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Deferring action on anti-Semitism

Jefferson Chase
June 21, 2017

In a debate about a major report on contemporary anti-Semitism in the country, Germany's political parties agreed to do more to combat the problem. But concrete measures will have to wait.

Symbolbild zur Doku über Antisemitismus
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

The German government is determined to intensify the fight against anti-Semitism - but not before a new parliament is elected on September 24. That was the upshot of Wednesday's Bundestag debate about a 311-page report by the Independent Expert Group on Anti-Semitism on current anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany.

One by one, politicians from all of Germany's major parties took to the podium to condemn anti-Semitism and stress how seriously they took the problem, although they did emphasize different aspects of it. But disagreements lurked below the rather ritualized speech-making.

Speakers on the left tended to stress the danger of anti-Semitism coming from right-wing populist groups, including the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party. Conservatives highlighted the anti-Israel-tinged sentiment in Muslim cultural circles, with one using the example of a Jewish youth hounded from a Berlin high school by anti-Semitic mobbing.

The report, which was published in April and was the result of more than two years of research by nine experts, details both forms of anti-Semitism and advances five core suggestions for how to deal with the problem. They include creating a government anti-Semitism ombudsperson and a database of anti-Semitic crimes and incidents as well as guaranteeing long-term funding to organizations fighting against anti-Semitism in Germany.

Here, too, there were two sides. While all the speakers articulated support for the recommendations, the opposition wanted to accept them immediately. But the governing conservative-social democratic coalition voted to send them to committee, effectively deferring any action until late this year.

Volker Beck
Green MP Beck says that the time to act is nowImage: picture alliance/dpa/J.Carstens

German cultural baggage

That didn't sit well with the opposition Green Party. It had filed a motion to have the Bundestag adopt wholesale the recommendations of the Expert Group, which was convened by parliament's own domestic affairs committee.

Green MP Volker Beck said that anti-Semitism was "part of Germany's cultural baggage" and that if the Bundestag was to take that fact seriously it would have to get to work on the recommendations "immediately."

He said that almost nothing had been done in reaction to a first such Expert Group report in 2012 and complained that it hadn't even been properly distributed within the government.

"We can't fail on this issue again," Beck said.

Germany's other opposition party, the Left, supported the Greens' position.

"No one's stopping the government from implementing the commission's recommendations," Left Party spokeswoman Petra Pau said, adding that if no action were taken if would show that Germany's values were "hollow."

But members of the conservative CDU-CSU and the center-left Social Democrats said that they were unwilling to rush action on an important issue.

"You can't just do it," said Barbara Woltmann of the CDU. "You have to discuss the hows and whens."

Members of both the governing parties promised that fighting anti-Semitism would be on their agenda during the next legislative period and that action would be forthcoming "quickly."

Symbolbild Männer mit Kippa
In surveys, German Jews say they fear anti-Semitism is spreadingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

 What is anti-Semitism?

The Greens' motion included having the German government adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's relatively wide-ranging "working definition" of anti-Semitism. The Central Council of Jews in Germany and the American Jewish Committee Berlin Office have also lobbied for the definition.

It reads: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

The lines between anti-Semitism, so defined, and criticism of Israel, are potentially blurry. Yet both Woltmann and Gabriele Fograsher of the Social Democrats said that they supported adopting the definition, arguing that it would help experts to collect and coordinate data nation-wide.

That's an important point. If the report reveals anything, it is that much more needs to be known about contemporary anti-Semitism - and that much of what people may think they know is wrong.

Demonstration gegen Antisemitismus in Berlin 14.09.2014
Hostility to Israel can shade over into anti-SemitismImage: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Nationalism, not religion the problem

There is a common perception that contemporary anti-Semitism in Germany is on the rise because of Muslims and particularly the refugees from the Middle East who arrived in Germany in large numbers starting in 2015. But those who study the phenomenon say that anti-Semitic crimes are still more likely to be committed by right-wing radicals.

"We shouldn't use the topic 'Muslim anti-Semitism' to pull the attention away from the 'good old-fashioned' German anti-Semitism, which is alive and well in Germany and coming back in the right-wing populist movements right now," said Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, the head of Berlin's Center for Anti-Semitism Research, which worked on the report.

And while there is anti-Semitism among Muslims in Germany, experts caution that Muslims are an extremely diverse group and that Islam itself doesn't seem to be a motivation of anti-Semitism.

"It's not religion that is the key to anti-Semitism, but rather Arab nationalism," Schüler-Springorum told DW. "That links up with findings about European nationalism and anti-Semitism."

Somewhat surprisingly, studies have shown that people from Germany's large Turkish minority tend to be more anti-Semitic the longer they've spent in Germany.

"It's the third generation that leans far more to anti-Semitism than the first generation." Schüler-Springorum said. "That means it's a German problem.

Stefanie Schüler-Springorum was interviewed by Michaela Küfner.