In Germany, the number of attacks on minorities – routinely referred to as ‘hate crimes’ in English – remains enduringly high. At the same time, public debates also zone in on violence between minorities – as ceaseless discussions of a real or supposed ‘Muslim anti-Semitism’ underscore. Against this backdrop, Berlin-based Yehuda Teichtal and Raed Saleh sound the bell for “a new coexistence” between groups of different faiths and convictions in Germany.[1]

In an opinion piece originally published in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, the two authors criticise ritualised displays of shock and moral outrage in the aftermath of racist incidents and assaults. Instead of repeating the same empty formulae – ‘strongly condemning’ the perpetrators and sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims – Teichtal and Saleh call for a genuinely new politics of solidarity.[2]

A Jewish rabbi and a Muslim Social Democrat

Teichtal, a Jewish rabbi, and Saleh, a Muslim politician of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), are well-known public figures. The premise of their activism is that Jews and Muslims – as well as people of colour and other groups – suffer from the same dynamics of racialisation and exclusion in contemporary Germany.

Hence, these groups should join hands in resisting the lurch to the right that German politics and society have witnessed in recent years, epitomised by the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. Saleh’s and Teichtal’s agenda thus echoes other attempts to build a united front of minorities in Germany.

Yehuda Teichtal’s societal activism with Chabad

American-born Yehuda Teichtal has lived and worked as a rabbi in Berlin since 1996. An attack on him by Arabic-speaking men on the city’s streets in late July 2019 provided the immediate trigger for his and Saleh’s public intervention.

Teichtal has established the permanent presence of the Chabad organisation – a Hasidic, or ‘Orthodox’, Jewish movement – in the German capital. Chabad focuses on fostering a revival of religion among Jews who have become distant or estranged from the faith. To this end, it relies heavily on education and outreach – and Teichtal has established myriad such activities in Berlin: Chabad now runs four synagogues and an educational centre in the city; it offers a complete schooling curriculum from nursery through high school, as well as a Rabbinic training scheme, and a number of social services designed to meet the needs of the local Jewish community. [3]

In interviews, Teichtal stresses the social and charitable aspects of his Jewish faith: “We – my family and I – want to help as many people as we can through what we do and through kindness. That’s how we can make a contribution to the world becoming a better place.”[4]

Teichtal’s call for an ‘uprising of decency’

In the abovementioned opinion-piece, Teichtal calls for an “uprising of decency” (Aufstand der Anständigen, literally ‘uprising of the decent [people]’). The term was coined by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after an arson attack on a Düsseldorf synagogue in 2000. It has since become a much-repeated dictum, used to exhort people to stand up against racism and hatred in everyday contexts.

Klartext im tagesthemen Kommentar von Anja Reschke: (@tagesschau)"Wenn ich mich jetzt hier hinstelle und öffentlich sage: Ich finde, Deutschland soll auch Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge aufnehmen – was glauben Sie, was dann passiert? Es ist nur eine Meinung, die darf man äußern. Schön wäre also, wenn darüber sachlich diskutiert würde. Aber so würde es nicht laufen. Ich bekäme eine Flut von Hasskommentaren. 'Scheiß Kanacken, wie viel wollen wir noch aufnehmen, sollen abhauen, soll man anzünden …', all sowas halt. Wie üblich.Bis vor kurzem haben sich solche Kommentatoren noch hinter Pseudonymen versteckt. Aber mittlerweile wird sowas längst unter Klarnamen veröffentlicht. Anscheinend ist das nicht mal mehr peinlich. Im Gegenteil, auf Sätze wie 'Dreckspack, soll im Meer ersaufen' bekommen sie ja auch noch begeisterten Zuspruch und eine Menge Likes. Wenn man bis dahin ein kleiner rassistischer Niemand war, fühlt man sich da natürlich plötzlich ganz toll.Jetzt kann man sagen: 'Ja gut, Idioten gibt es immer – am besten ignorieren.' Aber es sind ja eben nicht nur Worte. Sondern es gibt sie ja schon – die Brandanschläge auf Flüchtlingsunterkünfte. Die Hasstiraden im Internet haben ja längst gruppendynamische Prozesse ausgelöst. Die Zahl der rechtsextremen Gewalttaten ist gestiegen. So kann es nicht weitergehen. Nun ist die eine Möglichkeit Strafverfolgung – das wird auch zunehmend gemacht. Ein Facebook-Hetzer aus Bayern wurde gerade zu einer Geldstrafe wegen Volksverhetzung verurteilt. Das zeigt schon mal Wirkung.Aber das alleine reicht nicht. Die Hassschreiber müssen kapieren, dass diese Gesellschaft das nicht toleriert. Wenn man also nicht der Meinung ist, dass alle Flüchtlinge Schmarotzer sind, die verjagt, verbrannt oder vergast werden sollten, dann sollte man das ganz deutlich kundtun. Dagegen halten, Mund aufmachen. Haltung zeigen, öffentlich an den Pranger stellen: Einige sehr verdienstvolle Blogs tun das schon. Aber es sind noch zu wenige. Der letzte Aufstand der Anständigen ist 15 Jahre her. Ich glaube, es ist mal wieder Zeit. Und: Ich freue mich schon jetzt auf die Kommentare zu diesem Kommentar."

