Insults and attacks: Muslim students from Berlin experience Islamophobia on Holocaust memorial trip

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Fences at Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin

Anti-Semitic prejudice amongst Muslim youth has become an issue of growing concern in Germany. Schools, while at times being the site of anti-Semitic hatred,1) http://www.taz.de/!5406125/ have reacted by expanding educational opportunities aiming to combat the hostility to Jews exhibited by some of their students.

Grass-roots project combating anti-Semitism

The Theodor-Heuss comprehensive in Berlin has mounted one such educational initiative. Its project group “Remembrance”, founded by teacher Sabeth Schmidthals, takes groups of students to various sites of Jewish life and persecution in Europe.

Schmidthals says that the starting point for her project had been an in-class reading of Inge Deutschkron’s autobiographic book I Wore the Yellow Star, in which the author recounts her experiences as a Jew living in the Third Reich. It was in this context that “I noticed how strong the prejudice against Jews and also against Israel really is”, Schmidthals says.

As a response, she took her students on a trip to Israel in 2015; in 2016, they visited France and Spain. In June 2017, she and twenty predominantly Muslim 16- to 18-year-olds made their way to Poland, stopping in Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, and Krakow.2) http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/theodor-heuss-schule-in-moabit-berliner-schueler-in-polen-rassistisch-beleidigt/19985282.html

Islamophobic assaults

In Poland, however, the remembrance of Jewish life and of the Holocaust was somewhat overshadowed by repeated Islamophobic assaults on Muslim group members. Hijab-wearing girls were particularly targeted, facing repeated insults as well as physical attacks: one was drenched in water, another one was spat at. A young man was threatened with a knife.

Some students were not served in shops, with shopkeepers asserting that they would only sell to Poles. Another female pupil was kicked out of a shopping centre when she spoke Persian on her phone. The group was also denied access to a synagogue in Lublin, with guards citing “security concerns”.

According to Schmidthals, a number of Polish bystanders stepped in to defend the group; yet they received no help from the authorities. When students sought to report some of the incidents at the local police station, they were laughed at.3) http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593 

Students’ reflections

Upon their return to Berlin, students voiced their astonishment at the events of their trip. One of them stated that they “had absolutely not expected something like this, especially not from a member of the EU.” A girl found it “very sad, because we came for them, in order to find out about their history.”4) http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593

The school has forged intimate links of cooperation with the Haus der Wannseekonferenz, a memorial site and foundation located at the Berlin villa where Nazi leaders decided on the “final solution” in 1942. Its director expressed dismay at the students’ experiences: “I am particularly shocked that it happened to adolescents who are entrusted to us for this trip, and on a trip dealing with this topic [the Holocaust].”5) http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593

The teacher echoed this sentiment, adding that “against the usual opinion that youth don’t care about this topic, especially not Muslim youth, I can say the exact opposite. The motivation is high.”6) http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593

Racism on an anti-racism trip

Berlin’s Minister for Education, Sandra Scheeres (SPD), condemned the incidents as “unacceptable”. A number of Polish-German organisations have written to the school to express their solidarity with the assaulted students.7) http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/theodor-heuss-schule-in-moabit-berliner-schueler-in-polen-rassistisch-beleidigt/19985282.html

One can only hope that the events on their trip have sensitised students further to the plight that Jews have endured in Europe and still endure in many parts of the world today, and that their own experience with racism strengthens their resolve to reflect critically on all forms of racial oppression, including those directed at Jews.

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