Kippa your hands off

The trial for April's infamous “Berlin kippa attack”, in which a young Syrian was filmed attacking a young Israeli wearing a kippa, kicked off on Tuesday. Is antisemitism being "imported" into Germany? We survey the situation.

Image for Kippa your hands off
Photo by Judith Kesseler
Is antisemitism back in Germany, this time as an “imported” Muslim prejudice? In the wake of April’s “Berlin kippa attack”, the international media was prompt to resurrect the taboo of no-go zones for Jews in the German capital. Meanwhile Jewish organisations and politicians pointed an uneasy finger at refugees and Arabs as the new perpetrators. All of this is now playing out in court with the trial of the young Syrian at the centre starting this past Tuesday, June 19. As statistics and subjective perceptions clash, we try to make sense of the debate. Skullcaps are being handed out in front of the Berlin Jewish community’s building on Fasanenstraße, where over 2500 people have gathered to take part in the “Berlin Wears the Kippa” demonstration on an April afternoon. Berliners who have come here today are not all Jewish. This is a solidarity event for victims of antisemitic attacks and Gideon Joffe, head of the Jewish community, that which organised the event, welcomes the crowd. “We received countless calls and e-mails from non-Jews who were asking where they could buy a kippa, where they could show their solidarity,” he says. On that day some 10,000 skullcaps were distributed in parks throughout the city. Mayor Michael Müller, Green politician Cem Özdemir, CDU/CSU parliamentary leader Volker Kauder and protestant bishop Markus Dröge have come and donned the kippa. All are eager to express solidarity amidst what’s been reported as a new wave of antisemitism. In the preceding weeks, antisemitism in Germany had made the news more than once. In March, reports of a Jewish second-grade pupil in Tempelhof bullied by Muslim classmates reopened a debate about Judenhass in Berlin public schools. On April 12, it was the Echo scandal: the awarding of Germany’s music prize to German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang, known for their misogynist and antisemitic lyrics, sent a shockwave, leading to the abolition of the award altogether. But it’s the “Berlin kippa attack” during the previous week that explains the unprecedented show of solidarity on Fasanenstraße today. Kippa attack goes viral On April 18 a video of a young man attacking a kippa-wearer at the corner of Lychener Straße and Raumerstraße in peaceful Prenzlauer Berg again put Berlin in the spotlight, this time on an international scale. The short clip, posted on Facebook on April 18, shows the attacker striking another young man with a belt while shouting “Yahudi” (“Jew” in Arabic). The victim, 21-year-old Adam Armoush, who turned out to be an Israeli Arab from Haifa, had been wearing the kippa in what he later explained was meant to be an “experiment” to test antisemitism in Berlin. Unfortunately, unlike other experiments (in 2015 Exberliner reported on Vice magazine’s hidden camera test in which a Jewish actor was sent to Neukölln wearing a kippa) this ended in a brutal lashing. The attacker turned himself in to the police the following day and is said to be a 19-year-old refugee from Syria. What happened before Amoush pressed record on his phone, we will never know, but what could, under different circumstances, have been a thoroughly shocking but overlooked case of hate crime – no one was seriously injured – took on global proportions and triggered alarming headlines. While media around the world warned of a rise in anti-Jewish attacks in Germany, the Israeli press cautioned Jews against wearing a kippa in the streets of the German capital. The Times of Israel ran a story on April 25 titled “Unsafe to wear kippa in public”. The frantic reporting created the impression that being Jewish in the German capital is dangerous and wearing a kippa here might get you beaten up. The notion of “no-go zones”, usually used to describe poor, high-crime areas, was back on the agenda. The fact that in this case the potential “no-go zone” was a well-off, mostly white, family-friendly neighbourhood and that events preceding the attacks are missing from the video was lost in the fuss. Angela Merkel – who usually refrains from commenting on news stories – immediately condemned the attack vowing that her government fight antisemitism “with all our strength”. Politicians of all stripes followed suit. Never had German politics seen such unanimity. The slightest dissenting note immediately sparked public admonishment: when journalist Jakob Augstein criticised in a tweet the idea that someone would conduct an “experiment” with a kippa, he was immediately accused of victim shaming and landed a spot on Jewish NGO Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top 10 list of “antisemitic slurs”. Meanwhile, Islamophobic tweets by the far right didn’t seem to cause as much commotion. Eager to seize on any and every bit of evidence that refugees are a threat, AfD politicians were swift to react. Before the identity of the perpetrator was officially revealed, deputy party chairman Georg Pazderski wrote, “With the influx of Muslims, antisemitism has again become admissible.” But the sentiment was not confined to the AfD. Rather it was echoed by Germany’s mainstream leaders. A new “imported” antisemitism? Image for Kippa your hands off “We have a new phenomenon, as we have many refugees among whom there are, for example, people of Arab origin who bring a different kind of antisemitism into the country…” This was Merkel on Israeli Channel 10 news on April 24. The chancellor’s words sparked a flurry of headlines such as “Merkel denounces Arab immigrants’ anti-Semitism” (The Independent) and “After a massive refugee influx, Germany is confronting an imported anti-Semitism” (The National Post). Germany seemed to be discovering a new concept: Muslim, politely named “imported” antisemitism, an atavistic hatred brought to Germany through its open borders and a blind asylum policy. Interior minister Horst Seehofer of the conservative CSU, known for his opposition to Merkel’s refugee policy, was an early fan of the concept. In May, at a press conference on the 2017 crime statistics, Seehofer was seen not only boasting a country that is “safer than ever”, but also deploring a 2.5 percent rise in antisemitic crimes: “For the first time so-called ‘imported antisemitic crime’ is rising again,” he said, while having to acknowledge: “at this point 95 percent of 1504 antisemitic crimes in 2017 had a right-wing motivation behind them.” In short: there are no statistics supporting a new Muslim threat to Jews in Germany. For