Antisemitism (in Germany)

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“I am a 70-year-old Jewish man, but never in my life have I seen or felt the antisemitism of the last few weeks.

Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, LA Times Oct 29th

Update November 2023
following Ten Seven and the global attack on diaspora Jews under the guise of Antizionism

What is Antisemitism?

Academic research has produced an abundance of theories and conceptualizations. Some of the commonly accepted bottom lines, like the basic differentiation between "old" and "new" antisemitism, can be found further below, in the original text of this page. But - please take a seat if there's a chair nearby - we don't rely on theories and conceptualizations of chairs in order to know that what we are sitting on is, in fact, a chair. Just like Prof. Chemerinsky, we feel it. And we see it.

The most important thing you need to know about Antisemitism is the origin of the term. The term/label "Antisemitism" was not coined by Jews to stigmatize antisemites, but by the attackers. Just like Antizionism, it began as a willingly chosen label for what should become a totally legitimate social and political activism, when Wilhelm Marr established the "League of Antisemites" in 1879. He chose this label in order to differentiate between obsolete, irrational hate and his seemingly scientific, rational and enlightened approach. In other words, to avoid being "mislabeled".

It might not be easy for us to imagine, but this was academia back then: In linguistics, Hebrew is a branch in the family of Semitic languages, and if the Jews are Semites, we can talk about them without actually saying Jews. Sounds familiar?

You see: The whole point of being an antisemite was to make one's hate seem legitimate, even justified. In those days, educated people wouldn't want to be seen with dumb Jew-haters, so instead, they would attend a serious lecture advocating antisemitism. Yes, it was the same thing, but under guise, and a very successful one from their perspective. If you ever wondered why the Nazis were so successful among students and why so many of the perpetrators were "Herr Doktor" - this is why.

Our grandparents - that's not that long ago - heard them singing, on the radio or on the street, their anthem: "We're fighting for Freedom and Justice". Did that necessarily mean to slaughter the Jews? Did their motto - Sieg (victory, triumph) Heil (hail, hurrah) - really mean total annihilation? These are, indeed, unfair questions to be raised in hindsight.

What about us? We are diaspora Jews. Our home is Jewish, but the world outside is not. So many of us have friends and business associates that now - not a year ago, not because they always have, but specifically now - suddenly post new mottos online. Free this, decolonize that. The words are different, but the subtext is terrifying. Are we still friends with that couple? Should we switch our insurance broker? How much am I legally obligated to endure at my workplace as an employee? Fortunately for the two of us, we are self-employed. That allows for some kind of resilience.

In response to a video of "activists" shouting this "new" motto in a train car, the train company explained that it's not antisemitism because Arabs are Semites. Yes, this is quintessence of Wilhelm Marr's rebranding. Yes, it's still very much active under the surface in Germany. Yes, there was a little scandal and some newspaper articles, but that's it. The Central Welfare Board of the Jews in Germany is now operating a social, emotional and legal support hotline for those particularly affected by antisemitism and advices on how to deal with the world outside. To be honest: We did not expect this. Neither did our grandparents. And thus we're left to look onto the world outside and ask ourselves: What do we see?

Really, what is it that we are witnessing right now, in such overwhelming magnitudes, from local lampposts to global organizations?

The mind suggests questioning our own perception. Can we follow it so "blindly", without being able to explain it rationally to ourselves, let alone to others? It just seems too coarse, too simplistic to be taken seriously. Endless works on Antisemitism can't have been written in vain, so our perception must be just a bit off. It is, after all, just our perception, our perspective. Definitely subjective and probably biased because of our personal standing as Jews. But then again, if there ever is an appropriate moment for an intellectual sanity check, this is it.

So here we go: Could it be that it's not - and has perhaps never been - about remembrance days, education, "coming to terms" and so on? Indeed, not everyone has visited a museum of tolerance, participated in the paper clips project or read Anne Frank's diary. And yet it doesn't quite explain the experience of Prof. Chemerinsky at Berkeley. As educators ourselves, we wonder if we might have confused what ought to be with, well, what is. To put it in the heartbreaking words of Linor Abargil at the UN:

"How ashamed I feel that I was nothing but an extra in their production."

So with tremendous respect to academic and pedagogic efforts, one does need to address the question if, at the end of the day, what we're dealing with is just about hatred. Not a cognitive problem. Not a question of knowledge or lack thereof. Not about us. We can be rich, poor, capitalists, socialists, atheists, observant, even Chabad - it simply doesn't matter. Is it just pure, virulent, obsessive hate? In other words: Are we witnessing, albeit under guise, the same old hate, just like our grandparents experienced it, and their grandparents before?

That would mean: Yes, "the world out there" is antisemitic. Yes, like before, in all but name.

Is this "grandma's chicken soup recipe" a valid position for her grandchildren in 2023? It is, indeed, quite a simple insight. We can't explain it, it might not make sense, and clearly it is not sophisticated enough to be supported by any academic theory. Frankly, it just seems paranoid, absurd and irrational. As it must have seemed back then, 90 years ago.

Grandma's family, our people, were probably asking themselves similar questions. Doubting their irrational intuition. So many truly believed that their world, their surrounding, was not like before. And too many left us wondering ever since:

How did they not see it?


All in all, we account for just about 0.2% of the world. Why should 0.2% "know better" than the 99.8% of everyone else? As for us two, we don't know. Maybe that's why, specifically as diaspora Jews, we not only want Israel to exist - we need it to(o).

Update 2022:

Over the course of various events, specifically the Documenta art fair in Kassel, the German discourse has extensively shifted to doubting Jewish authority on Antisemitism and questioning the positions of the Jewish community, as articulated by our official representatives, first and foremost the Central Council of Jews in Germany. It is too soon to say where this debate will take us in terms of what Antisemitism would actually mean in Germany, and perhaps more importantly, who would get to define it. In the meantime, here is a (very German) overview of this public debate, produced by DW, the international media outlet of Germany's federal foreign office:

...and here's our original, differentiated overview of Antisemitism in post-war Germany:

Sadly, Antisemitism is still an acute problem around the world and specifically in Germany. Having said that, it is also an incredibly controversial issue and very much about one's perspective and definition - in 2018, a German court ruled that a person who published some antisemitic texts and whose name we'd rather avoid here for legal reasons, may not be referred to as an antisemite. So being labeled as an antisemite is defamatory, as opposed to, apparently, defaming Jews... In fact, it seems surprisingly common amongst Germans to think that they, and not Jews, get to define what Antisemitism is (and isn't), not in spite of the Holocaust, but precisely because of it. The unspoken subtext says: “We did it, so we know best what it means and what lessons you ought to take from it."

Nevertheless, here is an attempt at an overview of the current situation in Germany. Obviously, an overview is, by design, all about generalizations - so we'd like to make clear that the vast majority of people don't do anything against Jews. They might not like us, but even so, they wouldn't normally act on it. Having said that, we can differentiate between three sources of Antisemitic attitudes:

1. Traditional Antisemitism

Describing Antisemitism as a European tradition sounds incredibly odd, but then again, this is unfortunately what it is - the very term dating back to 1879, coined by the German Wilhelm Marr, for whom being an Antisemite was a good thing and a worthy political agenda. But obviously, even if the term did not exist before the 19th century, the hatred toward Jews is a much older phenomenon and anything but specifically German. Europe's Anti-Jewish tradition ranges from early medieval perceptions of Jews as murderers of Christ, well-poisoning exploiters and usurers to modern concepts about a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion"), Jews controlling the banks, Jews controlling the media, Jews pulling the strings and manipulating politics, Jews as Bolshevist revolutionaries and capitalist pigs at the same time. To put it simply: The core of traditional Antisemitism is not the marking of Jews as merely “different" the way all peoples are normally different than each other in the great mosaic of human diversity (the same way, for example, that Poles are different from Germans and Germans are different from French). In its core, traditional Antisemitism is about marking the Jews as “fundamentally different", as different in a whole other way than Germans, Poles, French etc. and thus also as dangerous. These traditional anti-Jewish ideas still exist but are considered unacceptable in German society nowadays. So people who hold onto them would usually keep it to themselves in a typical German passive-aggressive way, while avoiding actions that would expose them as Antisemites (since being called an Antisemite is considered worse than actually being one). Traditional Antisemitism is typically thought of as a far-right thing, although it is really not limited to the far-right scene and can be found across the whole political spectrum in Germany.

