US recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital reverberates in Germany

Following President Trump’s announcement to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and thereby officially recognise the city as the Israeli capital has sparked strong reactions across the world. Western European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, have generally taken a critical stance. They point to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accords, which had left the final status of Jerusalem unresolved until further rounds of peace talks.1

In the aftermath of the White House’s decision, several German cities saw protestors take to the street to condemn the move and to demand an independent Palestinian state. While demonstrations remained broadly peaceful, they have nevertheless given rise to immense political controversy about real or perceived anti-Semitic leanings of Muslim immigrants and their descendants.

1.200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Brandenburg Gate

The first and largest demonstration took place on December 8 in Berlin, in front of the US Embassy. Significantly enough, the Embassy is situated on Pariser Platz, the square dominated by the Brandenburg Gate – making it a highly visible location for any public gathering.

While the roughly 1.200 demonstrators did chant slogans with anti-Israeli content, there is some disagreement as to precisely what was actually said. According to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), protestors chanted “Death to Israel” – an assertion that was, however, denied by local police, who was present with Arabic- and German-speaking personnel.2

Anti-Jewish slogans, burning Israeli flags

Irrespective of the precise slogans uttered, however, some of the protestors’ statements clearly entered the grey zone between the criticism of Israeli policies on the one hand and blatantly anti-Semitic prejudice on the other hand.

A group of protestors also proceeded to burn two home-made Israeli flags. While such burning of foreign flags is not penalised in the German criminal code, the presence of the Star of David on the flag nevertheless led many observers to see its incineration as an anti-Semitic act. (German law does prohibit the mistreatment of the Star of David by itself, i.e. if it is not bordered by the two blue stripes of the Israeli flag.)

“Imported anti-Semitism” of Muslim immigrants in the spotlight

The backlash faced by Palestinians and their supporters in Germany has been fierce. Against the historical memory of the Holocaust, German political and societal elites have for decades considered the defence of the Jewish state as part of Germany’s raison d’état. Criticism of the Israeli stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians is, therefore, quickly seen as suspect.

Speaking to the Spiegel magazine, Jens Spahn, conservative firebrand widely dubbed to be a potential medium-term successor to ailing Chancellor Merkel, warned of the “imported anti-Semitism” of Muslim immigrants.3 (Spahn has a repeatedly sought to present a tough image on immigration and identity, accusing Muslims of being sexually repressed proudly describing himself as a ‘burqaphobe’.))

Cross-party unity

Spahn received backing from his political opponents among the Social Democrats. In a guest commentary for the same magazine, Germany’s Minister of Justice, Heiko Maas, stated that Germany “will not tolerate an imported anti-Semitism on the part of immigrants”.

The Minister demanded that “the Holocaust and its importance for our society” become a central topic of ‘integration classes’ for migrants.4 “Whoever burns Israeli flags burns our values”, Maas added in a different setting.5

The ethnically German face of anti-Semitism

Spahn’s statements implicitly construct Germany as purified of the anti-Semitic scourge; instead, blame is shifted to Muslims, perceived as ‘immigrants’ and ‘outsiders’ responsible for re-importing anti-Semitism onto German soil. Whilst perhaps congruent with Spahn’s image of Germany as a chastened nation, the focus on ‘imported’ anti-Semitism does not square with the statistical facts.

To be sure, the attribution of anti-Semitic offences may be unclear in a considerable share of cases – particularly when no perpetrator is apprehended. This means that there is no way of determining the share of – for instance – Islamistically-motivated anti-Semitic hate crimes. It is also very possible that a substantial share of anti-Semitic offences is never brought to the attention of the authorities.6

Nevertheless, more than 90 per cent of individuals apprehended for anti-Semitic violations of the law hold German citizenship.7 Given the fact that the majority of Muslims living in Germany do not have a German passport, it seems obvious that the vast majority of anti-Semitic acts continue to be committed by ethnic Germans.

Higher levels of anti-Semitic prejudice among Muslims

This is not to deny the real existence of anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants, informed by the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as by the circulation of long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Yet when trying to make sense of the different scientific studies on the subject, a considerably more complex picture emerges.