Posted by Panorama on Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Journalist Anja Reschke recently called for an ‘uprising of decency’ to counter hate speech on- and offline, re-establishing the term’s prominence in public debates. Her commentary drew considerable praise but also galvanised attacks from the political right on the media: her critics see Reschke – who is employed at Germany’s public broadcaster ARD – as a symbol of a left-liberal elite governing public life with the iron fist of political correctness.

According to Teichtal, such an ‘uprising’ has not happened, so far: after every anti-Semitic attack, there is “thorough reporting, candlelit vigils, minutes of silence, declarations of solidarity. Then nothing until the next incident occurred. We need to be wary of not falling into a predictable cycle.”[5] Hence, the call for a united front of the marginalised – and a call for greater courage on the part of onlookers and bystanders to step in when witnessing harassment and hatred.

Raed Saleh’s work on interfaith issues

The opinion piece’s other author, Palestinian-born Raed Saleh, has sought to build such a united front, making a name for himself by sponsoring the reconstruction of the Fraenkelufer synagogue: located on the border between Kreuzberg and Neukölln – two districts strongly shaped by post-WWII immigration from the Middle East – the synagogue had been destroyed during the so-called Night of Broken Glass on November 9, 1938, when Jewish shops and places of worship were ransacked and torched across Germany.

Saleh has continuously emphasised the need to make the history of National Socialism and of the Holocaust accessible to German youth of all backgrounds: Holocaust education is, according to him, key to a successful integration policy. [6]

More broadly, he stresses the need for mutual support between Muslim and Jewish minorities in Germany: “I wouldn’t be a good Muslim if I didn’t fight for the Jews, exactly like how a Jew is not a good Jew if he stands on the sidelines when someone removes a Muslim woman’s headscarf.”[7]

Saleh’s political career

Born in the occupied West Bank, Saleh has been chairman of the SPD party group in Berlin’s state parliament since 2011. Though controversial within the Berlin SPD for his at times erratic leadership style, Saleh sought to succeed the long-standing SPD incumbent Klaus Wowereit in the mayoral office in 2014.[8]

His – unsuccessful – mayoral campaign exposed Saleh to much racist vitriol for his Muslim faith and Arab origins. Conversely, his supporters see his rise through the party ranks as a symbol for social justice and upward mobility of underprivileged immigrants and their children. Saleh himself downplays the importance of his descent, however: “I am a German Social Democrat, who happens to be an immigrant”, as he puts it.[9]

Basic Law and ‘democratic education’ as the bases for coexistence

Saleh and Teichtal proclaim to discover the basis for a new politics of coexistence in Germany’s constitution: “What unites us all is our Basic Law – our values, our morality and our responsibility before God.” Hence, “at a very young age”, children must be educated on how “to live out the values of our constitution […]. We need to pay much more attention to education, a tolerant, democratic education. From the kindergarten right through to the college of adult education.”[10]

Here, the authors draw on discursive codes that command widespread support in Germany’s public sphere: the reverent invocation of the country’s Basic Law as the yardstick for the good life, as well as the emphasis on the power of educational interventions to forge democratic citizens.

What does it all mean, concretely?

Yet how the recourse to such constitutional and pedagogical abstractions is supposed to solve concrete, existing social conflicts remains fuzzy. How could they help to adjudicate, for instance, between clashing interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that undermine the solidarity between Jewish and Muslim minorities in Germany?

In fact, calls for adherence to the Basic Law – with the German constitution taken to encompass, as the authors put it, wide-ranging commitments to “values, morality, and responsibility” – are frequently weaponized in German political discourse to minorities’ detriment: Muslims in particular are seen as deficient in their understanding of “our values, our morality and our responsibility before God”. Hence, they must be submitted to “a tolerant, democratic education”, the parameters of which are set by non-Muslim policy-makers.

Thus, the bases the authors propose for “a new coexistence” between different social and religious groups in Germany might turn out to be rather slippery.

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