Contemporary Arab Antisemitism in Berlin

A mutilated rendering of the Star of David (Credit: Flickr)

When one thinks of Antisemitism in Europe and particularly in Germany, the first images that are likely to come to mind are those of skinheads or Nazis, or even individuals who regard themselves as bio-Deutsch (ethnically German – whatever that means). These people represent a valid threat to those of Jewish background. What many neglect to realise is that they are not the only ones who hold Antisemitic views: Antisemitism among people with an Arabic or Muslim background is generally overlooked. It may be difficult to grasp the notion of a minority oppressing another minority as it contradicts many popular historical narratives, but this does not mean that the critique of such intolerance and hatred should be silenced. It is becoming increasingly important to voice these concerns today as Europe sees the rise of populist right-wing parties that target Jewish, Arab, and Muslim minorities.

The fear of being seen as ‘Islamophobic’ by the liberal left or having one’s stance instrumentalized by the far-right to promote an anti-migrant rhetoric is preventing a discourse on Antisemitism among Arab and Muslim communities, further marginalizing those with a Jewish background. In order to address this, one needs to understand the difference between European Antisemitism and that enacted by Arab and Muslim people. While both have brutal histories of victimizing, persecuting and marginalizing Jewish groups, the atrocities committed during WWII against the Jews in Europe generated historical guilt and shame that lead to hyperawareness, a nation-wide condemnation of Antisemitism, and Germany’s culture of remembrance. This culture of remembrance is  criticized by AfD’s senior member Björn Höcke when he references the Memorial of the Murdered Jews in Berlin, stating that “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital”[*1].  The implication of such a statement is that no remembrance or shame is necessary. This opinion, shared among party members and right-wing Germans demonstrates that, sadly, Antisemitic sentiments are still held by the supposed bio-Deutsche.

In both the Arab world and Arab-Muslim communities in Berlin, however, Antisemitism, anti-Israel sentiments, and conspiracy theories related to both Israel and the Jews are the norm among many families and play a part in the upbringing of children [*2]. Antisemitism is internalized during childhood and adolescence so that any exception defying the standardized norm is regarded as Zionism.

I go so far as to argue that anti-Israel sentiments are a core component in the Arab identity as well as a constituent of Arab Nationalism and unity. If one differs, one is seen as a traitor to the Palestinian cause, to all Arab nations, and as a ‘Jewish-sympathizer’ (which can provoke physical violence). The line between being against the Palestinian occupation and Antisemitism is blurred by the dominating narrative and conspiracy theories, which are still very much alive and which tell how people of a Jewish background supposedly are. Moreover, the Arab-Israeli conflict gives Arab anti-Zionist Antisemitism a more emotional and brazen justification.

The blurring of the lines rendering Arab’s anti-Israel sentiments as downright anti-Semitic was clearly demonstrated in the anti-Israel demonstrations in Berlin, which were sparked by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his plans to move the U.S embassy there [*3]. While the majority of the protesters were peacefully, if rather emotionally, voicing their support of the Palestinian cause, criticizing the U.S’ decision and putting a hardline against the Israeli occupation, there were more than enough Antisemitic chants and even the burning of a hand-made Israeli flag in front of the American Embassy at Brandenburg Gate [*4] – a shameless act that symbolically denies the Israeli state the right to exist. This is an act that is not criminalized by the German law. Chants which were clear calls for violence included “We will stab soldiers and settlers,” “Bomb Israel,” and, most disturbingly, references to the Battle of Khaybar warning the Jews to “remember Khaybar. The army of Muhammad is returning” [*5]. For those aware of the historical and violent implications this battle carried, this should be seen as a potential threat and should not be tolerated. Such chants were condemned on all sides — by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Central Council of Jews in Germany, and the German government and law makers [*6]. These individuals abused their right to public assembly and freedom of speech by turning the protest into a platform for hate speech against Jews and Israel. The peaceful protesters present who did not take a stand against such hatred were complicit.

Such demonstrations and anthems are not the only indication of Arab Antisemitism in Berlin. Certainly,  day-to-day hate-crimes are committed against rabbis and individuals who are visibly Jewish –for instance, those wearing the kippah, which is advised against in certain neighbourhoods in Berlin by the Central Council for Jews in Germany [*7]. As mentioned earlier, for those of an Arabic or Muslim background, the issue of being indoctrinated  with  Antisemitic sentiments at home and in the community manifests in Antisemitic-based bullying in Berlin Middle and High Schools. What happens here indicates that, unlike what the right-wing politicians like to instrumentalize for their anti-immigrant and Islamophobic agendas, Antisemitism is not ‘imported’ with the current surge of refugees. It is a structural issue present in the German society as well as the Arab-Muslim minorities in Berlin. Antisemitic sentiments are expressed at schools in various ways, such as in conspiracy theories of Jews in Germany being exempted from paying taxes; there are rumours that Jews control the economy and are thus secretly controlling the world and are to blame for the instabilities in the Arab Middle East; Judaism is said to be the one of Islam’s biggest enemies. Considering the socio-historical context, the term “Jew” is used and regarded by many as profanity. A common narrative is summarized by a student of a Muslim background stating that “he can’t stand any Jews. It does not matter if they’re nice or not. They are all ‘dirty’ somehow. Thy own Marlboro, (…) they own McDonalds. The Jews own almost everything. If a Jew entered our school, I think he would get beaten up. I would beat him up [laughs]. Jews are dicks. To be honest, I piss on all Jews”8. In another incident in a High School in Wedding in 2017, the students were discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict when a Jewish Abiturient voiced his opinion that Israel has the right to exist and he is against the two-state solution. Upon this, he was surrounded by a group of Muslim students calling him and all Jews “Child-murderers who should be beheaded. (…) Wallah Hitler was good” [*8]. Such extreme bullying and calls for violence demonstrate that, among adolescents of a Muslim or Arabic background in German schools, anti-Zionism and Antisemitism are two sides of the same coin. The Arabs and particularly Palestinians are given the role of the victims, and anyone of a Jewish background is automatically cast as the oppressive enemy in this discourse.