In a 2007 survey for the German Interior Ministry, 15.7 per cent of young Muslims raised in Germany agreed to the statement that “people of Jewish faith are arrogant and money-hungry” – compared to 5.4 per cent of ethnic Germans. Studies such as these generally find a linkage among Muslim respondents between anti-Semitism and strong political views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Conversely, anti-Semitic views among ethnic Germans seem predominantly rooted in historical revisionism. In a 2009 survey, 63 per cent of respondents stated that “it makes me mad that Germans are reproached with the crimes against Jews”. 38 per cent also opined that “many Jews try to extract benefits from the history of the Third Reich”.8

Different forms of anti-Semitism

The precise worth of these numbers is of course up for debate; and it seems fair to assume that these studies may suffer from considerable distortions. The overall message they send is, nevertheless, relatively straightforward: immigrants may bring slightly different forms of anti-Semitism, yet even without them the old ghosts are still alive and well.

This is mirrored in a recent survey among German Jewish respondents conducted by academics at the University of Bielefeld: on the one hand, 70 per cent of individuals interviewed feared that the arrival of refugees would lead to increased anti-Semitism. On the other hand, 84 per cent also stated that anti-Semitism was “a problem in Germany even without refugees”.9

The Chairman of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, urged the main Muslim associations to use their influence so as to “make clear which kind of moral code is binding in Germany”. Yet while he asserted that “the loudest anti-Jewish invectives” were recently emerging from Muslim milieus, he observed that “most attacks in fact come from right-wing extremists”. German Jews, he argued, were experiencing a “feeling of insecurity” because of the rise of the far-right AfD party.10

Reactions from Palestinian community representatives

In response to the protests, the Palestinian Community in Germany (PGD) condemned “anti-Semitic behaviour and slogans in all their possible formats – be it in the context of demonstrations, public rallies, or on social networks.”11 This was echoed by a member of the Palestinian Community in Berlin, who spoke at a follow-up protest and argued that anti-Semitism “only harms ourselves”.12

A high-ranking Berlin politician of Palestinian descent, Sawsan Chebli, agreed that anti-Semitic attitudes were widespread in some predominantly Muslim milieus. She called on Muslims living in Germany to stand up to anti-Semitic prejudice:

“Just like Muslims, as a minority, expect that others support them when they are being discriminated against or attacked, they need to raise their voices much higher when Jews are being threatened in our country. The fight against anti-Semitism needs to be their fight, too.”13

Muslim civil society, Islamic religious leaders react

A number of Muslim civil society organisations have also responded to recent events. The Salaam-Schalom Initiative for Muslim-Jewish dialogue called for a public vigil in the multi-ethnic Neukölln neighbourhood of Berlin.14

The Neuköllner Begegnungsstätte “Dar al-Salaam”, a community centre from the same borough, issued a press release condemning racial hatred. “We call upon all Muslims to stand up vociferously against anti-Semitism and against anti-Jewish prejudice.”15

A similar statement came from Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD).16 DITIB, Germany’s largest Muslim association with strong ties to the Turkish state, asserted that “solidarity with Palestine and concerns over the holy site must not be diminished by ire and hostilities towards our Jewish fellow citizens.”17

The German predicament

Strife between Israelis and Palestinians has divisive implications far beyond its physical theatre in the Levant. Yet with its heritage of the Holocaust, Germany is in many ways particularly ill-equipped to deal with the fallout from the conflict.

On December 15, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended the Israeli Embassy’s kick-off event for year of festivities commemorating the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Israeli state. After solemnly lighting a Hanukkah menorah, Steinmeier delivered a short speech in which he stressed, among other things, Germany’s ongoing “responsibility for Israel’s security.”18

“Whoever sets on fire an Israeli flag on German squares shows not only an unbearable hatred towards Israel but he does not understand or does not respect what it means to be German”, Steinmeier asserted. “Next year, you are celebrating 70 years of [Israeli] independence, and we are celebrating with you!”19

Israeli alliance as raison d’état

Not once during his speech did Steinmeier mention the existence of the Palestinians. Neither did he allude to the fact the founding of the State of Israel is not an equal cause for celebration for everyone but rather marks al-nakba, the catastrophe, in Palestinian national memory – the onset of decades of dispossession and displacement.

To the German political elite, the moral weight of the past appears to command an almost unquestioning support of the Israeli position. Whilst this is deeply understandable, given the Third Reich’s unparalleled genocide, it also gives Germany no credible leverage to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians. Whether this stance is conducive to mitigating anti-Semitic hatred is equally doubtful.

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  9. See, p. 36