Why Isn’t Germany Dealing with Its Anti-Semitism Problem?

The recent surge of anti-Semitic violence in Germany has been intense, but it shouldn’t really come as a shocker, despite politicians’ claim to the contrary.

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Aug 18 2014, 2:31pm

German Chancellor Angela Merkel needs to deal with this soon. Photo via Flickr user World Economic Forum

Here we go again.

Seventy-six years after the state-sanctioned terror of Kristallnacht, when synagogues and Jewish businesses were ransacked across the country, Jews in Germany fear for their safety. In recent weeks, three attackers hurled Molotov cocktails at the door of a synagogue in Wuppertal before fleeing, and in Frankfurt, protesters carried a sign reading “You Jews Are Beasts” and used police loudspeakers to chant, “Child-murderer Israel!” In Berlin, protesters at an anti-Israel rally chanted, "Jew, Jew, coward pig, come on out and fight alone!" The police standing by did nothing. Berlin imam Abu Bilal Ismail appealed to Allah to destroy the “Zionist Jews, these criminals, these slayers of prophets… Don’t spare a single one of them.” 

Germany isn’t the only country experiencing a surge of anti-Semitic activity in the wake of the violent conflict in Gaza. Synagogues in France have been attacked and grocery stores plundered. But for a country in which anti-Semitic statements have rightly been taboo for many years and “never again” is deeply woven into the fabric of the national consciousness (with a generous assist from American occupiers after World War II), this seems like an even bigger disaster—and not just in terms of global PR.

So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that German politicians are falling all over themselves to express their “shock” and “outrage” at the current outbursts. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote in a piece for the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper: "Unfortunately we have been familiar with the phenomenon of latent anti-Semitic sentiment, which manifests itself in excessive criticism of Israel, for a long time. Yet what we are experiencing now is still shocking: People have shouted slogans expressing a hatred towards Jews that beggars belief. It makes anyone’s blood run cold."

Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the incidents "an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state." Likewise, President Joachim Gauck said in a July speech, "I want to call on all Germans and all the people living here to raise their voices when there is a new anti-Semitism in the streets. We won’t accept this.“

In a rare act of actual solidarity with a marginalized minority, even the almighty BILD—the most widely read tabloid in Germany—has published a front-page story declaring, "Never Again Jew Hatred." If this shows anything, it’s how deeply the legacy of the Holocaust is programmed into the source code of German society. When BILD is actually taking a position, you can be quite sure that it’s a populist view.

This is all well and good and shows that contrary to the image projected in most Warner Brothers movies, Germans today are not just screaming Nazis. But when politicians of the ruling coalition are expressing their bewilderment, it’s mostly an act of naked hypocrisy. That anti-Semitism is a strong sentiment in German society is no secret, and various experts have been pointing to it for years.

In a recent EU-wide survey, the Fundamental Rights Agency conducted among 5,900 European Jews, 67 percent of those living in Germany said they perceived anti-Semitism as a “very” or “fairly big” problem. More than a third said they have witnessed a rise in anti-Semitism and that they've experienced anti-Semitic harassment within the past five years. That puts Germany at a sorry third place, right behind Hungary and Belgium.

An expert report conducted in 2012 on behalf of the German Bundestag—parliament—came to the conclusion that about a fifth of all Germans share latently anti-Semitic views, with anti-Semitism defined as an “umbrella term for all attitudes and behaviors that ascribe negative characteristics to people, groups, or institutions perceived as Jewish based on their being Jewish.” And while right-wing extremists are a reliable hotbed of anti-Jewish hatred—with more than 90 percent of all anti-Semitic hate crimes committed by perpetrators from way out there on the ideological spectrum—it’s the anti-Semitic views in  the “middle of society” that the experts are more interested in and alarmed about. You know, the daily, casual anti-Semitism going on in school yards, in the soccer stands, in church, or at the dinner table. This is what we should be really worried about. After all, it’s kind of expected for neo-Nazis to claim that Jews have too much influence or are to blame for their own persecution. But if well-adjusted university professors can casually voice the same opinions over mashed potatoes, that’s a whole new stage of normalization to be unsettled about.

A protester holds a sign reading "You Jews Are Beasts" at a July demonstration in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo via Honestly Concerned e.V. 

The problem is that’s exactly what’s been happening. As a recently completed study by the Technical University of Berlin’s Center for anti-Semitism research (ZfA) showed, most of those writing blatantly anti-Semitic hate mail to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews are educated, middle-class Germans. They’re professors, lawyers, priests, and university students. Most of these people weren’t afraid to give their full names and addresses—something that ZfA researchers say wouldn’t have happened 20 or 30 years ago. They felt like voicing these opinions was no big thing.

The authors of the Bundestag report pointed all this out when they handed over their findings in January 2012, and also gave very specific recommendations for to how to handle the problem. A series of coordinated prevention efforts in schools, sports clubs, and other youth organizations would be necessary, they said, if this wasn’t going to come back to bite Germany in its historically burdened ass. Programs that are now limited to a three-year funding period would have to be made more sustainable. And a series of new studies would be necessary, for instance on the impact of social media and the question of how anti-Semitic stereotypes within the Turkish and Muslim communities are working into all of this. Merely talking about the events of World War II in school—as is now a big part of the curriculum—is not going to be enough. The Bundestag politely accepted the report, a few politicians delivered a couple of empty phrases on the necessity of “immediate action," and then nothing much seems to have happened.

When the report was finally debated, the Green Party representative Volker Beck said: “I kind of wished the government would have given us an answer as to which of these suggestions they are going to implement and when. I wouldn't have wished that they’d just say: We will check all this. And then we’ll see what’s doable.”

In 2013 the Bundestag passed another resolution—loftily called "Fighting Anti-Semitism resolutely, continuing to foster Jewish life in Germany”—in which they called for a new expert commission to provide more advice. Which is kind of funny considering the answers have been sitting right in front of them. But “fighting Anti-Semitism resolutely” sure sounds good, and passing a resolution doesn’t cost anything.

Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council if Jews, wasn’t fooled though. “Whoever Is looking to sustainably fight anti-Semitism in Germany, will have to want to sustainably spend money on that," he said. Passing more resolutions while the funding runs out for an array of projects pushing back against anti-Semitism doesn't quite cut it.

If members of the German government are voicing their dismay now, it’s what the world expects and most Germans probably want to hear. But it’s still mostly bullshit. The anti-Semitism we're seeing flare up in Germany in the wake of the Gaza bloodshed might be freshly disturbing, but it’s been there all along. And the powers that be have had a list of recommendations detailing what to do about it for a long time now.

Follow Chris Köver on Twitter.

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