ve been living in Neukölln,” he says.

Langer doesn’t wear a kippa, but, he says, “We have several members who do, or who speak Hebrew on the streets of Neukölln, and never experienced any different reactions than in other parts of the city.” He brings up a Vice video in which German-Israeli actor Amit Jacobi walks through Neukölln and Kreuzberg wearing a kippa and a hidden camera and receives nothing but a few curious looks.

Asked about Langer’s organisation, Daniel Alter becomes irritated. “I’ve been working in that community for a long time and I think I know what I’m talking about. Mr. Langer was a communist candidate in Hungary before he discovered that he was religious and came to Berlin to pursue rabbinical studies, and quite a number of people in Salaam-Schalom come from left-wing Israeli backgrounds. “They hold a different opinion than me,” he exhales.

Regarding the Vice video: “I’ve had different experiences. When I walk by places where a lot of Turkish and Arabic people hang out, I definitely get at least verbally harassed. ‘Jews get out, Nazi Jews…’”

Has he had to deal with many anti-Semitic incidents in Neukölln since taking up his position at the Jewish Community? Alter hesitates. “The incidents that make it to my desk are spread across the city. But they don’t reflect the full picture.”

Keeping score

What is the full picture, then? Police statistics on anti-Semitic incidents paint a confusing, and rather distorted, portrait. Anti-Semitic crimes are logged according to their political motivations – rechts (coming from right-wing anti-Semitism), links (left-wing) and Ausländer (foreign).

In defending Neukölln and Berlin Muslims, Kolat and Langer both point to the fact nearly 90 percent of the 192 anti-Semitic crimes committed last year were of “right-wing”, not “foreign”, origin. These range from spray-painted swastikas to “Scheiß Jude” insults to urinating on the Holocaust memorial… but don’t include the 115 acts, 21 of them violent, related to “the Israeli- Palestinian conflict”.

The fact that the police list anti-Israel crimes in a separate category from anti-Semitic ones could explain why, on paper, the number of anti-Semitic crimes remained more or less constant in the year Jewish Central Council then-president Dieter Graumann referred to as “the worst since the Nazi era”.

Of course, not every anti-Israel attack is committed by Muslims – or, necessarily, anti-Semitic. But to many Jewish Berliners, it’s all one and the same. “When they criticise Israel, it’s anti-Semitism in a different outfit,” says Ehrenberg. “If people are bringing up statements like there is no real anti-Semitism among Arabs or Muslims, it’s just a reaction to Israeli policy, I say: that’s not only ridiculous, that’s dangerous,” says Alter.

This opinion is also shared by Lala Süsskind, former head of the Jewish Community and member of women’s Zionist organisation WIZO. “I never thought about how to divide it. But for me, anything against Israel is an attack on the Jews – that’s my feeling for it.”

Süsskind currently co-runs JFDA (the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism), one of around 40 organisations in Berlin devoted to fighting, preventing and/or monitoring anti-Semitism. Her website posts up-to-date information on anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin, gleaned from police reports and the self-reporting website run by Benjamin Steinitz of watchdog group RIAS (Recherche- und Informationsstelle Antisemitismus). In 2014, Steinitz’s organisation reported 72 anti-Semitic incidents that the police did not.

Part of the disparity can be explained by differences in data collection (self-reporting, for example), but it also has to do with differing definitions. While police seem to focus on ‘traditional’ neo-Nazi forms of anti-Semitism and shunt anti-Israel sentiments into a separate category, the RIAS stats include the latter to some extent, using the “3D test” (“demonising” Israel, “de-legitimising” it as a state, or subjecting it to a “double standard”) to distinguish anti-Semitic crimes from ones that are ‘merely’ anti-Israel.

All this begs the question: who decides what anti-Semitism is? Should motives be the defining criteria, or the target? Does the simple fact that the victim was a Jew suffice to describe a crime as anti-Semitic irrelevant of whether it was inspired by racist or anti-Israel feelings, perpetrated by neo-Nazis or radical Muslims, or anyone else in between?

“It depends on the motive. For example, what might come across as an anti-Semitic insult can be motivated by political issues – such as anti-Israel sentiments, which are not strictly speaking anti-Semitic,” says Michael Kohlstruck of the Technical University’s Centre for Anti- Semitism Research.

Kohlstruck co-wrote “Anti- Semitism as Problem and Symbol”, released in January of this year, a meta-study of anti-Semitic acts, motivations and watchdog organisations in Berlin that ends with a call to develop unified, scientific standards for anti-Semitism monitoring. The report shows a general drop over the last decade, with a small spike at the end (it mostly used the German police numbers) – but, Kohlstruck says, anti-Semitism comes in waves. “It depends what’s happening in Israel. And the numbers are not an adequate picture of reality. There’s so much that isn’t reported…”

The TU report also mentioned that while “anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist” sentiments were generally higher among people with a Muslim background than non-migrants, the numbers level out when class and education level are taken into account – a claim that sparked a great deal of criticism from Jewish organisations.

