talking about antisemitism

Here’s something I heard on Radio 4 the other week:  ‘Hatred that starts with Jews doesn’t end with Jews.’¹ There’s been a lot of focus on antisemitism lately. Antisemitism was a contributory factor in Labour’s failure to gain control of a target council (Barnet) in recent local elections. It’s also been something of a talking point in Germany. At the beginning of May you might have seen images from Berlin showing crowds of people taking to the streets, many of them wearing a kippah, to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish community. A heartening sight, but how did this ‘kippah flashmob’ come about?

A few days before the demonstration I watched a popular German TV talk show asking whether Germany is ‘losing the battle with antisemitism’. The question was a response to two high-profile incidents: first, a music prize awarded for an album featuring antisemitic lyrics and, second, the truly shocking footage of an Israeli Jew being beaten with a belt in broad daylight on a Berlin street. So it was a timely question.

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Predictably, much of the discussion focused on a ‘new kind’ of antisemitism; one that has coincided with recent migration to Germany. ‘Imported’ antisemitism, in other words. The media has reported cases of Jewish children being bullied and threatened by classmates, while their schools appear to be at a loss at how to respond. In some instances it is the Jewish child who has left the school and, with it, secular state education.

We would normally think of schools as ideally placed to tackle antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, as they can offer different narratives to those heard in a child’s own home and social environment. But as the discussion soon showed, this is easier said than done. One problem is the school curriculum: history teaching portrays Jews almost exclusively in the context of the Holocaust, as if they had appeared out of nowhere in 1933. To fix this serious flaw and to support educators the Central Council of Jews has recently developed a range of learning materials covering a far broader and more representative range of topics, such as the Jewish contribution to culture and history in Germany and Europe, as well as religion and the significance of Israel. 

A further case in point (and less easily fixed): during the talk show a senior CDU politician suggested assigning ‘mentors’ to Jewish pupils. This demonstrates a frustrating, back-to-front approach which identifies Jewish children as some sort of ‘problem’. Another guest on the programme, an educator specialising in countering radicalisation, painted a depressing picture of teachers feeling let down by a lack of appropriate policies and procedures, and ill-equipped to tackle antisemitism within their schools.

Germany can never refer to antisemitism as an ‘import’

Eventually the discussion shifted from the ‘new’ antisemitism to the ‘old’ antisemitism². Two crucial points were raised: first, that 1945 was not a Stunde Null (hour zero). In other words, antisemitism didn’t vanish but continued to survive. And, secondly, that Germany can never refer to antisemitism as an ‘import’. According to official figures, 1,453 antisemitic offences were recorded in 2017, including 32 assaults, 160 cases of damage to property and 898 cases of hate speech — an average of four offences a day. And of these offences 1,377 were attributed to far-right political motives (Jüdische Allgemeine). However, as many incidents remain unreported or don’t officially count as criminal offences, the figures are unlikely to fully capture the motivation for antisemitism or the extent of its manifestation.

It was against this background that the head of the Central Council of Jews took the drastic measure of advising against wearing items such a kippah, particularly in large cities in Germany. Acts of defiance and solidarity such as the ‘kippah flashmobs’ in Berlin and Cologne are welcome but you have to wonder whether they will reassure the many Jews in Germany who now avoid displaying symbols or items that identify the wearer as Jewish (Spiegel).

Whether ‘old’ or ‘new’ antisemitism, what’s clear is a creeping change in attitudes toward Germany’s history. Social media has lowered thresholds and inhibitions regarding antisemitism and other forms of discrimination and hate speech. That’s no big surprise. But within this environment certain politicians on the far right, resentful of Germany’s burden of responsibility for its past, and in the guise of ‘free speech’, have called for Germany to ‘do a 180’ in its political memory (Spiegel). These ideas quickly gain traction.

An article in Cicero magazine cast doubt on the extent of empathy towards Jews alive today. An exaggeration, surely? Well, the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently reported the results of various studies on antisemitism: one found that just over half the respondents believed Jews talk too much about the Holocaust, while another found just over a quarter of respondents felt that Jews try to exploit the Holocaust to their own advantage. That shocks me. Deeply. I was similarly taken aback when someone recently told me that World War II and the Holocaust were ‘boring’.

I’m not sure how to answer the show’s opening question. It’s good that people are talking about antisemitism, and of course antisemitism isn’t everywhere. But what to do about it (beyond flashmobs)? That reminds me of something else I heard on the radio: ‘For evil to flourish it takes good people to do nothing.’³


¹ Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking on the Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 20/04/2018.

² So-called ‘left-wing semitism’ — the strain that Labour will surely have to seriously tackle — was barely mentioned in the discussion; the focus was mainly on ‘imported’ antisemitism and, to a lesser extent, far-right antisemitism.

³ See note 1 above.

image credit: anenome123 @ pixabay

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