2. New Antisemitism

This refers to the (relatively) new kind of grassroots Antisemitism that began with the student movement of the late 60's in West-Germany and West-Berlin. Shortly put, the first post-war generation, i.e. the children of the Nazis and their followers, wanted to prove to themselves how different they are. They set out to revolt against their bourgeois, conservative, anti-Communist parents and then ended up protesting against the US and Israel too. So now the Jews were not the murderers of Christ, but were seen as the exploiters of Wall Street and the warmongers of the Middle East. Ultimately, the German student movement resulted in terrorist attacks - by the so-called “Baader-Meinhof Gang" and quite a few other groups. But the left-wing terrorists of the late 60's and 70's were also targeting Jews, attacking the Jewish community center in West-Berlin (1969) and the Jewish old age home in Munich (1970) as a “protest" against “Jewish imperialism in Palestine", killing seven people. In fact, the first Jews that were targeted and murdered as Jews in post-war Germany were not victims of Nazis, but of young German “Anti-Facists" who believed to have broken with their parents' tradition. Ever since, Jewish institutions in Germany are protected by the German police. The most infamous anti-Jewish terrorist attack of the new German left was the kidnapping of the Air France plane to Entebbe in 1976. Over time, the German left has become less violent and its antisemitism more “civil", expressed nowadays in framing the notion of a Jewish people as “racist", denying Israel's right to exist, supporting BDS etc. Yet unlike traditional Antisemitism, the new Antisemitism is socially acceptable in contemporary Germany.

3. Islamic Antisemitism

This is, by far, the most delicate issue, since Muslims are a minority - albeit the largest religious minority with about 5 millions according to recent estimations (and thus about 50 times larger than the Jewish minority). Most Muslims in Germany are Turks and their religious infrastructure is deeply linked to institutions operated by the Turkish state, resulting in a relatively recent surge of antisemitic sentiments alongside the radicalization of Erdogan's Turkey. Non-Turkish Muslims are usually Arabs (e. g. from Lebanon or Syria) with their own, often hateful background. To be clear, most Muslims, just like most non-Moslems, live their lives without doing anything against Jews. They might not like us, but wouldn't act on it. Some, however, do act on it. In 2014, the synagogue in the German city of Wuppertal was set on fire by Muslims, the first attack of this kind in Germany since “Kristallnacht" in 1938. But the German court refused to acknowledge this as an antisemitic hate crime since for the Muslim perpetrators it was an act of “protest against Israel" (does it ring a bell?). Being a minority also means that mass rallies can now take place in Berlin with crowds chanting “Hamas, Hamas, take the Jews to the gas!" - while the German police does nothing to stop it. These are obviously things that Jews in Germany would have never considered possible, until they actually happened. And to make it worse: Such antisemitic rallies often involve religious Muslim activists, far-right German extremists and atheist left-wing activists, who probably would not agree on many issues, but don't mind working together in the particular and peculiar field of Antisemitism.

On top of these three phenomenons, it might be necessary to add a fourth element, as suggested by a survey performed in 2017 for the German Parliament. The experts describe the situation as a threat coming from four directions: “Antisemitism among Muslims, Antisemitism among far-right populists, Antisemitism among left-wing people and a general lack of interest", referring to how little German society is concerned with the rapid growth of Antisemitism in Germany. The survey resulted in about 40% of the people in Germany holding Antisemitic views, but since nobody admits to being an Antisemite nowadays, the experts define it as a nationwide phenomenon of “Antisemitism without Antisemites".