Muslims as scapegoats?

No matter the numbers, there’s the fear that putting exaggerated focus on Islamic anti-Semitism could stoke the fires of right-wing Islamophobia. More than a few Israeli flags were waved at last January’s PEGIDA marches, for example.

“I think the picture in the media is highly distorted,” says Ender Cetin, the imam of Neukölln’s Sehitlik mosque. “I read things like all Muslim students are anti-Semitic, but that’s not the truth. I do assume there’s a possible danger when you go to Neukölln wearing a kippa. But I also have to say that many Muslims also have experiences with discrimination. There are always numbers for anti-Semitism, but nobody’s collecting numbers for anti-Islam incidents – Hamburg’s just starting that now. You always have idiots who are anti-Semitic, but they tend to be less educated, whereas you can find anti- Islamic ideas throughout all layers of society.”

Langer agrees: “Those who use the Muslim community as scapegoats for anti-Semitism in Germany protect only the far right in the end.” And the right wing seems to be less interested in Jews than in Ausländer at the moment. “There has been a number of violent, racist crimes coming from the right-wing spectrum, but my notion is that the vast minority of them are not anti-Semitic,” says Alter. “Currently they’re obsessed with the refugee issue.”

Which doesn’t mean that the right wing poses no threat to Jews. “Yes, most violent right-wing acts are de facto against refugees,” says Hajo Funke, a professor at the Free University who specialises in right-wing extremism. “But with respect to neo-Nazis, their core ideology is still anti-Semitic. The NSU murder crew, for example, attacked migrants, but anti-Semitism was still their binding force.”

He points to Jews’ low visibility factor compared to Muslims as one of the reasons they might no longer be a target, but says “they could switch their attention in a minute given the time and opportunity.”

Funke, Alter, Ehrenberg and Langer all agree on one thing: the idea of a “core” anti-Semitism among Germans. Most cited a 2012 study commissioned by the Bundestag in which it was reported that “20 percent of German society has latent anti-Semitic notions,” as Alter puts it. A 2014 Germany-wide survey carried out by the University of Bielefeld showed a more complex picture: numbers of respondents who agreed with statements like “Jews have too much influence in Germany” were down to 15 percent (from 21.5 percent 10 years ago).

Almost one-third of Germans (28 percent) agreed with “Considering Israel’s politics, I can understand why someone might have something against Jews,” but this was down from 38 percent in 2004, and still relatively low in comparison with the 46 percent of respondents to a Europe-wide survey by the same university who thought there were “too many Muslims in Germany”.

“How can you get rid of a 2000-year-old tradition that comes with mother’s milk?” says Ehrenberg. Yet Funke maintains that here, at least, the numbers are in decline – “and the results were higher in people over 60.”

“All in all,” he adds, “I’d say Germany’s doing well.”

What to do?

But, under the scrutiny of an international media eager to see Germany screw up again – and a right-wing Israeli government hoping to use any excuse to call European Jews ‘home’ to safety (as they’ve already done with about 7000 French Jews last year) is “doing well” good enough? “This good face of Germany – we have to protect it,” says Alter. “Society has a capability to overcome these incidents.”

And surely Berlin is not short of organisations working at it. Alter and Cetin are part of a programme called Meet2Respect, in which a rabbi and an imam pay a joint visit to schools where anti- Semitic insults have been used. It’s one of many similar projects that include Langer’s Salaam-Schalom Initiative (for which Jews and Muslims recently marched side-by-side to protest bans on headscarves), the Israeli-run Neukölln network “Shalom Rollberg” and Süsskind’s wordily named school workshop series Vorurteile abbauen, antisemitische Ressentiments bekämpfen (“Tear down stereotypes, fight anti-Semitic resentment”).

The oldest one is the 12-year-old KIGA (Kreuzberg Initiative gegen Antisemitismus), which runs one-off workshops along with ongoing partnerships with schools in what board member Malte Holler calls “multicultural” neighbourhoods. “One of the problems is that Jews are not present, not represented, in our society,” he says. “I had one workshop where we couldn’t start because two boys were being disruptive. They asked me, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I said ‘No, why does it matter?’ They said, ‘Because there’s lots of questions we need to ask the Jews.’”

They may well get their chance. As more and more young, secular Israeli Jews flood in, the Jewish population in Berlin, especially Neukölln, is swelling – still far below its pre-WWII heights, but enough to keep the city’s growing number of Israeli and kosher restaurants in business.

And – let’s keep things in perspective – chances are anti-Semitism will have little to no bearing on their day-to-day lives. Says Süsskind: “The Jews are not scared here. Most of them feel safe. I feel the anti-Semitism more, because I’m more involved with it, but I’d never say I’m leaving the country because of it. If you’re living here as a normal Jew, maybe you’re reading in the newspapers about how this or that happened – but otherwise, you feel great here.”