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The Star of David and Germany

December 15, 2017

The Israeli flag was recently burned at a protest in Berlin — and with it the Star of David. That it happened in Germany is particularly scandalous, because it awakens memories of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

The Star of David at a synagogue in Germany
Image: Imago/BildFunkMV

Israeli flags were burned at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin earlier this week during protests against the decision of US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The scenes quickly became an issue for almost all political parties in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the acts, as well as all ministers and the parties represented in German parliament, the Bundestag. "Those who set the Israeli flag on fire in German squares not only show intolerable hatred of Israel, but also do not understand or respect what it means to be German," said President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

This week Steinmeier made a special call to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and spoke of "deeply disturbing expressions of anti-Semitism." The president expressed his shock and shame that something like this would happen in Germany in 2017.

Protesters burn a makeshift Israeli flag in Berlin
The protests in Berlin sparked a strong response from Germany's political leadersImage: picture alliance/dpa/Jüdisches Forum für Demokratie und gegen Antisemitismus e.V.

The Star used as stigmatization

The magnitude of the response is also due to the fact that the Star of David, the hexagram, a religious and political symbol of the Jews and the State of Israel, is emblazoned in the middle of the country's flag. The resulting scenes over the weekend thus showed the Star of David being burned at the Brandenburg Gate, the very place where the torch-holding Nazis marched in January 1933, after the taking power. During the pogroms on the evenings of November 9 and 10 in 1938, synagogues, Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned shops were burned in Germany — and with them the Star of David.

From 1941 onwards, the Nazis forced the Jews, or persons considered to be Jewish according to "race laws," to wear the star as identification. The star was printed on a yellow background, which was inspired by Christian princes in the Middle Ages, who ordered yellow patches to be worn on clothing to make Jews recognizable to them. In this way, the star became a symbol for the mass murder of millions of Jews in Europe during the Second World War by Nazi Germany.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Israeli embassy in Berlin
Steinmeier visited the Israeli embassy in Berlin on Friday for an event marking the country's 70th anniversaryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Debate about ban on flag burning

Nevertheless, it is not illegal to burn an Israeli flag in Germany, at least not if it is a privately acquired flag. Now, however, after the incidents in Berlin, there is a discussion as to whether German lawmakers should address this issue. Israel's ambassador in Berlin, Jeremy Issacharoff, suggested that German public burning of any foreign flags should be punishable, not only Israel's. Representatives of a range of political camps in Germany expressed their agreement. "Anyone who burns Israeli flags questions Israel's right to exist and is rejecting the country," said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Defending Israel's right to exist is a matter of national interest for Germany. However, the more that conflicts between Muslims, Christians and Jews are brought to Berlin, the more often this national interest will be called into question. Not officially, but within German society. Berlin's Jewish community recently raised the alarm: Its anti-Semitism commissioner, Sigmount Königsberg, reported that openly appearing Jewish can be problematic in the German capital. "I know many Jews who conceal a chain with a Star of David in the subway. There are now such automatic actions."

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau