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Germany Is Fighting Over How to Respond to Soaring Anti-Semitism

The country's biggest newspaper urged readers on Monday to wear a kippah in support of the Jewish community

by David Gilbert
May 28 2019, 3:27pm

A debate about how the Jewish community should respond to a sharp rise in anti-Semitic crime in Germany is raging after a government minister warned that Jews are not safe wearing their kippah caps in public.

Over the weekend, the government's anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, said that wearing the kippah could put people in danger. “I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany,” Klein told the Funke media group on Saturday, blaming “the lifting of inhibitions and the uncouthness which is on the rise in society.”

Klein’s comments came after the government published a report in May that showed a 20 percent rise in anti-Semitic crime in Germany in 2018, including nearly twice as many violent attacks. The government report blamed far-right groups for the vast majority of the attacks.

Despite the country’s claims that it has been dealing head-on with anti-Semitism after the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Germany, with a population of 200,000, is increasingly concerned about threats to its safety.

While the government has pointed the finger squarely at the far right, others have said the threat from Islamists and the far left is being underestimated.

What has the reaction been?

Klein’s comments have sparked a backlash in Germany and beyond.

On Monday, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, Bild, published a front page featuring a cut-out kippah encouraging all readers to wear it as a show of support for the Jewish community.

“Wear it, so that your friends and neighbors can see it. Explain to your children what the kippah is,” Julian Reichelt, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said. “Post a photograph with the kippah on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Go out onto the streets with it.”

Meanwhile, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said he was “shocked” by the comments, which he described as a “capitulation” to anti-Semitism.

“Fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil,” Rivlin said Sunday.

The U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, also criticized Klein’s advice. “The opposite is true. Wear your kippa. Wear your friend’s kippa. Borrow a kippa and wear it for our Jewish neighbors. Educate people that we are a diverse society,” Grenell said on Twitter.

But Josef Schuster, the head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, which issued a similar warning last year, welcomed Klein’s comment, telling Die Zeit the threats are "a long-standing fact in some German cities.”

“It is, therefore, something to be welcomed if this situation receives more attention at the highest political level,” Schuster said.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise

Overall, reported anti-Semitic crimes in Germany increased by nearly 20 percent last year to 1,799, according to a report issued by the German government this month. Violent anti-Semitic crimes rose from 37 in 2017 to 62 in 2018.

Other types of anti-Semitic crimes mentioned in the report include the use of the swastika and other illegal symbols, online incitement and insults, arson, assault, and even murder.

The rise in anti-Semitism in Germany mirrors similar patterns around the world.

France experienced a 74 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts in 2018, while the Anti-Defamation League in the U.S. reported that assaults on Jews more than doubled in 2018.

But is the rise caused by the far right?

The German government report this month said that up to 89 percent of anti-Semitic crime was attributable to the far-right.

Like elsewhere in Europe, Germany has seen growing support for far-right ideology in recent years. Along with the emergence of political entities like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) there has also been a growing threat from underground far-right groups like the Reichsbuerger movement.

But not everyone believes this is the sole cause of the rise in anti-Semitic crimes.

Earlier this month, Marcel Luthe, a member of Berlin’s state parliament for the liberal FDP Party, questioned the government’s findings, saying that in as many as 60 percent of the cases reported in Berlin, the offenses had been incorrectly blamed on the far-right, diminishing the role played by Muslim extremists and militant anti-Zionists.

This assessment is backed up by a European Union survey conducted in 2018 that found 41 percent of German Jews who had experienced antisemitic harassment over the past five years perceived the perpetrators of the most serious incidents to be “someone with a Muslim extremist view.”

Cover Image: A woman wearing a kippah at a rally of an alliance against anti-Semitism on May 27, 2019 in Lower Saxony, Hanover. (Photo by Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images)