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German anti-Semitism on the rise, again
The Boston Phoenix (www.bostonphoenix.com) has an excellent article on the rise of Anti-Semitism in Germany.
Titled "Heil Hate!", the article written by Seth Gitell, who visited Germany recently, explains the current anti-Semitic controversy Germany finds herself in after Jürgen Möllemann, president of the German-Arab Friendship League, and second-in-command of the FDP, one of Germany's political parties declared:
"The intolerant, spiteful handling by Mr. Friedman of any critic of [Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon unfortunately is liable to awaken anti-Semitic resentments."
Möllemann was reffering to Michel Friedman, a member of the CCJ (Central Council of the Jews of Germany), the centralized leadership group of all Jewish religious, political, and communal organizations.
Blaming the Jews for Anti-Semitism, so typical of Nazi Germans.
Heil hate! The reflowering of anti-Semitism
The rabble never changes, and anti-Semitism is the mind-set of the rabble. It is like a dreadful cholera epidemic — it can’t be explained or healed.... Eventually the disease simply runs its course.
BERLIN — Anti-Semitism is once again a German problem. A rising politician is pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment in the current campaign for the Bundestag, the German parliament. A prominent writer, who in the past has decried the burden Germany carries from the Holocaust, kills off the Jewish antagonist in his controversial new novel. And two months ago, thugs hurled a Molotov cocktail at the Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin. It’s so much a topic of political conversation that the issue was raised two weeks ago during the first formal meeting between Germany’s Green Party, the junior partner in Germany’s governing coalition, and the Central Council of the Jews of Germany (CCJ), the centralized leadership group of all Jewish religious, political, and communal organizations.
Held in the main conference room of the CCJ’s Berlin headquarters, the meeting consisted primarily of declarations of respect among CCJ president Paul Spiegel; the organization’s controversial vice-president, Michel Friedman (whom many compare to Alan Dershowitz); and the top leadership of the Greens, including party co-chair Claudia Roth and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, the first Green Party member to serve as minister in the country’s government. Fischer left early, making his way through a scrum of television and print reporters outside. The remaining reporters and cameramen — there were about 30 of us — jammed into the clammy conference room to witness the official end of the first meeting between top officials of the Green Party and the Jewish communal leadership.
"We need to get all the political parties into a discussion of what’s going on right now," Spiegel said. "We can’t let any of the parties destroy what has been built here." Roth replied: "The Green Party wishes a rich Jewish life in Germany. We do not consider anti-Semitism part of freedom of speech in Germany. The Green Party and the Jewish community are together fighting the effort to bring anti-Semitism from the street and into politics." Then Roth raised the point that lay in the back of everyone’s mind: the nature of modern Germany. "This is in essence a debate about the identity of the country, what it means to be a democracy."
SEVERAL MONTHS ago, I learned that I would be spending nine days in Germany, thanks to the German government, which routinely hosts visitors, typically journalists, from around the globe. I hadn't figured that anti-Semitism in modern Germany would be the main thrust of my dispatch from Berlin. Planning for my trip began long before Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in late March. It was to be a routine fact-finding investigation of German politics during an election year. I didn't even bother to make a special request to meet with Jewish leaders during the trip. As a guest of the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes visitors’ program, which knew of me through Germany’s consul general in Boston, I looked forward to a series of meetings with government officials, party functionaries, and others. I expected to delve into German attitudes toward America in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and President George W. Bush’s visit to the country, in May. In particular, I wanted to learn how the September 11 plot could have been finalized — completely unnoticed — in Hamburg (see "Today’s Jolt," June 13, at www.bostonphoenix.com).
But that was before I arrived in Germany to find the country awash in anti-Semitic controversy. I knew I would be writing a different piece altogether when I saw the cover of last week’s Der Spiegel, the country’s most influential weekly magazine. It featured a photo of Hitler’s face in a cloud of smoke above a picture of a lit match. The headline read: PLAYING WITH FIRE, HOW MUCH OF THE PAST CAN THE PRESENT TAKE? The cover of the European version of Time magazine also played on this theme, depicting a Star of David with footprints on it. The headline: IS ANTI-SEMITISM ON THE MARCH AGAIN?
