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German teacher fights schoolyard anti-Semitism

November 20, 2018

It is not just racist but also anti-Semitic slurs which are on the rise in German schools. As DW's Oliver Pieper reports, this poses a great challenge for the country's education system.

Students in a Jewish school in Germany
Image: Imago/UIG/D. Godong

If there had to be an anti-Semitism commissioner specifically for schools in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Florian Beer would be a top candidate. The 40-year-old trade unionist is not only a teacher at a night school in the country's industrial Ruhr valley; he also travels regularly through the region and gives lectures on the subject of anti-Semitism in schools. It has become somewhat of a passion project for Beer — one that is leaving him pretty busy at the moment.

"If you ask the school kids why they say 'Du Jude' (you Jew) to their classmates, often they will reply by saying that it is simply a rude word that means 'traitor,'" Beer says. "This is, of course, anti-Semitic, but often they didn't mean it this way."

Read more: Anti-Semitic crime in Germany: 1 in 5 offenses in Berlin

Anti-Semitism in Germany is on the rise again, especially on the internet. Over the past 10 years, the number of anti-Semitic online comments has almost tripled. Internet users are not safe from anti-Semitic content, according to a study carried out by the Technical University of Berlin.

Meanwhile, anti-Semitism is even becoming more acceptable in mainstream society and even among the educated. The increasing intolerance spills over into schools, but there are people like Beer who work tirelessly to fight it: "Many young Jewish people no longer dare to put on the yarmulke, or generally do not wear it. When they leave the school grounds, they put a baseball cap or hood on their head because they're frightened."

State level anti-Semitism commissioners

North Rhine-Westphalia has just created the position of state anti-Semitism commissioner. Taking office is the prominent politician and former German justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.

The number of anti-Semitic crimes in Germany's largest state rose by 9 percent to 324 in 2017. It is a figure that is far too high, according to the state education office, which demanded the immediate reporting of offenses, especially in instances of hate speech.

Sabine Leuteheusser-Schnarenberger
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is now serving as North Rhine-Westphalia's state anti-Semitism commissionerImage: Reuters/H. Hannschke

Beer finds this topic particularly tricky: "On the one hand, this is, of course, completely correct. But I still find it problematic because the moment I report a student, the pedagogical relationship ceases."

Beer, who is married to a Jewish woman, prefers preventative measures. The teacher takes his classes, in which more than one in two has an immigrant background, to the concentration camps of Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz. The excursions elicit a strong reaction from the students: "Most of them are simply silent. But some of them can't bear to visit a concentration camp at all."

Read more: Why Berlin feels safer than the US for an American Jew

Beer does not make the trips to the sites mandatory, explaining that the students should not be traumatized by being made to go to the camps: "Trained pedagogues and good preparation are essential. And under no circumstances should they be forced to visit."

Important self-reflection

In Germany, learning about the Holocaust is a compulsory subject from the ninth grade onwards and features from then on in history, German and religion curricula. But is it enough? Beer doesn't think so: "In thematizing the Holocaust, the conclusion is always the same: That it should never happen again."

Jewish life in Germany and Europe, on the other hand, is barely considered in the current model of learning, but it is precisely these encounters that help to combat anti-Semitism, Beer says. When he took a class to Auschwitz, he also took the pupils to Krakow to visit the Jewish community there: "We didn't just want to visit the concentration camps, but also to see what local Jewish life looks like. We also talked to a youth organization."

Florian Beer
Beer: We must massively invest in educationImage: DW/O. Pieper

Beer says that many of his students were raised in predominantly Muslim countries, where anti-Semitism can be more culturally prevalent. Now, Beer sees students question those attitudes, but for some, the self-reflection goes even further: "I've also had Syrians in class who told me that they had always known that all this was just propaganda. And they were incredibly grateful to get acquainted with a different perspective."

Read more: German Jews call for anti-Semitism classes for Muslim immigrants

There have even been positive reactions that have left Beer speechless: "Some students [with an immigrant background] who have just received a German passport told me: 'I am now German and the responsibility for the Holocaust is now also now my history.'"

Anti-Semitism education in teacher training

The fight against discrimination requires a change of perspective, more differentiation and an end to black-and-white thinking — at least this is how Beer tries to jolt his students into seeing things differently.

His approach also includes visiting synagogues: "Some always refuse to put on a yarmulke." But he adds that often they would discuss the topic, and, if necessary, negotiate a compromise: "They then would put a cloth over their heads. To me, it would be better if they would wear the yarmulke, but it's alright."

Essen's Old Synagogue
Essen's Old Synagogue, with its 37-meter-high dome, is the largest synagogue in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/B. Boensch

For Beer, it is significant that at least the students have entered a Jewish place of worship for the first time.

Read more: Kristallnacht anniversary: Chemnitz riots show how pogroms start

For the last six months, teachers interested in not just Jewish history, Nazism, and contemporary Jewish life, but also in ideas for extracurricular projects, have been able to download teaching material. The Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Conference of the Ministers of Education and the Arts have been responsible for the material. For Beer, this is just the start.

Beer believes more lessons at all high schools to fight racism and anti-Semitism should be mandatory, and further education for teachers is needed. "It should not be possible for a prospective teacher to finish their training without at least having discussed anti-Semitism," he says. "It must continue to be compulsory alongside science and math as long as 'you Jew' is still uttered in the schoolyard."

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.