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German foreign minister backs outlawing flag burning

Michaela Küfner
December 15, 2017

Sigmar Gabriel has said Germany has a special role in fighting anti-Semitism. While official statistics attribute most such crimes to right-wing extremists, a new study argues anti-Semitism is widespread among refugees.

Sigmar Gabriel at the Jewish Museum in Berlin on the second night of Hannukah
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has announced that he will advocate a new law prohibiting the burning of national flags in Germany.

At a meeting with the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism (KIgA e.v.) he declared: "I do not believe that the flags of other countries should be shown less respect than that afforded the German flag."

The statement refers to the burning of Israeli flags at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate last week by demonstrators protesting US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Protestors burn a homemade Israeli flag
Demostrators burn homemade flags of Israel in the Berlin neighborhood of NeuköllnImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Jüdisches Forum für Demokratie und gegen Antisemitismus e.V.

Read more: German laws on burning the Israeli flag: What you need to know

The foreign minister emphasized that anti-Semitism encompasses not only the issue of tolerance towards Jews but also the state of Israel's right to exist. "It is Germany's task to protect Israel. We are obliged to guarantee that Holocaust survivors have at least one place they can always go."

The meeting was attended by a number of groups, most prominently, representatives of Muslim associations and communities that are actively fighting anti-Semitism. Gabriel also emphasized the fact that anti-Semitism is not just a problem related to immigrants or Muslims, saying: "My father was an anti-Semite until the day he died."

Read more: Opinion: Burning the Israeli flag has nothing to do with freedom of speech

@dwnews - German lawmakers condemn Israeli flag burning

Anti-Semitism in Germany

Official statistics confirm that anti-Semitism is not a problem that comes to Germany from abroad. Of all the anti-Semitic crimes committed in Germany, 93 percent are committed by right-wing extremists, according to government figures seen by German newspaper Die Welt. In comparison, the number of anti-Semitic crimes committed by Muslims in general and refugees in particular are minor.

Yet such statistics contradict the experience of many Jews living in Germany. According to an April 2017 study conducted by the Independent Anti-Semitism Expert Group, 48 percent of all veiled suggestions, 62 percent of all insults and 81 percent of all physical attacks are perpetrated by Muslims.

It is therefore not surprising that images of handmade Israeli flags being burned increases the fears of many Jewish residents towards Muslims. Mark Dainow, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, says the core problem is that German politicians "have shown far too much tolerance for intolerance." He made the statement at the presentation of a new study on the attitudes of Syrian and Iraqi refugees towards integration, identity, Jews and the Shoah.

Mark Dainow
Dainow is the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Ch. Gateau

The question of how serious Germany is about fighting anti-Semitism is also increasingly measured by the stances taken by the government, its agencies and every volunteer working at refugee centers across the country. There has been much talk about anti-Semitism among Muslim refugees, but this general suspicion has not been backed by any systematic studies.

Read more: German-Israeli relations: What you need to know

A sobering picture

A non-representative study by the American Jewish Committee and its Berlin-based program, the Ramer Institute for Jewish-German Relations, attempts to do just that. Interviews that the groups conducted with 68 Syrian and Iraqi refugees paint a sobering picture.

The study's authors conclude: "Anti-Semitic mindsets and stereotypes were prevalent in the interviews. A generally negative view of Israel and a questioning of the state of Israel's right of existence were self-evident in the minds of almost all of the Arab interviewees."

The accusations cited in the study ranged from, "The Jews distorted the scripture and are generally enemies of Muslims" to the claim that they "tried to murder the prophet Muhammad." Such statements also explain the puzzling question that Aaron Schuster repeatedly hears when helping Muslim refugees at his Central Jewish Welfare Office: "Why are you helping me?"

Kurdish journalist and activist Duzen Tekkal warns that Muslim integration in Germany has failed before. Her organization HAWAR.help tirelessly fights for the rights of the persecuted Yazidi religious community and for an open and democratic society.

"Our basic problem is not the people that came here in 2015. It is young Muslims who were born and raised right here. Our problem is that we did not succeed in making them democrats." Tekkal thinks this fact was clearly on display in the images of demonstrators in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The big question is whether Germany will be more successful in the future.