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Letter from Germany: Anti-Semitism is on the Rise

By Peter-Jeorg Alexander

Rudi is devastated. These demonstrations are outrageous. “Shit Jew! Child murderers!“ The crowd applauds and jeers; some people dance, wave their Palestinian or Turkish flags, wave their arms about, raise their fists. Israeli flags are torn from their poles and burned. Synagogues are besieged by haters, much to the distress of Jewish citizens. More and more, anti-Semitism gains fresh ground in Germany. More and more, Jews are afraid of being harassed, beaten up or even killed. The media and, even more, social media add fuel to the flames. Similarily, the 1938 “Novemberprogrom“ was started by the Nazis, when they burnt Jewish synagogues. Does History return?

Rudi has Jewish roots and feels helpless. He won’t tell anybody about his roots; his family fears that crazy zealots might molest them. It‘s worse for those Jews who want to practise their religion. They are afraid to wear a Kipa in public; they want to remain invisible.

Rudi recalls his father’s hard times during the Third Reich. Luckily he survived, otherwise Rudi wouldn’t be here. As a kind of half-breed - a Half Jew – he wasn’t able to work in a public job, he wasn’t allowed to vote and he had to be extremely careful what he said and did. If he had been married to a Jewish woman he would have been treated as a Full Jew. Old church records were thoroughly examined. Very often it was not biology but yellowed parish records which decided who was Jewish and who Aryan. Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic yet highly popular mayor of Vienna, simply explained: "I decide who is a Jew." Rudi’s grandfather and even great-grandfather were less lucky, they couldn’t escape from the church records. Their graves were opened up by the Nazis and their mortal remains disposed of as waste. After World War II Rudi’s father was questioned by the occupying power: “Why didn‘t you escape?“; “Did you collaborate with the Nazis?“ The irony of history – but that is another story.

Only recently Mr Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, gave a speech about Jewish life in Germany, pinpointing their great achievements of emancipation and prosperity, but also their humiliation, exclusion and disenfranchisement. Yet still Jews in Germany face prejudice, clichés or ignorance every day.

The first Jewish people are thought to have arrived in Cologne in 321AD. The community endured under Charlemagne, but suffered during the crusades. They were accused of poisoning wells during the Black Death in the 14th century. By the end of the 15th century they were held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and therefore they were targets of religious hatred that ascribed all possible evils to Jews.

Jews burned alive for alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, in 1492; a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

In 1562 Martin Luther gave a vivid example of hate speech in one of his books entitled Of the

Jews and their Lies:

The Jews are such a desperate, wicked thing, that they have been our plague, pestilence and all bad luck for one thousand four hundred years ... they are real devils...we should burn their synagogues and schools in honour of our God...“.

Rudi is horrified! And it didn’t stop. With Napoleon’s fall in 1815, growing nationalism again led to increasing repression. A few years later, in 1819, pogroms against the Jews took place throughout Germany. They were stripped of their civil rights in various German states. Many Jews began to emigrate.

Then the Nazis came.

In January 1933 about 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. Following the anti-Semitic ideology and policies of the Hitler regime, the Jewish community was increasingly persecuted. Most of the German population didn’t care; they weren’t interested in the way their Jewish fellow citizens were being stripped of their rights. This combination of indifference and the hate of the National Socialists was a catastrophe for German Jews. Many of them, more than 300,000 people or 60%, left Germany during the first six years of the Nazi dictatorship. In 1935 the Nuremberg Race Laws were introduced; in 1936 the remaining Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them from participating in education, politics, higher education or industry. And they were visible, being forced to wear the Jewish Star, the Judenstern. The Schutzstaffel (SS) ordered what became known as the Night of Broken Glass (Reichskristallnacht) - the storefronts of Jewish shops and offices were smashed and vandalized, many synagogues were burnt to the ground. It got worse. In 1941 the remaining Jews were deported to ghettoes and finally to death camps. At the end of World War II between 160,000 and 180,000 German Jews had been killed out of a total of about six million European Jews who were murdered, a genocide which later became known as the Holocaust.

Things have slowly changed in Germany. In 1945 the German Jewish community counted about 12,000 members who had outlived the Holocaust. These survivors were sitting on packed suitcases, ready to leave the country of the perpetrators at any time. By 1950 no more than 25,000 Jews lived in West Germany and about 400 in East Germany. Not until the mid-1980s did the younger generation of Jews, fed up with the pessimistic mentality of their elders, begin to trust their German neighbours and start to build a comfortable future life for themselves in Germany. They saw themselves as German citizens who happened to practise Judaism (or, in Rudi‘s case, not) and owned a German passport! In the 1990s the number of German Jews grew to about 100,000, largely due to the immigration of Jewish people from the former Soviet Union. Presently about 225,000 Jews live in Germany, more than in France and Great Britain. Since 2007 the number has slightly decreased because of demographic changes: in 2018 about 48% of German Jewish citizens were 60 years or older.

In the 1930s the Nazis believed strongly that depriving the Jews of their civil rights would improve the living conditions of the majority of Germans. They claimed that the Jews were responsible for all the economic and other crises that the Germans had had to endure in the years after World War I, that they pulled the strings in the background. And today? More than 75% of Jews in Germany see anti-Semitism as a severe problem, compared to about 20% of Germans who are not Jewish.

Mainly Muslim youths of Palestinian or Syrian origin, less those of Turkish background, exhibit their anti-Semitism openly. And their insults and protests have been on the rise during the last few years. They hold Israel responsible for the bad treatment of their people and it is obvious that they transfer their political anger and attitudes to all Jews. Furthermore, about 10% of Germans are still not shy to hide their anti-Semitism. A well-known Catholic priest stills holds that the Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jewish children in schools are taunted with “You Jew“, bad jokes are made and many people nod or laugh.

Today most of the Federal Republic’s politicians are very clear: “Never again!“ Chancellor Merkel constantly emphasizes that the German Government guarantees the security of German Jews: “Anti-Semitism is against all that makes our country strong and united“, she proclaims. It’s a kind of vicious circle. Anti-Semitist scandals provoke people to speak against anti-Semitism in public, which in turn leads those accused of anti-Semitism to indignantly reject that they are Jew haters.

Maybe some projects such as “Meet a Jew“ will help to turn the rising tide of anti-Semitism. In May last year the Central Council of Jews in Germany launched this attempt to increase contact between Jews and non-Jews. Over 300 Jewish volunteers are being paired with non-Jewish Germans to talk about their lives, Judaism and their experiences of anti-Semitism. Earlier there was a similar project called “Rent a Jew“! But this is only a drop in the ocean. Rudi doubts that these projects can change everything immediately, but he hopes that in the long run Germans are up for more tolerance and less anti-Semitism.


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