Germany Has a New Anti-Semitism Problem

(Bloomberg View) -- Adam Armoush, a 21-year-old student who grew up in an Arab family in Israel, wore a kippa in Berlin as an experiment: Would he be attacked for it? The provocation worked almost immediately: A youngster ran at him on the street in one of the city's poshest areas, swinging a belt and shouting anti-Semitic abuse in Arabic.

Germany, whose history makes sure anti-Semitism can never be a mundane problem, has to face up to "imported anti-Semitism," arriving with a tide of Muslim immigrants. After years of sweeping it under the rug, the country must learn to treat it as an integration problem, not just something the police should worry about. 

For years, the leaders of the German Jewish community have warned that wearing a kippa could be dangerous in Berlin, especially in areas with a large Muslim population. But German police statistics would make it look as though the issue doesn't exist. According to them, 522 anti-Semitic crimes were registered in Germany in 2017, 479 of them committed by "right-wing extremists" -- that is, neo-Nazis. Only 19 incidents were ascribed to "foreign ideology" or "religious ideology" -- tags that could apply to Jew-hatred as practiced in the Islamic world. But Ann-Christin Wegener wrote in a recent study for the state of Hessen's constitutional protection department that the police tended to attribute the crimes to right-wing extremists when they had no clue of the perpetrators' motivations. Besides, she wrote, "right-wing extremist symbols are banned in Germany, a criminal offense to which there is no Islamist equivalent, and crimes committed using the Arabic or Turkish language result in police attention less frequently." The Israeli in Berlin had the advantage of understanding exactly what his attacker was shouting.

Wegener analysed 7,000 social network comments under 38 media articles and videos about Jews, Israel and anti-Semitism posted to YouTube and Facebook. Of these, 600 turned out to be anti-Semitic, and the ones that could be attributed came in almost equal numbers from neo-Nazis and people of Arabic and Turkish background, with a smattering of the extreme left. The proportion started shifting toward Muslims after 2014, and the Muslim Jew-haters were especially active on the subject of Israel, while the neo-Nazis felt more compelled to comment on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. 

As David Ranan, an Israeli who has written a book on Muslim anti-Semitism in Germany, told the weekly Der Spiegel last month that for many of the Muslims he spoke to, "Jew" equaled "Israeli." They'd brought their home country attitudes to Germany or picked them up from peers of preachers here. 

The German authorities or society haven't done much about this. To the left, Islamophobia has been a higher priority than anti-Semitism in recent years, and the center-right has been careful about raising the subject for fear of being branded Islamophobic. But in recent weeks, politicians have turned their attention to the Muslim variety of anti-Semitism. After two German rappers, Kollegah and Farid Bang, received the prestigious Echo music award earlier this month -- on Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, to boot -- they were sharply criticized for a song they'd co-authored. In it, Bang, whose real name is Farid El Abdellaoui and who is of Moroccan descent, raps, "My body is more defined than those of Auschwitz prisoners." 

Commenting on the scandal, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, tweeted, "Anti-Semitic provocations do not deserve any prize, they are just disgusting." To which Kollegah, whose real name is Felix Blume and who is a convert to Islam, replied with a reference to Maas's party's soft stance on immigration: "To what degree are you protecting Jewish life if you support the mass immigration of people you consider anti-Semitic?"

Both Kollegah and Farid Bang deny they're Jew-haters. But at least one of them comes from a culture in which it's fine to joke about Auschwitz, and the other adopted it as he grew up. Just as with the Christmas, 2015 mass attacks on women in Cologne, instigated by North African gangsters, this cultural difference has somehow survived and thrived in the German social climate.

Thousands of people, largely Muslims, demonstrated in Berlin earlier this year against U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Israeli flags were burned, and anti-Jewish slogans were heard. Commenting on the protests, Jens Spahn, a leader of the right wing of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and now health minister, blamed the rising anti-Semitism on "immigration from a cultural space in which people aren't too careful with the sensitivities of Jews or gays."

The knee-jerk reaction to incidents like the one with the young Israeli is to demand a forceful response. "The Arab youths who react so wrathfully to kippas and Israeli flags have, as a rule, little to offer this country," Ulf Poschardt, editor of the respected daily Die Welt, wrote in an angry commentary. "Enough. Words must be followed by action." Merkel herself reacted to the Berlin incident by promising to move against anti-Semitism "with all the toughness and decisiveness" of which the German government is capable.

Without a doubt, harsh police action and commensurate punishment could deter some of the anti-Semitic displays and assaults. But if this is an imported cultural phenomenon born of the casual anti-Semitism and anti-Israel grudges held in the Middle East, it cannot be eradicated by police action -- just chased deeper under the surface. The real issue is that German schools, media and other institutions are not getting through to a highly visible part of the Muslim community.

It is a failure of integration, one that feeds symmetrical hatreds and demands for violent responses that will not solve the problem. Nor will Jewish caution. Few Jews are leaving Germany despite the evolving anti-Semitic threat -- far fewer than are giving up on life in Belgium, France or Italy for similar reasons. If we're sticking around, publicly acting proud of our tradition and religion -- and, yes, wearing those kippas -- carries risks. Yet it's one of the best ways to help get Germany's integration experiment back on track. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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