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Jewish perspectives on antisemitism in Germany

March 6, 2023

Antisemitism remains a reality in Germany. A new report used data from 2017-2020 to ask: How do Jewish people perceive antisemitism? And do their views contrast with those of the non-Jewish population?

candles in front of a plaque reading 'Synagoge'
In 2019, a synagogue in Halle in 2019 was attackedImage: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/picture alliance

Participants in a new study describe being turned down for apartments because the landlords did not want to rent to Jews; being embroiled in conversations defending Israel and even hearing from the dentist that Jews "use the Holocaust for political purposes." 

Incidents such as these have been documented in a new report on Jewish perspectives on antisemitism in Germany gathered from 2017 to 2020 and published by the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS).  The information was collected during more than 150 interviews with Jewish people. About 150,000 Jewish people live in Germany today.

"What comes through is the everydayness of it, that is, that Jewish people are really confronted with antisemitism in everyday situations, even in very mundane situations that cannot be avoided," one of the study's authors, Daniel Poensgen, said, adding: "Whenever the majority population talks about it, I feel as if they often view antisemitism as a problem on the political fringes, or something which happens in the political sphere, for example at protests, which people are able to avoid. But the accounts we received tell an entirely different story."

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Different perceptions of antisemitism

"Divergence of perspectives," was how the RIAS survey describes the gap between the non-Jewish majority and the Jewish minority affected by antisemitism. The perception of what antisemitism is and how it is expressed can vary greatly, the survey concluded. One example is the way the media spoke of the terrorist attack on a synagogue in Halle in 2019 as a "wake-up call." To those affected, however, it was the realization of something they had been anticipating for years.

Another example is when "antisemitism is only ever the antisemitism of others," as Poensgen put it, referring to when antisemitism is only called out when it is politically useful, say, to discredit an opponent. Meanwhile, one of the survey's interviewees summed up the Jewish experience by asking: "Where does it not come from?" There are different worldviews that produce antisemitism, and Jewish people are confronted with all of them at the same time. Taken together, they "create a major threat scenario," Poensgen said.

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There is an increasing focus on the perspectives of people affected by antisemitism, racism, and sexism. Victims are also speaking out more. This appears to be changing societal perceptions: A survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute (IFD Allensbach) on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Berlin last year showed that 60% of respondents perceived antisemitism as a widespread problem. The Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism Felix Klein was pleased with the increased awareness of the problem and noted that when he took office in 2018, only 20% of respondents said they saw antisemitism as a widespread problem.

Daniel Poensgen suspects a lot may have changed since the survey ended in 2020. But he added: "There are still also many approaches in which the perspectives of those affected play no role, that is something that's lacking."

Poensgen cited the documenta fifteen festival in Kassel as an example, when one of the world's most important art exhibitions displayed offensive antisemitic caricatures embedded in a work of art  before eventually removing them. "The Jewish community in Kassel barely played a role in the public debate," Poensgen said. Although individual Jewish voices had their say, the systematic inclusion of Jewish perspectives was lacking.

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The 150 interviews in the survey make clear: The reality for Jews is starkly different from that of those who are not confronted with antisemitism. "Every day, those affected by antisemitism must weigh up their commitment to their Jewish identity on the one hand, and a way of living that minimizes the risk of antisemitic incidents on the other," the RIAS report stated. That pertains to the security of synagogues and Jewish kindergartens, for example, as well as to the question of how openly Jewish symbols are worn.

"Overall, I hope that a stronger consideration of the perspectives of those affected helps bring the everyday nature of antisemitism more into public consciousness," Poensgen concluded. "I also hope antisemitic actions are taken more seriously, even if they do not cross the threshold of criminal liability."

This article was originally written in German.

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