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German president meets Jewish and Muslim community leaders

November 9, 2023

On November 8, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited Jewish and Muslim leaders to discuss the impact Hamas' October 7 attacks on Israel and the resulting situation in Gaza are having on German society.

German President Steinmeier and other roundtable participants
President Steinmeier invited 12 guests to a roundtable discussionImage: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

In his speech before opening the floor to his guests, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made some clear statements. Addressing the "Jewish community in Germany," he said: "I … want to assure you that this country will not rest while you have to fear for your safety and the safety of your children. We will not tolerate antisemitism in our country."

Then he addressed the "Palestinian and Arab community in our country" and told them: "Nor will we allow anti-Muslim racism or a blanket veil of suspicion against Muslims." Later, he added:  "Don't let yourselves be instrumentalized by Hamas! Speak up for yourselves! Say no to terror!"

Germany is currently experiencing heated debates about the war in the Middle East. Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel's subsequent operations in Gaza, there has been an alarming rise in antisemitic violence in Germany, according to experts.

There have been several pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the country, some of which have featured antisemitic signs and chants, and all of which have been accompanied by a significant police presence.

Riot police and one man with his mouth covered
There has been increased police presence at demonstrations showing support for PalestiniansImage: Michael Kuenne/Zumapress/picture alliance

Many Jews have said they do not dare leave the house and fear for the safety of their children.

Many Muslim associations say that there is a general suspicion of migrants and increasing ostracization.

Steinmeier invited 12 people to Bellevue Palace, the president's official residence, for a roundtable discussion on "War in the Middle East — preserving peaceful coexistence in Germany!" Half of the group was Jewish, the other half Muslim, but all represented groups working on Jewish-Muslim cooperation.

Protesters wearing the Israeli flag at a demonstration in Berlin
There have been many protests showing solidarity with Israel in GermanyImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

Deep rift in society

What they reported was depressing. They said there was a deep rift in society and that, although not new, it had worsened since October 7. They said emotions were running high.

Michael Fürst, the Chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in Lower Saxony, who has been advocating for dialogue between Jews and Palestinians for years, said that many of the members of the community had told him this project was "for show." He said that the Hamas attack on Israel had been "a watershed — the biggest murder of Jews since the Holocaust" and that many Jews had since withdrawn into their community. Though dialogue was important, he added, it was becoming more difficult. 

Dervis Hizarci, the son of Turkish immigrants and chairman of the board of the Berlin-based Kreuzberg Initiative against Antisemitism, talked of similar experiences. His project tries to raise awareness and counter prejudice and hatred.

"In recent weeks, we have received 500 appeals from teachers who want to know how to talk to their students about the conflict," he told Steinmeier.

He said that in many schools, the atmosphere was heated and that the children of Muslim migrants felt suspicion directed at them by the majority of German society. He said that schools were unable to deal with the topic of antisemitism, warning, "If we stigmatize these children and young people, if we do not manage to involve them, they will break with Germany." 

How do Germans feel about the Israel-Hamas war?

'Germany is an open, diverse country' 

Steinmeier refrained from taking part in the discussion except to pose questions. He asked Margot Friedländer, a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor, what she would say to those Jewish people who are currently asking whether it is possible to live in Germany today. He asked other participants how their projects were currently faring.

At times, he called for empathy and praised the initiatives for their work and courage. He repeatedly tried to reassure all the participants and their communities that they were part of the country, encouraging them and providing moral support.

"Today's Germany is an open, diverse country," he insisted. "We are a country with a migration background in which people with very different roots, with differing experiences and religions, live."

The guests seemed to appreciate his words, but it was clear to all that the current reality was devastating.

Earlier this week, several German associations and academics painted a bleak picture of antisemitism in Germany. At a joint press conference held by Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Antisemitism Felix Klein and the director of the House of the Wannsee Conference, Nikolas Lelle from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, presented the findings from the anti-racism NGO's latest report on antisemitism in Germany.

The social psychologist Beate Küpper warned against setting the focus on people with Muslim origins, with regard to the current situation in the Middle East. "This [calling out Muslims] is right and important," she said, "but it should not distract from the fact that antisemitism is largely found on the right of the political center." She pointed out that the Alternative for Germany party was a far-right party that was responsible for the cracks in Germany's culture of remembrance.

Appeal for a March of Silence

What can be done in the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia? Though many different suggestions were voiced at the president's roundtable discussion, there was consensus on one point in particular: The fact that there can be no progress without education. But the participants had a clear message for Germany's politicians, saying that the issues had not been taken seriously enough for years.

"If we do not take €100 billion (ca. $107 billion) now and invest immediately in education, then we will not be able to contain all of this," warned Dervis Hizarci. "These cracks in society are as existential as the climate crisis!"

"Mr Steinmeier," he said in an appeal at the end of the debate. "Let's call for a 'March of Silence.' Let us go out onto the streets and express our pain together."

The president thanked him but did not say "yes" to the idea. 

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters rally in Berlin

This article was originally published in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha