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The rise of anti-Semitism has made Jews in Germany doubt their future

When this country’s main far-right movement entered parliament in 2017, it was a life-changing wakeup call for 38-year-old Shai Hoffman. Hoffman went searching for answers, quite literally. He teamed with activist and educator Stella Bauhaus and obtained government funding to operate her old double-decker bus, which she otherwise uses as a mobile classroom for immersive learning projects, for a cross-country project. They held conversations with random pedestrians across Germany to study and challenge some of their increasingly xenophobic, nationalist and populist views. 

Hoffman, a Jewish actor from Berlin, wanted to break out of his Facebook echo chamber, he recalled in October in front of the bus in Frankfurt’s Goethe Square, which is sandwiched between shopping streets in the cosmopolitan banking capital. He sported shaggy long hair and a plaid shirt under a sport jacket, and the bus was painted with slogans promoting liberal values.  “I didn’t know how to explain why 75 years after my grandfather survived the Holocaust, a neo-Nazi party became the third largest,” he said. 

Many critics see the AfD party, or Alternative for Deutschland, whose success in the last parliamentary elections was historic, as racist for its stance against immigration. Party leaders have denied espousing any anti-Semitism and pursued pro-Israel policies. But for many German Jews, the rise of AfD is foreboding.

Hoffman and several fellow activists have held thousands of encounters in small towns and cities across Germany, particularly in AfD strongholds in the formerly communist eastern Germany, where bitter memories and high unemployment rates have helped fuel the anti-socialist, far-right message. His goal was to offer more inclusive worldviews where they are most needed, he said.

In some of those conversations, however, some doubted the Holocaust happened — even after Hoffman told them of the experiences of his own grandfather, a Polish Jew who survived a concentration camp. “Many times people told us to turn our bus around and go back to Berlin,” Hoffman said. “Or they’d listen and tell me, ‘So you weren’t there, you only heard this from your grandfather. So you don’t know for sure what really happened.’ These encounters depressed me. Others left me inspired. It’s a roller-coaster ride.”

Several AfD members have spoken out against the consensus on commemorating the Holocaust, including Bjorn Hocke, a regional party leader who said in 2017 that “we need nothing other than a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance.” The party holds 88 seats among the 709 in the German federal parliament, or Bundestag. 

But the AfD’s rise is only one of the distressing factors that have worried German Jews in recent years. For many, the well-documented two-pronged anti-Semitism threat on the ground has come to a head.

As Germany has welcomed millions of immigrants from the Middle East and beyond, some have brought along anti-Semitic ideology, and Germany’s government has been accused of underreporting their overt acts of anti-Semitism to avoid claims of anti-Islamic sentiment.

In one surreal incident that underlined the problem, a 19-year-old Syrian asylum seeker in 2018 assaulted a non-Jewish Arab Israeli on a Berlin street. The Israeli man had put on a kippah as an experiment meant to refute reports of anti-Semitism in Germany. The assailant hit him with a belt while shouting anti-Semitic insults in Arabic. 

There has also been a sharp rise in violent right-wing nationalism and anti-Semitism from a revitalized far right, evidenced in an attempted massacre at a synagogue in Halle in 2019, which left two pedestrians dead; the murder of a politician over his pro-immigrant stance; and a spate of daily anti-Semitic incidents, both on the streets and online, all despite decades of strictly mandated anti-Nazi education. Many have complained at how slow authorities have been to tackle far-right cells as well.

Several reports have shown that right-wing extremism has even seeped into the country’s police forces, including one elite squad that the government disbanded over its “toxic leadership” that had “developed and promoted extremist tendencies.” Investigators found that one sergeant major in the KSK had hoarded Nazi memorabilia along with stolen ammunition and explosives.

Taken together, the issues are causing some German Jews to mull leaving, just as the country is preparing for a year of celebrations marking 1,700 years of Jewish history there. The anniversary year, started by a Cologne-based association called 321-2021: 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany, will celebrate German Jewry in partnership with the federal government through ceremonies, lectures and the publication of several books. The first event was an online conference Tuesday hosted by the Konrad-Adenauer Association, which is associated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

But many have found little to celebrate. “It’s time to face the truth: There is no place for Jews in Europe, or at least no safe place for them, including in Germany,” Henryk Broder, a well-known German-Jewish journalist, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency following the Halle attack. Jews can either leave or “spend the rest of their lives in a gated community, being protected by the state,” he added.

Could the suitcases come out?

