It should surprise no one that representatives from across Germany’s political establishment, including the President and Chancellor, turned out for a rally against anti-Semitism in Berlin on Sunday, given the country’s history and a series of ugly anti-Israel protests this summer. The small size of the crowd was less expected, but Germany isn’t sliding back into the habits of the 1930s – today’s anti-Semitism has an altogether different source.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had made a personal appeal for Berliners to attend Sunday’s event, yet only about 3,000 people came to see her speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The thin crowd applauded when Merkel said: “Jewish life is our life. It is part of our identity,” but in general, the rally seemed formal and perfunctory. The government needed to make a statement in response to summer protests over Israeli policy in Gaza, mostly attended by immigrants from the Middle East. These saw some of the scariest anti-Semitic slogans since Hitler’s regime went down in flames.
Chants of “Hamas Hamas, Juden ins gas” (Hamas, Hamas, Jews into the gas), and “Jude, Jude feiges Schwein! Komm heraus und kaempf allein!” (“Jew, Jew, you cowardly swine, come out and fight alone”) were banned by police, after making appearances in Dortmund, Frankfurt and elsewhere. As Merkel pointed out in her podcast appeal before the rally, “there is not a single Jewish institution that doesn’t have to be guarded by police” in Germany – and that didn’t stop an attempt to burn down a synagogue in Wuppertal with fire bombs five weeks ago.
At Sunday’s rally, people held up signs that said “Jew-hate – Never Again,” but today’s anti-Semitism in Germany has little to do with its previous incarnation: Demonstrators from the euro-skeptic, anti-immigration party Alternative fuer Deutschland carried their own placards at the rally, saying: “Anti-Semitism Is Imported.” For once they were right.
The two men being held by police in connection with the Wuppertal attack are German Muslims, allegedly members of the increasingly active local Salafi community. Although Germany’s Jewish population has rebounded to about 200,000, from the post-World-War-II nadir of about 30,000, Muslims are much more numerous. Berlin, for example, has a Jewish population of about 30,000, and about 200,000 Muslims.
In some areas, the frequent sight of large groups of young men wearing Palestinian flag T-shirts is making kipa-wearing Jews consider alternate routes. At Sunday’s rally, a group of angry men wearing the distinctive Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves shouted that Israel was a racist state, as they argued with the police who barred them from entry.
There are, of course, old-style, neo-Nazi anti-Semites out there, too, but it isn’t they who are trying to burn down synagogues or calling out the Jews to fight. These white bigots have a problem with the currently dominant strain of anti-Semitism, too, because its carriers have darker skin.
Merkel’s difficulty in combating this new wave of anti-Semitism is that she cannot speak freely of its nature, because that might be interpreted as xenophobic. What does any responsible European government do when one minority has an obvious problem with another? No European state has yet found a politically correct answer to that question, not Germany and certainly not France, which saw Europe’s biggest anti-Israel rallies over the summer and is constantly having to deal with challenges such as the incendiary tours by anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne.
The solution proposed by the anti-immigration parties that are growing in popularity throughout Europe – one of them, the Sweden Democrats, has just won 13 percent of the vote in a national election, its best result ever – is unpalatable to mainstream politicians such as Merkel. The strict curbs on immigration and crackdown on foreign-born welfare recipients these parties want might help to reduce anti-Semitism as a side effect, but would hardly signal racial tolerance. That’s why the speeches at Sunday’s rally only made vague mentions of Muslims, in the context of all cultures being equal in modern Europe.
That equality will become increasingly hard to uphold, unless European countries insist on deeper assimilation of minorities into their base cultures, similar to what happens in the U.S. Otherwise, old-country hatreds and conflicts may wreak havoc with even the best intentions of Europe’s leaders.
Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.