Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany. But is Angela Merkel doing anything about it?
With anti-Semitism on the march, Germany’s politicians and opinion makers are grappling with what went wrong with the country’s seven-decade-long struggle to come to terms with its past, or as they call it, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
Since the Holocaust, Germany has measured its progress by how the country treats Jews. For example, the government provided generous funding to rebuild Jewish communities and allowed Jews from the former Soviet Union to relocate to Germany. But with a rising tide of anti-Semitism in recent months, there are now questions about how significant the culture of Holocaust remembrance has been in preventing hatred of Jews.
The wave of modern anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence inundating Germany in recent months jolted Chancellor Angela Merkel and religious and political leaders to participate in a “Stand-Up: Jew-Hatred-Never Again!” rally organized on Sept. 14 by the Central Council of Jews in Germany in the heart of Berlin’s government district, not far the country’s national Holocaust memorial.
The list of anti-Semitic incidents between July and early September is long. Protests against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza led seamlessly to Molotov cocktails tossed at a synagogue in Wuppertal, a city in western Germany, on July 29 — the first torching of a Wuppertal synagogue was during the Hitler era in 1938. Anti-Israel protesters attacked Jews for wearing kippot on the streets of Berlin in a couple of incidents in July. And that’s just a taste.
“These are the worst times since the Nazi era. On the streets, you hear things like ‘The Jews should be gassed,’ ‘The Jews should be burned,’” Dieter Graumann, the president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, lamented to the Guardian in August.
Merkel, whom Jewish organizations have honored with many awards for her work over the years to cultivate German-Jewish life and foster a robust relationship with Israel, delivered a tough speech at the rally. “It is our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism,” the chancellor declared in front of the Brandenburg Gate — a symbol of German unification and democracy.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Germany has had a complicated relationship German Jews — and with Israel. While it was scarcely reported, Merkel did reference the Jewish state at the rally, saying, “I do not accept any kind of anti-Semitic message or attacks at all, not least the ones that were recently seen at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, disguised as alleged criticism of the policy of the state of Israel.”
But, so far, Merkel has done little to combat anti-Semitism in Germany beyond giving a speech. She has offered no policy prescriptions. And yet the chancellor’s anger at her fellow citizens who abuse Jews has long been viewed as sincere. Julius Schoeps, a prominent German Jewish professor and a descendant of the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, told me after Merkel’s speech, “I can count on her.” He added, however, that he could not rely on the other people, like Protestant and Catholic church leaders, who also spoke against anti-Semitism at the rally.
Organizations affiliated with the Protestant and Catholic churches have hosted events, along with German politicians, over the years that have strained relations between Jews and Germans.
In 2010, the Evangelical Academy, an educational center that seeks “to build bridges between people,” invited Bassem Naim, a Hamas minister, to a conference on “Partner for Peace: Talking with Hamas and Fatah.” Naim has argued for “resistance” against Israel, and stated that there is “exploitation of the Holocaust by the Zionists to justify their crimes and harness international acceptance of the campaign of ethnic cleansing and subjection they have been waging against us.” Naim’s visa to travel to Germany was ultimately denied due to the EU’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist entity.
Two years later, in 2012, Albrecht Schröter — the Social Democratic mayor of Jena, a town in eastern Germany — signed a petition called “Occupation Tastes Bitter,” organized by the German Catholic peace organization Pax Christi, which urged a boycott of Israeli products. Germany’s Catholic Church did not explicitly disavow the Pax Christi grassroots action; for some critics, the campaign recalled the Nazi-era slogan “Don’t buy from Jews.”
This year, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, and a Jerusalem-based watchdog organization, NGO Monitor, sharply criticized German groups for funding anti-Israel activity. NGO Monitor issued an exhaustive report on German government funds funneled to “organizations that contribute to the growing demonization of Israel and BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions]campaigns, in direct contradiction to German foreign policy.” (Merkel opposes boycotts of Israel for its settlement policies.) In a joint letter, think tanks affiliated with all of the major German political parties — including Merkel’s — rejected NGO Monitor’s criticisms.
High-ranking diplomats from the Israeli embassy in Berlin say that Merkel is the most pro-Israel chancellor in German history. Next year, Israel and the Germany will mark 50 years of diplomatic relations. Grand celebrations are planned. And the chancellor has long matched her strong rhetorical support for Israel with concrete military assistance for the defense of the Jewish state. In a 2008 address to Israel’s Knesset, Merkel declared that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable” for her administration. Germany has provided Israel with four advanced second-strike Dolphin submarines since Merkel began her tenure as chancellor, and a fifth will arrive in six months; these provide a significant nuclear-armed deterrent. In addition, Germany’s intelligence agency BND frequently cooperates with the Mossad.
But even as Berlin has delivered vital military assistance to Israel, civil society and others in German political life have done little to curtail the outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment.
