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Germany: Jewish and Muslim communities search for solidarity

April 18, 2024

Six months of Israeli retaliation in Gaza for the October 7 Hamas terror attacks have put Jewish-Muslim relations in particular peril. Germany's hypersensitivity to antisemitism adds an extra layer of difficulty.

Israeli flags being waved at pro-Israeli demonstration in Berlin in November 2023
Solidarity with Israel and the fight against antisemitism have a special significance for GermanyImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Violence in the Middle East brings with it a tragic predictability. For communities the world over that identify with Israel or the Palestinians, the trauma cuts deep. 

The current iteration of ire is that much more intense given the unprecedented death and destruction that triggered it. Hamas' terror attacks on Israel on October 7, which killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, was the worst of its kind in the country's 75-year history.

Israel's retaliatory campaign is estimated to have killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza. While that could include many fighters for Hamas, which the EU, US, Germany and others consider a terrorist organization, more certain is that many of them are children. 

Abdassamad El Yazidi, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, told DW that both Jews and Muslims take the conflict very emotionally. "But it is possible to build trust, argue objectively about the issue, and still treat each other respectfully," he said.

That is the challenge wherever Jews and Muslims live together in the world. For Germany, it poses a particularly vexing balancing act. The country is home to a Muslim population of about 5.5 million — more than half are German nationals, according to the German Islam Conference — and the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe. Its Jewish community is considerably smaller, perhaps less than 200,000 people, yet German history gives them outsized attention. 

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators with flags in Berlin in front of the Cathedral in November 2023
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest for a ceasefire in GazaImage: Jörg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

As a means of repentance for the Holocaust in which Nazi Germany killed 6 million European Jews, politicians now lump Israel's security and protection of Jewish life together into the country's "reason of state." That means that in the effort to combat hatred and violence against all groups in society, Jews are first among equals. The German government recently approved an additional payment of €25 million ($27 million) to Holocaust survivors living in Israel to help them cope with the effects of the Hamas attacks. 

"As a society and citizens, we are responsible for the antisemitic annihilation of millions of people," El Yazidi, who is involved in a number of Muslim-Jewish outreach efforts in Germany and around Europe, said. "We must do everything to ensure that this does not happen again. But the answer cannot be to stigmatize another religious group by pushing them aside, by denying them their belonging." 

Political 'dishonesty' 

Following the Hamas attacks, both government and opposition parties in Germany submitted proposals doubling down on the fight against antisemitism with a special focus on "imported antisemitism" — a clear shot at minority groups to which many foreign-born people belong. 

In a widely praised video statement in November, Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck called on Muslim groups in Germany to "distance themselves from antisemitism so as not to undermine their own right to tolerance." 

German Vice-Chancellor speaks out on antisemitic incidents

This sort of politics is "dishonest," El Yazidi said. He called it "brazen" for the country responsible for the Holocaust to speak of "imported" antisemitism. 

His organization's Jewish counterpart, the Central Council for Jews in Germany, did not respond to a DW request to comment. Fostering dialogue with other communities is part of the council's mandate to promote Jewish life in Germany. Its "Schalom Aleikum" initiative ("peace be upon you," the Hebrew equivalent of the Arabic greeting), launched in 2022, aims to act like a research-based think tank on "Christian, Jewish and Muslim realities of life in Germany and make it available to the public." 

At the end of last year, the initiative published "recommendations for guardrails for Jewish-Muslim dialogue" that it saw "called into massive question" due to the October 7 attacks. 

Among the key points was the recognition that violence between Israel and Palestinians "cannot be the elephant in the room." It must be openly discussed to avoid people feeling discredited or denounced. 

"I am pleased that 'Schalom Aleikum' is keeping a cool head in this time of crisis and war," said Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews. 

Report: Rise in antisemitic incidents in Germany

A downward spiral of general suspicion 

A full accounting of the state of relations between Jews and Muslims is difficult to assess. Despite what their names suggest, both central councils are just two of many Muslim and Jewish organizations in Germany. They hardly speak for all Muslims and Jews, many of whom remain unaffiliated with any group. 

Jews and Muslims are united by a common threat they face. Government and non-profit reporting consistently show that far-right extremists pose the biggest risk to both — and society overall. In its 2022 report, the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) documented just 1% of antisemitic incidents having an Islamist connection, according to a statement provided to DW.  

That number climbed to 6% in the month after the October 7 attacks, a period that also saw a rise in anti-Muslim incidents. For the majority of antisemitism cases, researchers and investigators have been unable to assign any ideological motive or background. 

"These figures do not yet provide any information about the extent for 2023 as a whole," said RIAS spokesperson Marco Siegmund. 

RIAS also follows the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as does the German government and others, which counts many forms of Israel criticism as antisemitic. 

"Every form of antisemitism is dangerous, regardless of the ideology it stems from," Felix Klein, Germany's Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, told DW in a statement. "It is an expression of a deeply anti-democratic attitude and rejects the achievements of our modern, liberal society."

The closest equivalent to Klein's role for Muslims is the "antiracism commissioner," which the government established in early 2022. This is nestled under the office for migration, refugees and integration. Many of Germany's Muslims are born in Germany and hold German citizenship. 

What's behind Germany's special relationship with Israel?

Safeguarding everyone 

The different kinds of state attention to its minority groups has implications not only for Jewish-Muslim relations but social cohesion more broadly. 

"I always tried to expand the field into the research of prejudice overall," Wolfgang Benz, the retired head of the Antisemitism Research Center at Berlin's Technical University, told DW. "With the political intention of getting the majority to recognize that you can't pit one minority against another." 

He said that is precisely what has happened with "these two minorities quite hostile towards each other." 

Often, Benz's research suggests, anti-Jewish sentiment is a symptom of larger expressions of violence and discrimination. Focusing primarily on the antisemitic aspect might meet a political standard in Germany but could miss a larger point. 

"We have only learned the lesson of the Holocaust when we are not only friendly to Jews, but when we have recognized that no minority, no matter which one, should be discriminated against and persecuted," Benz said. "That is precisely what is lacking in German consciousness." 

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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