Since the Holocaust, there has been a belief among German Jewry that they should always have a suitcase packed and ready in case history ever repeated itself. But German Jews — some estimates place their number at up to 250,000, most of whom are unaffiliated with any Jewish community or congregation — have not immigrated to Israel or otherwise left in large numbers over the years. Fewer than 1,000 Germans have moved to Israel since 2014, compared to the more than 27,000 French Jews who have also openly feared the violent anti-Semitism that persists in their society during the same period.

If that changes, the shift will largely be attributed to how German anti-Semitism has festered and grown. Anetta Kahane, a founder of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a Berlin-based watchdog on racism, says that the coronavirus crisis and its accompanying flood of anti-government conspiracy theories, some of which have turned anti-Semitic, have amplified the phenomenon.

“Neo-Nazis have been having events in Germany for years — but in isolation, as pariahs,” she said. “But now they’ve broken out of their isolation because of corona. You see them in protests side by side with other corona skeptics, some on the left. It’s a major development and it’s making a lot of people scared like never before, including myself.”

On Aug. 29, about 38,000 demonstrators, including thousands of neo-Nazis, took to the streets of Berlin to protest emergency measures meant to stop the virus’ spread. Things turned violent and some protesters tried to storm the parliament building.

“In eastern Germany in particular, we are observing that extreme rightists, neo-Nazis and AfD functionaries — as with the racist mobilizations against refugees in 2015 — also represent the core of the organizers of the so-called Corona protests,” the Association of Counseling Centers for Victims of Right-wing, Racist and Anti-Semitic Violence in Germany, or VBRG, said in a report from June.

Germany saw 2,032 documented anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, according to government figures. That was the highest tally since 2001 and a 13% increase over 2018. The government attributes 90% of the incidents to the far right, but critics of its documentation practices say many of the attacks are actually carried out by Muslim immigrants who have struggled to integrate economically.

Among the incidents was the attempted massacre at the Halle synagogue on Yom Kippur by a neo-Nazi gunman who denies the Holocaust. The extremist, who has since been tried and sentenced to life in prison, filmed himself while unsuccessfully attempting to break into the building when it was full of congregants, then killed two people nearby.

German authorities, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, have consistently condemned anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in no uncertain terms. Last year, the Bundestag passed a resolution declaring attempts to boycott Israel a form of anti-Semitism. Germany in 2020 also pledged about $26 million in funding for security needs of its Jewish minority, slightly more than the $19 million that the British government allocated in the same year toward securing its similarly sized Jewish community. The German government is by far the most generous in providing funding for everyday needs in Jewish communities — $15 million annually. 

Many German Jews credit Merkel, the chancellor since 2005, for this generosity and will rue her planned exit from the post this year. But many others believe her decision to let in about 2 million asylum seekers from the Middle East — without what experts and observers would deem robust background checks — has undermined the security of Jews both directly and indirectly through the anti-Semitic attacks and far-right backlash.  

Who are ‘German Jews’?

German Jewry, which was decimated by the Holocaust, is today a multifaceted, multicultural mix of Soviet-era immigrants, Israelis and those born here. Some of those with German background refer to themselves as “yekkes,” a nickname for an old-fashioned generation known for being punctual, detail-oriented and deadpan. Most Jews in Germany live in the cities of Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf.

Those from the former Soviet Union migrated following its collapse as part of a policy that recognized Germany’s responsibility for Jews following the Holocaust. Some 200,000 Jews arrived at the time in the 1990s, an influx that shored up the Jewish presence in places with dwindling communities, such as Cologne, Dresden and small towns across the country.

While some of the Russian-speaking Jews who came to Germany continued on to the United States and Israel or thoroughly assimilated, many others stayed, reinvigorating its Jewish minority. German Jewry has grown by nearly 300% from 1970, according to the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

That trend is reversing now.

According to a recent study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Germany only has about 118,000 people who self-identify as Jewish, of whom 77% are affiliated with a Jewish community or group. It is among a handful of Jewish populations in Europe that the institute said was in a “terminal state” because more than 40% of the Jewish minority in Germany is 65 or older and fewer than 10% is 15 or younger.

Halle, home to over 200,000 Germans, is a city full of former Soviet Jewish refugees — like the community’s chairman, Max Privorozki, a native of Kyiv in what is today Ukraine. He’s worried about the future of his community of about 500 due to both the anti-Semitism threat and demographic trends.

“Each year, 10 to 15 people from the community die, but there are only about three Jewish babies born,” Privorozki, 57, told JTA. “We’re a graying, shrinking community. Obviously I have concerns about the future.” The community’s summer camp is lucky to get 20 participants even though Halle has four times that many Jewish children. “To me, summer camp is more important than synagogue,” Privorozki said. “Jewish summer camp is our future.”

The country is home as well to about 10,000 immigrants from Israel, based on some estimations. They tend not to integrate into their local German Jewish communities, but they have made their presence known with their own Hebrew-language magazine, a Hebrew-language library in Berlin and communal activities.