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. In the days and weeks immediately preceding and following my visit to Germany, Europe’s anti-Semitic attitudes have been grist for American opinion leaders. In his groundbreaking essay "Among the Bourgeoisophobes: Why the Europeans and Arabs, Each in Their Own Way, Hate America and Israel," David Brooks of the Weekly Standard noted that "in much of the world’s eyes, two peoples — Americans and Jews — have emerged ... as money-mad Molochs of the earth, the vulgarizers of morals, corrupters of culture, and proselytizers of idolatrous values." Likewise, in a June 24 New Republic piece titled "Domestic Threat: Can Europe Survive German Nationalism?", John Judis concludes that economic troubles could propel the growth of a German right-wing nationalist movement, a development that would unhinge European unity, threaten US foreign-policy interests, and perhaps even imperil European stability — at a time when America counts on stability and good feeling in the region to support our own war on terrorism. More recently, Robert Kagan concludes in a piece for the current issue of Policy Review that Europe, driven in part by sensitivity to the "German problem," has widely divergent political interests from the US. Among the chorus, only Joe Klein, writing in Slate, has opted to make light of the events in Germany and describes the current fears about anti-Semitism as overblown, indicative of an "assumption that if the genie gets out of the bottle there will be jackboots on the Rhine before you can sieg heil." Contrary to Klein’s observations, though, the question of whether the anti-US/anti-Jewish "bourgeoisophobes" described by Brooks take power in Germany is a vital one.
While the critical nature of Germany’s standing in the world was at the heart of my reporting, the trip, somewhat unexpectedly, raised a host of issues for me — issues I thought I’d long ago set aside. When you’re raised as a Jew just outside of Boston in the 1970s and ’80s, certain associations with Germany readily spring to mind. My boyhood was dominated by images from the NBC miniseries The Holocaust. The night before my bar mitzvah, I read Night, Elie Wiesel’s 1958 autobiographical account of the concentration camps. When it came time for a dramatic reading to be taped for 10th-grade English, I selected a passage from Leon Uris’s 1961 novel Mila 18 about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. That same year, my buddy Russell and I constructed a scale model of Auschwitz-Birkenau for a statewide history contest on the theme of "Triumph and Tragedy" (he tinkered; I wrote).
During that period, I regarded Germany as the epicenter of world anti-Semitism. Even though I knew that modern Germany was a liberal democracy and an Israeli ally, I thought of the country as hostile territory for Jews. After all, didn’t modern Germany bungle the hostage situation at the 1972 Munich Olympics, during which Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer? Didn’t Chancellor Helmut Kohl invite President Ronald Reagan to visit Bitburg, a cemetery where members of the dreaded SS lay buried?
Over the years, through college and into my work as a journalist, I tried to put many of these thoughts aside. I came to believe that one should not judge people for the sins of their forebears. Even so, although I'd made several trips abroad, including four to Europe, the idea of visiting Germany had never really appealed to me — nor had it even occurred to me to go. I felt no great urge to walk the Munich streets where Hitler had led his Beer Hall Putsch. I had no burning desire to see the New Synagogue in Berlin, ravaged during Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") on November 9, 1938, and later rebuilt. Had the German government not taken an interest in me, I might never have gone at all. That said, even with the general upsurge in anti-Semitism throughout Europe — much of it with its roots in the Israel-Palestinian conflict — I had hoped that the decades-long drama between Germany and the Jews would be only a small part of my reporting. But that was not to be.
My arrival in Berlin in early June coincided with two controversies involving German anti-Semitism. The first surrounded German writer Martin Walser, who only a few years earlier had engaged in an ugly dispute with Jewish leader and then–CCJ president Ignatz Bubis over Walser’s claim that the Holocaust has been unfairly held over his country’s head. In his latest novel, Death of a Critic (Suhrkamp Verlag), Walser has his lead character, a book author, take murderous revenge on a prominent Jewish book critic. The character just happens to closely resemble a real Jewish book critic who has panned Walser in the past. The second — and much more important — brouhaha involved a German politician’s use of anti-Semitism to appeal to voters, the first example of this in German politics since the Nazi era. Many fear that it may work again.
But the Social Democrats — the party that’s led the country for the last four years under the Clintonesque Gerhard Schröder (his campaign materials promote him as "the chancellor for the center") — eschewed an alliance with the FDP in favor of the surging Green Party. The move left the FDP moribund. In this election cycle, Möllemann wants to bring his party, the quiet junior partner of German politics, back to prominence. Toward that end, he’s declared, rather presumptuously, that he intends to raise the FDP’s take in the September 22 election to 18 percent of German votes. While Möllemann is only second-in-command to his party’s chair, Guido Westerwelle, he is widely viewed as the energizing and driving force behind the FDP’s latest push.
