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Antisemitism is 'daily reality': Gil Ofarim

Christine Lehnen | Sarah Hucal
October 18, 2021

A recent incident involving the Jewish musician Gil Ofarim has sparked debate about antisemitism in Germany. Media have cast doubt on part of his account, but he said that does not detract from the gravity of the case.

Picture of Jewish-German singer Gil Ofarim
Jewish musician Gil Ofarim said he was subjected to antisemitic hostility in a Leipzig hotelImage: Gerald Matzka/dpa/picture alliance

In recent weeks, the issue of antisemitism in Germany has been hotly debated following an incident involving German musician Gil Ofarim.

Known among other things for participating in the popular talent show The Voice of Germany, Ofarim recently revealed how he was harassed at a hotel in the eastern German city of Leipzig in early October.

He said a hotel staff member and a guest had demanded that he remove his necklace if he wanted to stay at the hotel. His chain bore a pendant in the shape of the Star of David — a widely recognized symbol of Judaism.

In a video published on Instagram, Ofarim described the incident. In it, he is clearly wearing a Star of David necklace. The video has since been viewed millions of times and has reignited the debate about hostility toward Jews in Germany. The alleged incident sparked outrage across Germany and among Jewish groups.

The hotel has apologized to Ofarim, but the employee involved has filed a defamation lawsuit against him. The employee has a different account of the incident. The public prosecutor's office also received a complaint against the hotel employee from a third party who was not involved, for incitement of hatred. The incident is being investigated.

Now, some German media are casting doubt on whether the singer's story checks out.

Over the weekend, the Bild tabloid, along with the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper, reported that surveillance videos in the hotel showed that the musician was not wearing the Star of David necklace as he had claimed.

"Several videos have been seized from surveillance cameras," a spokesman for the Leipzig public prosecutor's office told the German Press Agency (DPA) on Sunday. "What exactly can be seen in the video is part of the ongoing investigation," the spokesman told the agency. 

People gather in front of a hotel; one man is wearing a Jewish flag.
People gathered at Hotel Westin, where the incident allegedly took place, to protest antisemitismImage: Dirk Knofe/dpa/picture alliance

Yet for the singer, who lives in Munich, whether or not he was wearing the chain at the moment of the verbal attack is irrelevant. 

"It’s actually about something much bigger," Bild quoted him as saying in an interview on Sunday. "Because I'm often seen on TV with the Star of David, I was insulted because of it." It is not a question of whether or not the necklace was seen in the hotel, Ofarim continued, "but rather about the fact that I have been antisemitically insulted."

Discrimination still a daily reality

In an interview with DW, Ofarim emphasized that the issue is not just about him. "I'm just one of many to whom this happens." And he is frustrated that it takes a celebrity to draw attention to a daily reality facing Jewish people in Germany. "Nobody talks about all the other people to whom it happens every day on German streets. That's shameful and sad for me."

Ofarim told DW that he first consciously experienced antisemitism in secondary school in Munich. A classmate had asked him if he was Jewish. "I answered. 'Yes.' He then started laughing and said, 'Dachau is not far from here.'"

The Dachau concentration camp was located about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Munich. It was one of the first to be established after Adolf Hitler seized power. Today, it is home to one of Germany's most important Holocaust memorials.

However, the incident at the four-star hotel in Leipzig, as Ofarim describes it, was significant. "What shocked me was that this time it didn't come from the far right, or the far left, but from the middle of society, in a hotel that welcomes people from all over the world every day."

'No antisemitism-free space in Germany'

Researchers confirm that antisemitism is as much a phenomenon at the center as it is at the extreme fringes of society. Laura Cazes of the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany summarized the results of the latest research in a telephone conversation with DW: "Jewish people in Germany can experience discrimination everywhere. There is no space that is free of it."

Jews, she said, face antisemitism both directly and indirectly through narrative patterns hostile toward them.

One such narrative pattern that remains widespread is the claim that Jewish people are pulling the strings in the background of society. There is still an assumption by many that there is some kind of Jewish conspiracy — a notion that stems directly from Nazism. That is why, according to Cazes, it's important to recognize and state that "there is not and never has been an antisemitism-free space in Germany."

Tip of the iceberg

Cazes described this anti-Jewish discrimination as "background noise" or "frequencies" that Jews hear closely and that increase in times of crisis. When told that they have been using antisemitic narratives, many people do not understand in what way they had been doing so, Cazes explained. "This makes it even more difficult to address the issue."

Laura Cazes
Ofarim's case is only the 'tip of the iceberg,' said Cazes Image: Robert Poticha

A case like that of Gil Ofarim is only the "tip of the iceberg," she said. If the situation is to improve, she added, the media must reflect this instead of just picking up on allegedly isolated incidents. Antisemitism is not a "patchwork of individual cases," but a socially internalized explanatory pattern.

Antisemitism has increased in Germany

Jewish-German artist Ilana Lewitan is convinced that not only civil courage and the media can contribute toward improving the situation but art as well.

She and her daughters also regularly experience discrimination in their everyday lives, she told DW in a telephone conversation. Lewitan recalled how a classmate back in elementary school ended their friendship one day. The reason: Her grandmother did not want her to be friends with a Jew. Later, while attending university, Lewitan was told during a group project that "Jews are known to walk over dead bodies for their success, aren't they?"

Lewitan has also experienced more subtle forms of discrimination, even in her professional life. "Sometimes I'm told, 'You are lucky that things are going great because of your Jewish connections.' Along the lines of, I'm benefiting because we're all well-connected and wealthy."

When she points that out to people, they aren't even aware that they are using antisemitic narratives. She feels that antisemitism has increased in Germany.

'Something has to change'

However, Lewitan has also experienced a lot of solidarity and openness, for example, for her current exhibition titled "Adam, where are you?" After seven months in Munich, she has now brought her exhibition to Berlin. In it, she deals with many facets of her identity, including her Jewish identity. "Other senses can be addressed through art," said Lewitan. This creates a meeting space in which people can talk, ask questions and find answers together. 

Young Jewish filmmakers confront life in Germany

During her exhibition in Munich, she witnessed how young people began to cry while listening to an interview with Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer, who has since died. Lewitan hopes to change something in society through her art.

This article has been translated from German.