One Israeli, Sharon Katz, and a partner opened a successful hummus eatery in Cologne, where he has lived for more than a decade and raised two children now in their early teens. Since its launch in 2018, his Nish Nush restaurant has become a regular haunt for hundreds of his compatriots and many local Jews who are “jonesing for authentic Israeli food,” as one patron named Shimon recently put it while nibbling on spicy brined pickles and fried cauliflower.

Katz said he put the word “Israeli” on the sign of his restaurant for a reason. “I teach my children to never be ashamed of who they are, so why should I be,” said Katz, who insists on speaking only Hebrew with his children even though he speaks fluent German. The sign has attracted some “troublemakers,” he conceded, but has resulted in no major injury. “It stays,” Katz said.

Cologne, where a Jewish presence was first documented in Germany in 321 CE, had about 1,000 Jews in the 1980s. It now has 5,500 Jews and multiple synagogues, including one Reform one, and a Jewish school, Lauder Morijah, which opened in 2002.

The Halle attack made Aaron Knappstein, a Jew from Cologne, question whether Germany is “my place, where I would like to stay, is this my home,” he told JTA. Knappstein isn’t leaving, though. He’s organizing the reintroduction of a Jewish-themed float into the official parade of the annual Cologne carnival, a cherished local tradition. The previous Jewish float was banned by the Nazis in the 1930s.

Security concerns have him worried ahead of the event, he said. Police will have to guard the Jewish float — the only one in the parade to require such protection — during its inaugural march in February.  “I’m not worried about holding hands with my husband on the street because Cologne is a very gay city. I’d be more worried about wearing a kippah in public,” Knappstein said.

Germany, where Reform Judaism began in the 19th century, “doesn’t have neighborhoods with many Orthodox Jews, like France does,” the Amadeu Antonio Foundation’s Kahane noted. “We would probably see more anti-Semitic violence if we did,” she said. “I think we’re more protected than French Jews, possibly because we have a low profile.”

How do Jews feel about the 1,700-year celebration?

Hoffman, the activist who toured Germany in a bus, drove it to Frankfurt in August to help with preparations for last year’s opening of the New Frankfurt Jewish Museum — a kickoff event for the 1,700 years in Germany festival. At what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, Hoffman talked about how his travel experiences have made him more pessimistic.

Anti-Semitic sentiments have always been prevalent in large parts of German society, but “now people find it much easier to express them without shame,” Hoffman observed. “I no longer believe we should be building bridges with everyone.”

It’s a concern familiar to Sara Soussan, the curator of contemporary Jewish cultures at this city’s newly renovated Jewish museum. She said her husband, Rabbi Julien Chaim Soussan, and their two sons, who wear kippahs, are routinely the target of anti-Semitic harassment. 

“I’m very ambivalent about the question of celebration,” said Mirjam Wenzel, the director of the Frankfurt Jewish museum. “I feel it’s a time of insecurities in which, on the one hand, there are Jewish voices, especially young ones, that are more self-confident, outstanding, demanding their place, rediscovering the traditions that had been cut. And there is a majority probably in the community that is insecure as to where this might lead, and that brings up fears and memories.”

Michel Friedman, a television host and former vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the history being celebrated shows that “there is nothing to celebrate.” Most of the 1,700 years of documented Jewish presence in Germany, he said, “were a time of persecution, anti-Judaism, led by the Christian church. Most of that time Jews were not free, not equal.”

In light of this, Friedman said, “I wouldn’t say that Jewish life in Germany was a success story because that would mean an emancipated, equal, not persecuted life.” Knappstein, whose laid-back city of Cologne is known for a tradition of tolerance and street dining, is among the German Jews who welcome the celebration event. Many Germans “can’t really believe that we are here so long,” he said. “It’s important to show people all the time that we are part of the society.”

For his part Privorozki, the chairman of the Halle community, told the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper shortly after the 2019 attack, “You’re gradually wondering whether there aren’t other places on our planet where we Jews could lead better lives.” In that interview, Privorozki said he saw “parallels” between the attack and one on the synagogue in 1938 during Kristallnacht, the Nazi terror campaign against Jews in Germany and Austria.   “However, today there is one crucial difference to the National Socialist regime: We have the State of Israel,” he said.

And over a year later, Privorozki is feeling more optimistic. In the weeks following the attack, “thousands of ordinary Germans came to our synagogue to show solidarity. The politicians also came, but that’s their job,” he said.

“The fact that ordinary people came showed me the difference from 1938. Then the people and the government were with the Nazis. Now they are with us.”

Cnaan Liphshiz