Planned rebuilding of Berlin synagogue brings together Muslim policy-maker and Jewish community

For years, German public debates have asked whether ‘Islam’ has a rightful place in the country and whether it can be considered part of its identity. Yet the reasons given by those that see the religion as alien to Germany have fluctuated over time.

Shifting discourses of Islam’s ‘incompatibility’

First of all, as the years went by, different groups and organisations have functioned as the quintessential representation of Islam and its dangerous nature. In the early 2000s, the spotlight was, for instance, on the Islamic Community Milli Görüş for its ‘Islamist’ tendencies. Milli Görüş has since receded from view (though it is still under surveillance by domestic intelligence services). It has been replaced by the DİTİB organisation, accused of being President Erdoğan’s mouthpiece, and by Salafism, the ill-defined bogeyman of global jihad.

Moreover, the main sources of Islam’s supposed incompatibility with a German ‘guiding culture’ have also evolved (or perhaps rather accumulated). In this context, many commentators and policymakers have in recent months made out a new battleground for the civilizational clash between German and Islamic identities: the question of anti-Semitism.

‘Muslim anti-Semitism’?

In particular since US President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, which sparked protests in Berlin and other cities, Muslims living in Germany have routinely been accused of harbouring anti-Semitic views. When two Muslim rappers employed a tactless line on Auschwitz inmates in one of their tracks, they were castigated for anti-Semitism, too.

In both of these high-profile cases, the accusation of anti-Semitism was, arguably, exaggerated at best and outright contrived at worst. This is not to say that no members of Germany’s Muslim community hold anti-Semitic views. It may even be that contempt of Jews is more widespread among persons who are (at least nominally) of Muslim faith than among adherents of other religions or atheists. Yet conclusive data ‘proving’ this supposition remains elusive and might simply be impossible to obtain.

In the media hype surrounding recent events, there has been exceedingly little by way of reflection on the presumed linkage between Islam and anti-Semitism. Was the real or imagined anti-Semitism of Muslims due to their Islamic faith? In a new qualitative study, academic David Ranan for one argues that it wasn’t, concluding that not religious precepts but political positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were at the heart of anti-Semitic biases of most of his Muslim interlocutors.1

‘A conflict between values and attitudes’

Raed Saleh, parliamentary party leader of the Social Democrats in Berlin, highlights a similar concern about the widespread misnomer of a quintessentially ‘Muslim’ anti-Semitism. Speaking to Qantara magazine, Saleh asserts that “[w]e have to make sure not to turn the current debate on anti-Semitism into a conflict between religions, because that is surely not what it’s all about. It is a conflict between values and attitudes.”2

The 40-year-old Saleh was born to Palestinian parents in the West Bank, before moving to Germany at the age of five. In the past, Saleh been a vocal advocate of a dialogue between German Jews and Muslims. He also not shied away from criticising his own party for “an integration policy that turns a blind eye” to problematic issues and to difficult neighbourhoods.3

Palestinian-born politician rebuilding a synagogue

It is precisely on the edge of a neighbourhood often adduced as an example of ‘failed integration’ of predominantly Muslim migrants that Saleh now wants to rebuild one of Berlin’s destroyed synagogues.

On Fraenkelufer, a picturesque street following a tree-lined canal on the edge of Berlin’s Neukölln district, a synagogue stood until the Night of Broken Glass on November 9, 1938. The building was torched and subsequently torn down, with only a small side wing remaining.

Saleh presented the plans for the synagogue reconstruction together with the chairman of Berlin’s Jewish Community, Gideon Joffe. “We must not stop at paying lip service” to the idea of re-embedding Jewish life in Berlin’s urban fabric, Saleh asserted: “We must act, simply do it. The obstacles are manageable.”

Jewish-Muslim understanding

According to Joffe, the Fraenkelufer synagogue should be an open space for encounters: “We want to show that Judaism is not a religion you need to be afraid of, and that Jews are people that you’re not obliged to hate.”4

Joffe went on to assert that “when I was elected chairman of the Jewish Community in Berlin twelve years ago, I would never have thought that a German, a Berliner of Palestinian origins, would help the Jewish community to further establish Jewish life.”5

Raed Saleh’s political tightrope

Saleh asserts that the reactions to his work for the rebuilding of the Fraenkelufer synagogue have been “consistently positive, regardless of religion or origin.”6 Yet it does not take much to imagine the amount of hate mail as well as the number of threats that a figure like Saleh must receive – from those who think that the Palestinian-born politician is ‘soiling his own nest’, as well as from those acting upon xenophobic or Islamophobic motives.

Saleh is indeed walking a tightrope between being instrumentalised by either of these political factions. His outspoken criticism of some migrant and/ or Muslim milieus risks empowering far-right forces, interested in using Saleh as a token. This is a dynamic that the SPD politician wants to resist:

“Many are currently hiding behind the cloak of migrant anti-Semitism and [are] in truth rubbing their hands at the opportunity it presents them with. These are the anti-Semites in Armani suits and the right-wing populists.”7

Interreligious dialogue – and political alliances

The rebuilding of the Fraenkelufer synagogue is not the only project that seeks to bring together members of different Abrahamic religions in Berlin. In 2019, construction is slated to begin on the ‘House of One’, an inter-faith place of worship for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.8

Projects such as these might be able to contribute not only to high-flying notions of ‘interreligious dialogue’ – but also to more mundane political alliance building. After all, both Jewish and Muslim minorities are targets of racialized hate crime; and there are many who continue to assert that Judaism and Islam are ‘not part of Germany’ and who want to re-emphasise a uniquely Christian identity of the country.

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