As part of that effort, Möllemann, president of the German-Arab Friendship League, recruited Jamal Karsli — a Syrian-born former Green Party member and bitter foe of Israel, who has met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad — to work for the party. (Under pressure from FDP leadership, Karsli subsequently agreed to disassociate himself from the party on the local level.) The FDP’s alignment with such a virulent enemy of Israel alarmed the CCJ’s Michel Friedman, a talk-show host routinely described by Germans of all political stripes as aggressive and confrontational. Not surprisingly, Friedman spoke out forcefully against the move. Möllemann, in turn, declared: "The intolerant, spiteful handling by Mr. Friedman of any critic of [Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon unfortunately is liable to awaken anti-Semitic resentments." In a May television interview, Möllemann also said, "I’m afraid that hardly anybody gives more fuel to the anti-Semites, who exist in Germany and whom we must fight against, than Mr. Sharon and Friedman, with his intolerant, spiteful manner. Arrogant. That’s not okay." Möllemann’s message was clear: Jews like Friedman are responsible for anti-Semitism. In personally attacking Friedman, Möllemann — who in 1979 met with Yasser Arafat, then almost universally considered a terrorist by the West — moved beyond mere criticism of Israel. He graduated to attacking Jews who live on German soil.
Friedman and others in the organized Jewish community wondered publicly whether Germany’s major parties should accept the FDP as long as Möllemann held such a high position. They called on Möllemann to apologize, which he did to an extent. But then he upped the ante by declaring how "unique" it was for a group — referring to the CCJ — to demand the resignation of any one individual. Again, Möllemann made the issue Germany's Jews, not mere criticism of Israel.
While the back-and-forth between Möllemann and Friedman has something of a he said/he said quality to it, many Germans are taking it very seriously. That includes Clemens Höges, the political editor of Der Spiegel. The 40-year-old Höges, who’s directed the magazine’s coverage of the scandal and at the time was the youngest journalist to hold such a position at the magazine, has prospered since German reunification. That’s not something all Germans can claim, as the country has fallen from third in gross domestic product per capita in the world to 10th since East and West Germany merged in 1990. From Höges’s corner office in Der Spiegel’s high-rise locale in Hamburg — Germany’s media capital — a visitor can scan most of the city’s port.
A member of the country’s elite, Höges makes clear the extent of Möllemann's demagoguery. "You can criticize Israeli politics in Germany," he says. "But if you criticize Israeli policy and Jews in Germany with arguments very similar to old Nazi arguments, that is a problem. Blaming the Jews for anti-Semitism. The Nazis always used this argument."
There were the reactions of Germans like Höges, for instance, to the Möllemann/Friedman affair. Germans who care deeply about the prospect of resurgent anti-Semitism in their country. Some of this involves maintaining moral responsibility for righting the wrongs of the past. But to an even greater extent, their concern centers on the nature of Germany itself, on a fear that if left to its own devices, the country might somehow slide back into its frightening, hate-filled, and tyrannical past. This anxiety seemed to drive the comments of the Green Party’s Roth, who granted me — the only American reporter in the room covering the historic meeting between the Greens and the Central Council of the Jews — a brief interview after the meeting. "This is a discussion of German democracy after 1945," she told me. "Never again should a problem be solved on the backs of minorities. And it’s not just a question of anti-Semitism. It’s for gays, lesbians, and women. What does it mean in a country to truly have equal rights?"
I found Roth’s sentiments reflected in several of my private discussions with German citizens as well, discussions that I never wanted to have. Call it paranoia, but I had devised a simple survival plan for my trip to Germany: I would volunteer as little personal information as possible. I would remove the American-flag pin I habitually wear in Boston. I would say little or nothing about being Jewish. I would avoid discussions about the Middle East. And I would ask no questions about how people felt about Germany’s monstrous past. These unpleasant topics would be saved for my arranged interviews with politicians, professors, and policymakers. I wanted to spare myself the emotional cost of daily debate on the nature of Germany and get a fair look at the modern nation, aside from these questions. And, although I saw that Germany has left standing the Dachau concentration camp — which served as the "dress rehearsal for Auschwitz" — so that its citizens won’t ever forget what happened there (on a memorial near the front are the words never again in several languages), it’s hard to gauge the memorial’s impact on the daily lives of Germans.
