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Anti-Semitism despite remembrance culture

May 7, 2020

Germany still has a problem with anti-Semitism — despite its World War II remembrance culture. The RIAS project has collected new data, showing far-right perpetrators are behind a large number of anti-Semitic incidents.

Man draped in Israeli flag in front of police van
Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Schmidt

Looking back on the long list of anti-Semitic incidents in Germany last year, the attack on the synagogue in the eastern city of Halle that took place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, quickly comes to mind. On October 9, a right-wing terrorist tried to commit wide-scale slaughter in the synagogue before going on to kill two people in the vicinity.

While this incident was particularly shocking and stirred deep fears within the Jewish community, data gathered by the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS) shows that anti-Semitism manifested itself in many different forms in 2019. For the first time, RIAS recorded not only data for the capital Berlin but also for the states of Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Bavaria. This made comparisons between the federal states possible.

However, RIAS researcher Alexander Rasumny points out that the registration offices in Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein and Brandenburg are all relatively new and therefore not as well-known as the office in Berlin, which has been in operation for some time. "Our experience in Berlin suggests that a registration office needs a number of years achieve visibility.

So, the numbers gathered by RIAS Berlin – now in its fifth year – must been seen in a very different context to the other three offices, which also explains why they are much higher," Rasumny told DW. Moreover, in Berlin and Brandenburg data can be matched with information collected by the Criminal Police Offices in each of those states, which tended to lead to further incidents coming to light that had not been reported by the RIAS offices.

The incidents

RIAS recorded a total of 1,253 officially registered anti-Semitic incidents in the four federal states. These included physical attacks, hate mail and harmful behavior. In Brandenburg, for instance, an average of 11.5 incidents per month were recorded, while there were about two per day in Berlin.

Infographic showing anti-Semitic incidents in 2019

Following the far-right attack on the synagogue in Halle, the number of anti-Semitic incidents registered across Germany in October rose — apparently as a "defensive response to the debate about anti-Semitism," as the RIAS report for Brandenburg put it. For instance, the following incident took place on October 15 in the central Berlin district of Mitte — six days after the attack in Halle — according to the RIAS Berlin report:

"As a show of solidarity with the man who carried out the far-right terror attack in Halle, the words 'Free Stepi' were daubed on one of the concrete slabs that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe."

"Stepi" is a reference to the attacker's first name.

The perpetrators

As in previous years in Berlin, a large number of incidents carried out in 2019 can be traced back to political roots in far-right circles.

Infografik Anteil rechtsextremer Hintergrund aller Vorfälle EN

Other milieus to which anti-Semitic acts can be traced include, for instance, anti-Israeli activism, such as the BDS boycott movement that the German parliament has designated as anti-Semitic, the militant Islamist milieu, the left-wing spectrum, but also the political middle ground.

However, it was not possible to link a large part of the anti-Semitic incidents with any political background in any of the federal states. In Berlin, this included more than 45% of the incidents.

The office in Schleswig-Holstein explains why this figure is so high by pointing out that incidents are only linked with the political spectrum where there is clear evidence. This is more likely to be found on the far-right fringe because anti-Semitism is a "central ideology fragment" that is expressed openly and explicitly within the far-right scene.

This in turn seems to explain why people reporting incidents would be more likely to recognize certain motives. "Against this backdrop, it is likely that a far-right background will more often be identified than, for instance, a militant evangelical," according to the RIAS Schleswig-Holstein report. 

The motives

RIAS divides anti-Semitism into five different categories that can also be overlapping. They demonstrate the broad diversity of anti-Semitic attacks.

Infographic showing manifestations of anti-Semitism in Berlin

In incidents of "anti-Semitic othering" Jews are described as foreigners, as outsiders, as not belonging. The word "Jew" becomes a term of insult. A classic example of this was recorded by RIAS in the northern city of Kiel on April 6, 2019:

"On the sidelines of a football match, a supporter of the home team reacted to a refereeing decision by shouting "Jew, Jew, Jew." When another spectator told him that such an expression of anti-Semitism was unacceptable either in the stadium or anywhere else the man became aggressive and began berating the courageous supporter with: 'I can insult anybody I like by calling them a Jew. I'm a German!"'

Faith-based stereotypes are part of anti-Judaic anti-Semitism. When Jews are accused, on the basis of conspiracy theories, of having special political or economic power, a modern form of anti-Semitism is manifesting itself, as was the case in Potsdam on 19 May, 2019:

"A group of around five young women and men were behaving aggressively and threateningly in a night bus. One member of the group approached in a threatening manner a Shoah survivor who was in town to give public testimony of his experience and was wearing a tie clip with a Star of David motif.

The young man grabbed the tie and asked what kind of star it was. Another man in the group also asked one of the women accompanying the Shoah survivor what the star meant and if the man was a banker. 'What was his job before he went into retirement?' He named several banks and asked whether the man had worked for any of them.

When it was finally time for the victims of the incident to get off the bus, the man warned one of the women travelling with the survivor that she should, 'be careful,' because, 'you never know what that kind of person might get up to. You know what I mean?'"

Anti-Semitism also targets the state of Israel, often by questioning the legitimacy of its right to exist.

Denying the Nazi past

Finally, post-Shoah anti-Semitism relates to the Holocaust and specifically the denial of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, as was the case in Munich on 23 October, 2019:

"A Jewish Facebook user receives a private anti-Semitic message that includes the following: 'Can you not finally leave the Germans in peace? What you got up to in and AFTER World War II was enough."

This form of post-Shoah anti-Semitism was reported to be especially strong across Germany in 2019. Comparison between big-city Berlin and rural Brandenburg shows that anti-Semitism that linked with a positive view of the crimes of the Nazis and denial of remembrance culture is more prevalent in the country than in the city.

Infographic comparing urban and rural areas and anti-Semitic incidents

"In rural areas, for example, anti-Semitism linked with Israel plays less of a role. It's a phenomenon that tends to manifest itself more in urban areas," says Alexander Rasumny from RIAS. Post-Shoah anti-Semitism is also the strongest form of anti-Semitism on the internet, albeit less strong than offline.

Currently, Germany is remembering the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. A survey carried out by German weekly Die Zeit to mark the occasion showed that more than half of respondents believe that the time had come to "draw a line" under Germany's Nazi past. Julius H. Schoeps, Director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center, says the data gathered by the RIAS project clearly illustrates how important it is to combat all forms of anti-Semitism.

Germany: Living with anti-Semitism

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