Of course, such verbal and sometimes physical abuses should be condemned. However, most of the teachers and counselors in German public schools do not receive an adequate training to deal with Arab-Muslim Antisemitism. Teachers gain awareness of Antisemitism stemming from right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi groups. If one does not overlook the issue, one risks being seen as a racist or Islamophobe. This relativizes Jewish fears and solidifies the role of the Muslim Antisemitic perpetrator as a victim of racism and German/white discrimination. Once one’s concern for going against the neoliberal notion of being ‘anti-racist’ trumps the urge to fight against intolerance and hatred of minorities, the struggle of a marginalized group — such as the Berlin’s Jewish minority against Antisemitic attacks from both the far-right as well as the Arab diaspora — is overlooked, and so Antisemitism persists.

More training and initiatives dealing with Arab-Muslim Antisemitism in schools from an early age are crucial. Coming from a German High School myself and being of an Arabic background, I see that history and politics syllabi have failed both the Arab as well as the Jewish youth since they do not address the complexities attached to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Holocaust, or WWII. A radical educational reform is required to cater to Germany’s status as a city of migration and its multiculturalism. One cannot easily reverse ingrained notions from parents or Arab Satellite televised propaganda. However, one can destabilize such discourses and narratives by producing a counter-narrative for the youth to engage with. Ahmad Mansour, an Israeli Palestinian Muslim psychologist, author, and Islamist-Expert based in Berlin has immersed himself in initiatives and projects against Islamic radicalization and Antisemitism in Muslim communities. He calls for  discussions at schools that highlight the history of Israel’s right to exist and offer a counter-narrative to Antisemitism [*9]. Arab or Muslim adolescents should be able to voice their opinions and criticisms of the Israeli government and Zionism without falling into the discursive trope of Antisemitism and hatred.

Another highly influential initiative is the Junge Muslime in Auschwitz (Young Muslims in Auschwitz) project founded by Burak Yilmaz in Duisburg. The project involves him accompanying a group of young Muslims from different background to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland yearly [*10]. Yilmaz’s initiative was undertaken because he saw a need to combat Antisemitism in his own Muslim community; he thought a change in the discourse can occur by exposing young adults to the horrors the Jewish population suffered during WWII, which will destabilize the Jewish oppressor – Arab/Muslim victim dichotomy. The group often reacts very emotionally and starts to humanize the ‘Jewish enemy’. Yilmaz noticed the shortcomings of the national schools’ history syllabus in addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict and the anti-Jewish horror tales and conspiracy theories circulated in social media, satellite TV and by parents. As a form of destabilizing said narratives and complementing the history syllabus, the group’s visit to Auschwitz restructures the image of the Jewish people in the minds of many young Muslims and Arabs who may have had a distorted, ingrained and almost brainwashed preconceived notion of what it means to be Jewish. This project should be promoted and offered by schools as part of the history syllabus in Germany to combat Antisemitism on all ends of the political spectrum – be it right-wing extremism, Islamism or just Antisemitism masked by an Anti-Zionist sentiment.

Finally, the Salaam-Schalom intercultural activist initiate – which was founded by Muslims and Jews together as a response to Neukölln becoming a dangerous neighbourhood for visibly Jewish individuals –  aims to promote peaceful co-existence and solidarity in Neukölln in particular and Berlin at large. The initiative’s projects address forms of exclusions in the German society [*11].It stands for community, cohesion, mutual understanding, networking, political engagement and, importantly, resistance “of any form of marginalization, oppression and discrimination as experienced through the intersection of religion, race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation and other axes of identity that interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels. We resist the instrumentalization of essentialist identities disregarding lived experiences and interlocking vectors of oppression and privilege that contribute to systematic inequality” (Salam-Schalom Initiative.) Said intersectional approach should be adopted when addressing any form of marginalization – be it against Arabs and Jews by bio-Deutsche, against Jews by Arabs, or any forms of violence against a marginalized groups, for oppressive forces are always working in alliance and never as singular. Intersectionality not only takes into account how oppression is experienced differently by various groups and individuals, but helps form a more inclusive and cohesive movement to combat hatred and injustice.


Notes & References:

  5. Ibid.
  6. The battle of Khaybar occurred in the year 628 between Muslims and the native Jewish inhabitants in what is today the Medina in the northern Arabian Peninsula. The natives were barricaded, massacred and ultimately expelled from their oasis.
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