* * *

Apparently, this three-headed Antisemitism isn't a specifically German phenomenon. In 2018, the European Union conducted a thorough survey about Antisemitism. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights asked more than 16,000 Jews across the continent about their actual, real-life experience in Europe. The results are astonishing: 30% experienced antisemitic harassment and even violence by perpetrators “with an extremist Muslim view", making it the largest threat, followed by perpetrators “with a left-wing political view” at 21%. Right-wing extremists, although often portrayed as “on the rise”, only account for 13% of Antisemitic incidents (please note that the total isn't and can't be 100% - for example because not every person that participated in the survey also experienced Antisemitism). Comparing these three sources of Antisemitism to each other, we get the following chart, based on the numbers provided by the agency:

Antisemitism in Europe

In Germany, when asked about the change in the level of Antisemitism over the past five years (thus including the dramatic change in Germany's immigration policy in 2015), 60% reported that Antisemitism “increased a lot”, 29% reported that it “increased a little”, and 8% said it “stayed the same” (“decreased a little”, “decreased a lot” and “don't know” got 1% each).

Antisemitism in Germany

* * *

Now you're probably wondering: So how do Jews in Germany react to all of this? Well, it's not an easy game to play. In fact, it's a pretty nasty game and it seems we are the ball.

Some prominent Jews have tried and still do try to address the issue, but there's a huge backlash: “How could you, the Jews, say bad things about another minority?" In 2015, as Angela Merkel gave up on Germany's restrictive refugee policy, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, publicly warned about a foreseeable increase in Islamic Antisemitism, which had already been an ongoing issue. Even though he was, in hindsight, totally correct, many Germans could not and still cannot understand how Jews could take a position against another minority. Although in reality people are a mixture of good and bad, the public discourse in Germany tends to look at the world in black-and-white, dividing it into good people vs. bad people, victims vs. perpetrators: If somebody is framed as a victim (in the context of the civil war in Syria), they can't be, at the same time, a perpetrator (in the context of Antisemitism in Germany). “After all", the German subtext goes, “we're doing this in your name, we're showing the world how much we've learned from the Holocaust, so how could you be worried? Can't you see they're victims just like you?"

But the backlash against Jewish criticism of current Antisemitism isn't limited to pseudo-moral arguments that should make the Germans look good in comparison to the Jews (who supposedly “didn't learn anything"). When Jewish experts dare to say that the major problem for Jews in Germany is with the increasing Islamic Antisemitism, the German side rejects the criticism by referring to the official statistics: According to police reports, 95% of Antisemitic attacks in Germany (averaging about four each day!) are committed by German far-right extremists. However, the official statistics are wrong. As the Jewish Professor Michael Wolffsohn says, “violent Antisemitism doesn't come nowadays from the right, even if the misleading statistics claim otherwise.”

So what's going on here? Well, the official numbers are not based on actual investigations, but on political directives that classify Antisemitism in itself as a far-right phenomenon. In other words, it's simply the “politically correct" default category, resulting in absurd situations: During the annual “Al-Quds Day", a parade instigated by the Iranian regime propagating the eradication of Israel (yet not forbidden by German authorities!), Muslim participants that show the Nazi salute are classified by the German police as “far-right extremists"... While historically, indeed, nobody in Germany was using the Nazi salute except for Nazis, this gesture has long been adopted by Muslim activists. In fact, most Jews in Germany aren't worried about the socially marginalized far-right as much as they are worried about the socially acceptable left-wing and, specifically, Islamic forms of Antisemitism.


In fact, the University of Bielefeld (in Germany) performed a study among Jewish victims of physical attacks (i.e. people who actually saw the perpetrators), which completely contradicts German police statistics - unlike the European Union's survey mentioned above, the University of Bielefeld study focuses on assaults in Germany, specifically. According to the study, 81% of the victims were physically attacked not by German far-right extremists, but by Muslims. So on top of Antisemitism in itself, Jews in Germany also have to deal with falsified government statistics. Jewish organizations, including the local office of the American Jewish Committee, have called for reforming the police statistics and adapting them to reality. But so far, this appeal has not been followed up on by German government authorities. In July 2019, the AJC's Ramer Institute tweeted about antisemitic attacks coming from different groups of perpetrators, with Christian (6%) and right-wing extremists (14%) well behind Islamic (31%) and left-wing (21%) extremists:

AJC Berlin Statistics on Antisemitism in Germany

One can only speculate what German politicians gain from false statistics, but you get the idea - in this unfortunate game, Germany's Jews seem to be the ball that gets tossed around between right-wing and left-wing German Antisemites, minority Antisemites, and politicians who refuse to acknowledge the new reality.