The Central Council of Jews is concerned that refugees are bringing anti-Semitism with them to Germany. But a Jewish man who volunteers to help refugees in Berlin says such worries are unfounded.
First, there were the images on TV of desperate, scared people climbing out of tiny boats and marching slowly along motorways and through woods. Then, not long after, the refugee crisis arrived on Shaked Spier's doorstep in Berlin: overcrowded gyms, people waiting for weeks to be registered, overwhelmed officials.
"I knew immediately: If refugees are now in the country that my grandparents had to flee, and if they need help and protection, then I have to do my part," Spier said. For him, there was absolutely no doubt. Since then, Spier, a Jew whose grandparents once fled the Nazis, has been volunteering at a refugee shelter in Friedrichshain, a hip district of Berlin filled with bars and cafes. Spier, 30, is a well-spoken man who works as a project manager at an IT company, and gives long, reflective answers when asked questions. At the refugee shelter, he helps to serve meals, plays with the kids and talks to the parents about the trauma they've experienced.
He is one of many Jews who've been helping refugees by donating clothes, working in shelters, or taking refugees into their homes. Spier says he hasn't had any negative experiences. He says his identity, background and sexual orientation - Spier is openly gay - have never played a big role in his encounters with refugees. If someone notices the Hebrew tattoo on his arm or his accent, the reaction is typically one of, "Oh, you're from Israel? Cool, I'm from Afghanistan." He laughs.
No research to support the claims
But then he grows serious. It makes him angry, he says, when other people accuse refugees of being anti-Semites or harboring hate towards Israel simply because they come from countries whose governments espouse such sentiments. The head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, has frequently spoken about the danger of importing anti-Semitism along with refugees. In a recent newspaper interview, he said that "a considerable proportion of Arabs have grown up with anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli stereotypes. These people cannot simply leave their prejudice behind at the border."
Dervis Hizarci, a history and political science teacher in Berlin, also finds such generalizations problematic. There is no research on the extent to which refugees may be bringing anti-Semitism with them to Germany, he said. Hizarci is the head of KIGA, an initiative against anti-Semitism based in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. The initiative has launched a project about anti-Semitism among refugees; he expects to have the initial results by the end of the year. Until then, Hizarci says people shouldn't make generalizations about the issue, as that would only stir up anti-Islam and anti-foreigner sentiment. However, he points to research showing that between 15 and 20 percent of the German population harbor latently anti-Semitic views. "Of course there are Muslims among these people, even in the second and third generation, but they're by far not all Muslims!"
Hizarci doesn't deny that young German Muslims are susceptible to anti-Semitic views, fueled by the horrors of the Middle East conflict they see on their smartphones and televisions. Hizarci and his colleagues give workshops and lead debates about anti-Semitism, but also about hatred of Islam. He says his work requires a lot of time and resources. "Just like when it comes to fighting homophobia or right-wing extremism, you can't change such views with a single workshop; it doesn't happen overnight." After the Easter holidays, the initiative wants to start a model project that, among other things, will offer welcome workshops on the topic.
Mosques are overwhelmed
But often, it's individual people engaged in such efforts to promote tolerance: German mosques are often overwhelmed with the problem, in part because they are led by volunteers who also have to commit their time and energy to other problems facing members of their community, such as exclusion, anti-Islam sentiment and joblessness. There are barely any resources left for confronting the problem of anti-Semitism, said an insider who asked to remain anonymous due to the contentious nature of the topic. The source added that many young Muslims are not an integrative part of the mosque community: "When that's the case, there's no way to reach them."
Spier also knows that anti-Semitism is a problem. He has friends who've been refused service in a kebab shop in Berlin, confronted with anti-Semitic slurs, or attacked verbally and physically for wearing a yarmulke. He says it's not his intention to deny that such things happen. "But for me, the experiences that I have had are decisive, and my experiences have always been positive." He says he is much more worried about right-wing extremism in Germany - burning refugee homes, the hatred spread by PEGIDA followers, the NPD and the NSU. "That worries me much more than the views held by people who come to us in need of protection."
A few months ago, he sent both of his grandmothers a photo of a picture drawn by a Syrian child. The picture showed two planes dropping bombs on houses. Bleeding stick figures lay on the ground. The reaction from both women, who also know what it means to flee war and persecution, was positive. "They told me that they're really proud of what I'm doing!"