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Germany presents new strategy to combat antisemitism

December 1, 2022

The German government has adopted an action plan against antisemitism that is being described as a milestone. But much depends on its implementation, with antisemitic hate speech on the rise.

A police car next to a synagogue in Germany
Synagogues are at the center of Jewish life in Germany, but are also targets for antisemitismImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture-alliance

It's a gloomy late autumn morning in Berlin. Local news reports on the radio talk about police raids in various parts of the city. Three or four hours later, a fuller picture emerges: In 14 of Germany's 16 states, authorities were investigating hate-speech posts on the internet and ringing the doorbells of their suspected authors. 

Among them was a 59-year-old man from Berlin, said to be the author of a text filled with antisemitic statements on the Russian social media site VK, in which he called Jews "Satanists."

Police in Berlin announced that his laptop had been confiscated as evidence, before adding that the man legally owned a weapon. This was one of 91 police raids in Germany on Wednesday, and far from the only one involving antisemitic hatred.

Katharina von Schnurbein and Felix Klein holding copies of the report
Katharina von Schnurbein (left) and Felix Klein, charged with combating antisemitism in the EU and Germany respectively, presented the action plan in BerlinImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

A 'milestone' in combating antisemitism

On the same day, the German Cabinet adopted its National Strategy against Antisemitism and for Jewish Life to take more decisive action against the hatred of Jews, the first report of its kind. "We have reached a milestone today," Felix Klein, the government's antisemitism commissioner, told the press. 

For years, police statistics have recorded rising numbers of antisemitic crimes, court cases and hate speech in Germany. In 2021, police recorded 3,027 antisemitic crimes nationwide, nearly 700 more than the year before. And recent weeks have seen several attacks on Jewish institutions, including shots fired at a rabbi's house at a synagogue in Essen.  

Klein, who has been the commissioner responsible for the promotion of  Jewish life in Germany and the fight against antisemitism since 2018, has been preparing the strategy paper with his team for two years. Particularly important to him were the format of the report — "lean and compact" — the prospects it offered for action for the whole of society and the initiatives intended to make Jewish life visible in everyday life.

Klein explicitly mentioned the rise of Israel-related antisemitism, which he said is becoming more evident in intellectual and academic milieus.

The murky myths behind antisemitism

Antisemitism fight the responsibility of society as a whole

The report points to the importance of education and what Germans call "memory culture," and a strong awareness of history. The fight against antisemitism, it says, is the responsibility of society as a whole, not just the state. For this reason, the strategy is also directed at sports clubs, for example, where coaches should be sensitized.  

The 48-page action plan is also the German government's attempt to implement a European Commission directive, which requires EU member states to present national strategies by the end of 2022.  

Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU representative against antisemitism and for the promotion of Jewish life, said at the presentation that Germany was now the seventh EU country to submit such a concept. Twelve others planned to adopt it by the end of the year or in the first half of 2023. 

Like Klein, von Schnurbein also called the plan a "milestone." There must be no ground lost to antisemitism, she said, and in view of its history, Germany has a key role to play. The strategy paper has the potential to have a broad impact.

"And we need it," she said. "After all, the free development of Jewish life is the yardstick for democracy." 

Learning more about Jewish life 

Explaining the paper, both attempted to emphasize the concrete measures suggested by the report. Von Schnurbein particularly liked the proposal to expand the "theme year" on Jewish life, which ran in Germany until the summer of 2022, to the whole of the EU.

She underlined the importance of working with local municipalities, and said she recently sat down in Brussels with 200 municipal representatives from various European countries.  

For Klein, the theme year brought the realization "that people are interested in learning more about Jewish life." Jewish communities were also willing to open up and answer questions, he said. He does not know whether this would have been possible in Germany 20 years ago. The more visible Jewish life is, the less it is in danger of being attacked, he said. 

Both also repeatedly referred to the growth of online antisemitism. "The internet is the number one gateway for antisemitism into our living rooms," said von Schnurbein.  

That brought to mind the morning's police raids, most of which pertained to antisemitic statements made online. But it also recalled a complaint that the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, had raised in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung a day earlier.

In his opinion, court verdicts for antisemitic crimes are "too often mitigated with reference to a difficult childhood or problematic overall circumstances in the punishment," he said. This, he added, downplayed the crimes. 

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C