“There is a startling indifference in the German public to the current display of anti-Semitism,” said Samuel Salzborn, a leading expert on anti-Semitism at the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony, in early August. Merkel’s rally on Sept. 14 produced a mere 5,000 people, according to police. The Jewish community, which organized the event, said 8,000 people came. Given that the Central Council of Jews chartered buses from communities across the country, the turnout was lackluster at best.
In comparison, after a firebombing of a synagogue in Düsseldorf in 2000, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for a nationwide protest against racism and anti-Semitism. Some 200,000 people marched in a procession through Berlin, and tens of thousands protested in other cities across Germany.
The apathy of today has many people wondering what’s gone wrong. In a commentary for Deutschlandfunk radio, Kirsten Serup-Bilfeldt, a journalist and author who writes about German-Christian relations, went as far as to argue that the “confrontation with Germany’s National Socialist past has failed.” In a country that takes pride in its ability to confront the Nazis’ crimes, Serup-Bilfeldt issued a death certificate to illusions that remembrance of the Holocaust will alone be enough to stop anti-Semitism. German Jewish leaders have mirrored Serup-Bilfeldt’s lament that Germany’s version of the average Joe, “Otto Normalverbraucher,” made no, or little, objection to the attacks on Jews.
The Sept. 14 rally showed that the German government, rather than taking action to organize Germans against anti-Semitism, has outsourced the fight to the Central Council and its more than 100,000 members. Jews in Germany consist merely of 0.1 percent of Germany’s more than 80 million citizens. Most Germans have never met a Jew, a fact exemplified by an exhibit in Berlin’s Jewish Museum last year titled “The Jew in the Box,” to foster more understanding among the public about Judaism and anti-Semitism. In what some critics viewed as a bizarre spectacle, a Jew would sit in an open glass box taking questions from visitors about Jewish life and Israel.
Some say that Germany’s memorial culture has soothed guilty consciences without leading to action against current existential threats to Jews, such as Iran’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” Henryk M. Broder, a leading expert on German anti-Semitism and columnist for the large daily Die Welt, said in an interview, “The remembrance of Auschwitz has deteriorated into a trite ritual, which is about saving the dead Jews. And this ritual of saving the dead Jews is used as a moral alibi. The remembrance of the Holocaust is an excuse to not have to deal with a potential second Holocaust in the Middle East.”
He has long criticized many German intellectuals and politicians for playing down or ignoring the Iranian threat and its hard-core anti-Semitism. In 2009, Iran’s current speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, made a statement about “different perspectives on the Holocaust” at the Munich Security Conference. And in 2008, Larjani’s brother denied the Holocaust and called for the elimination of Israel at a German Foreign Ministry event near the Holocaust memorial. Neither Iranian faced prosecution, though Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany.
While prior to Israel’s Operation Protective Edge there was a fine line between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel criticism, the barrier collapsed during the wave of protests. Critics argue that “Israel criticism,” as it is called in Germany, has become a national pastime. There are no similar debates about, for example, Russia criticism. Merkel is the first German chancellor to identify the use of rabidly anti-Israel rhetoric as a cover for anti-Semitism.
There were countervailing currents to outbreaks of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel during Operation Protective Edge among sections of the media and German elites. The country’s largest daily — the mass-circulation Bild — recruited prominent celebrities, dignitaries, and politicians to explain why Germans should raise their voices against anti-Semitism “in a strong sign of solidarity with Israel and our fellow Jewish citizens.” Bild highlighted the July attacks with a front-page headline: “Never Again Jew-hatred.”
There has been growing opprobrium against classical anti-Semitism, but contemporary anti-Semitism, largely defined as hostility, continues. As Léon Poliakov, the French historian of anti-Semitism wrote, Israel has become “the Jew among nations.” Anti-hate laws in Germany bar incitement against Jews, but the line between Jews and Israel is thin. Studies over the last decade of German views toward the Jewish state reveal that nearly half (at times more than 50 percent) consider Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to be the equivalent of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry.
Germany’s confrontation with its past has entered a new stage. Shrinking the gap between combating contemporary forms of anti-Semitism and societal indifference to those manifestations remains a tall order. Take the example of Hezbollah in Germany. For Jews in Germany, the group represents a sincere threat. Since 1996, Hezbollah has staged a yearly al-Quds Day march in Berlin calling for the destruction of Israel. This year’s march saw chants of “gas Israel” and calls of “Sieg Heil” — an outlawed Nazi slogan.
For Jews to feel comfortable in 21st-century Germany, rising anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments will need to be blunted. Merkel’s appearance earlier this month at the rally shows that she understands this. “Young Jewish parents are asking if it safe to raise their children here,” she said to the small crowd in attendance. The pressing question is whether Merkel will match her characteristically tough speech against anti-Semitism with policy prescriptions — and whether Germans are listening.
The article was first published in Foreign Policy.