Berlin, that number is 92 percent, while only 5.9 percent could be traced to “foreign ideology” (this category includes crimes related to the Israel-Palestine conflict) and a mere 1.7 percent were counted as motivated by religious ideology (see graph). Image for Kippa your hands off But no one seems to trust the police’s numbers. Especially not Felix Klein, Germany’s first ever national commissioner for antisemitism, who was tasked with answering questions and concerns among the foreign media, even before officially taking office on May 1. At a press conference on April 28, the career diplomat, who is not Jewish himself, explained that these stats were “not representative”, insisting that the feeling among the Jewish community tells a different story: “They feel that Muslim antisemitism is much more dangerous than it appears to be in the statistics,” he said. In the Washington Post a day earlier, he’d spoken of a “great influx of refugees and people who came to Germany that were raised […] with certain perceptions of Jews in Israel that are totally unacceptable to German society.” He concluded the press conference by unveiling plans for a new monitoring system in which data would flow from local Jewish groups to the police in Germany’s 16 federal states. Dissenting voices Wolfgang Benz, former history professor and still one of German’s leading experts on antisemitism and discrimination, has been following the developments with concern: “There is no such thing as a ‘new’ antisemitism. It’s always the same old thing working with the same old resentment,” he says. The 77-year-old who led Germany’s only academic institute devoted solely to research on antisemitism has been warning of Islamophobia for years. “What’s ‘new’ now is that we have new scapegoats and new political voices such as AfD and Pegida that have made hatred against Muslims their programme.” He points out that the recent hype about a new antisemitic threat in Germany is based on a small number of actual incidents which have been blown out of proportion by outsized media coverage. Image for Kippa your hands off And he has a point. Looking at police statistics it is hard to find the data that would confirm a dramatically increased danger for Jews living in the city. While official records list a total of 288 crimes with an antisemitic motivation for 2017 (29 cases more than 2016) there have been fewer violent ones (seven assaults in 2017, down from 10 the previous year). Meanwhile, the number of Islamophobic attacks has also increased to a total of nine assaults in 2017. The total number of violent hate crimes in Berlin for 2017 was 253 (see chart). Different, now often cited, numbers show a jump from 590 in 2016 to 947 in 2017, but these are self-reported antisemitic incidents collected by Berlin’s centre for Research and Information on Antisemitism in Berlin (RIAS). “The problem with such data is that they rely on ‘self-reporting’: all you need is to call or fill out the online form. Those things are bound up with so much emotion that it makes it hard to filter,” explains Benz, who adds: “Meanwhile, Muslims who wear a headscarf are abused on a regular basis, as are Sinti and Roma. Those go largely under-reported.” Like last month, when a young Muslim woman was hit in the face by a 60-something German man for wearing a headscarf – it sparked little outrage besides a few dry lines in the domestic press.
This claim that Islam is the problem now makes the lives of refugees very hard and helps AfD and Pegida.”
“I am honestly very sceptical about the statement that antisemitism is on the rise. Statistics always point to between 1000-1500 cases per year. It doesn’t really change,” says Àrmin Langer, the Jewish activist behind Neukölln Jewish-Muslim organisation Salaam-Shalom “You cannot use the experience of one stroll down the street to draw conclusions – which is what happened after the Prenzlauer Berg attack.” As for the link made between Muslim immigrants and antisemitism, he calls it flat-out propaganda. “I saw an article saying that there is an ‘antisemitism tsunami’ in Berlin. This doesn’t offer solutions, it just creates drama,” adds the 28-year-old Hungarian-born Berliner. Since 2014 he’s been working on promoting dialogue through regular sports and food events and talks at public schools. “I am not saying that there isn’t any antisemitism amongst Muslims, of course there is, but among Germans too. And this claim that Islam is the problem now makes the lives of refugees very hard and helps AfD and Pegida gain support. It is so counter-productive.” Langer has mixed feelings about the kippa protest: “This broad solidarity should be welcomed, but the kippa is not a neutral piece of fabric. It is not the symbol of German democracy. Since late antiquity this garment stands for the expression of one’s Jewish faith. It’s not the right symbol.” A mixed crowd on Fasanenstraße Back at the solidarity Kippa demonstration in Charlottenburg, the diverse demographics reflect the murky mood and a multitude of opinions. A banner reads “Protect Jews, stop Islamisation”. Not far off, Moshe, a religious Jew, is standing with his friends. He is here because he feels a growing sense of insecurity: “The fact that we follow the Torah makes us targets of pro- Palestine Muslims across the world,” he says, then gives the example of his 12-year-old daughter, who was called a Jewish aggressor at school. “It is becoming more and more acceptable to insult Jews,” Moshe says, “and I do feel concerned about raising my children and grandchildren in Berlin if this is the tendency.” As he becomes aware of positive reactions around him, he continues passionately: “It is all because of the refugees. The Muslims. They will always hate us. They will always want to murder us all. Where can we feel safe?” Just a few metres away a Syrian couple is also part of the demonstration. Hamid and his wife Samar are Muslims but both wearing kippas: “I am here because I want to show solidarity,” says Hamid. “I want to show that you can be pro-Palestine, and it doesn’t have to mean that we are anti-Jewish.” For him blaming the Jews for Israel’s politics would just be “like saying ‘all Muslims are terrorists’. I think we are both minorities in this country and should support each other!” He has a big smile on his face as he speaks, turning to Samar for approval. The young woman, with the kippa pinned to her hijab, nods and apologises that her German is not yet good enough to voice her opinion. The pair were part of the refugee wave, arriving in Germany in 2015, and as many other Syrians, they’ve learned about the Holocaust for the first time in their integration course. They both agree that this has brought a new understanding to their lives.