My Germany-survival plan lasted just two hours into my first day, when I toured Berlin with Philipp Felsch, a graduate student in history hired by Germany’s Goethe-Institut to be my guide. Being paired with Felsch turned out to be a stroke of good luck. He was only a few years younger than I, shared my deep interest in history, and was eager to engage me in personal discussion. Soon after I expressed an interest in visiting Berlin’s Jewish Quarter, we got into a lengthy colloquy about the Holocaust, our first of several discussions on the subject — all refreshingly open and amicable. This all took place as we passed several Jewish restaurants in Berlin and the New Synagogue, guarded by a phalanx of police officers. The police presence reinforced a point I heard from many of Felsch’s compatriots about the current issues surrounding the country’s nascent anti-Semitism: Germany could not afford to see any violence at all targeted against its Jews. (The New Synagogue has been barricaded for some time, but security has been stepped up around all Jewish locations in Germany after two American Jews were beaten in early April.)
Aware of European-wide anti-Israel sentiment, I also originally planned to avoid much talk in unofficial conversations about the situation in the Middle East. Soon that resolution also fell by the wayside, and I found at least a modicum of goodwill toward Israel among some of those I talked with. The attitudes I saw sweeping Europe as a whole — rather than anything I witnessed in Germany itself — had led me to expect across-the-board anti-Israel sentiment. Instead, I found a nuanced spectrum of opinions, ranging from outright support of Israel to extreme discomfort with the idea that Germany might do anything to overtly harm the Jewish state. When, for example, I asked Felsch about the prospect of Germany sending troops as part of an "international force" to the West Bank to protect the Palestinians, he appeared physically queasy. "With our history, I can’t imagine Germany ever doing that," he said — a notion echoed by sources I spoke with in the country’s foreign ministry.
Throughout Germany, I found evidence of a determined effort to rectify relations with Jews. In Berlin, the most impressive example of this was the newly opened Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, a current Berlin resident who was born in Poland in 1946 and later emigrated to the United States (of which he’s still a citizen). The massive structure contains three elements intended to convey the broad strokes of Germany’s relationship with the Jews: the Axis of Continuity, which marks the continued Jewish presence in Germany; the Axis of Exile, which traces the flight of Jews from Germany to parts elsewhere, including Israel; and the Axis of Holocaust. Pointedly, the Axis of Exile ends in a garden, which contains earth from Israel, a symbolic acknowledgement of the link between Germany’s actions toward Jews and the existence of the Jewish state itself. The Axis of Holocaust concludes with a doorway, which visitors can walk through into an empty tower. (A museum security guard slams the door shut, leaving visitors in darkness; this suggested to me how it may have felt to be locked into a gas chamber at one of the SS-run death camps.) The museum also boasts exhibits devoted to Germany’s leading Jews — not just well-known individuals such as Albert Einstein, but also lesser-known, albeit important, people, such as Scientific Humanitarian Committee founder Magnus Hirschfeld, who was the first major gay-rights advocate in Germany, and the composer Otto Klemperer.
There are less-public manifestations of the same conciliatory impulse. During my exploration of Munich, my guide, a law student, took me through her university, where students were celebrating elections in the main hallway. We walked down a flight of stairs to a small exhibit marking the Weisse Rose ("White Rose") movement. This group, led by college students at the university, had been one of the few to explicitly challenge Hitler and to expose the Holocaust in pamphlets it created and distributed. After distributing their leaflets, members of the group were caught in this very foyer, where I spotted students drinking wine and where I had enjoyed a salami sandwich. They had been turned in by the university’s headmaster — not because he was a Nazi, but because he was a stickler: the students had violated longstanding school rules regarding appropriate conduct in the hallways. At the exhibit, I found a small group of Munich residents diligently preparing an expanded project on the history of Jews in their city. Both White Rose project director Michael Kaufmann and his colleague, Veronica Krapft, were appalled that a politician like Möllemann would attempt to exploit anti-Semitism in the current election.
OF COURSE, what really counts is the anti-Semitism espoused — or not — by politicians. There’s none of it in either major party. Bettina Martin, a smooth spokeswoman for the Social Democrats as well as an adept spinmeister who would not have been out of place in Bill Clinton’s war room, reiterated a line articulated by Schröder at the party’s convention in May: Möllemann is using "anti-Semitic sentiment to catch votes from the far right." Such tactics, she added, aren’t "acceptable in a democracy, and a coalition can’t be formed with them."
As for the Christian Democrats, party leader Edmund Stoiber — who currently heads the Bavarian Free State, one of 16 Lander ("states") in Germany’s federal system — also denounces Möllemann. I didn’t speak to Stoiber, who was busy campaigning (his slogan is "Laptops and Lederhosen"), but his comments were given to me by aides and widely available in the press. As though in a contest to determine who can condemn anti-Semitism the loudest, the Social Democrats complain that their denunciation of Möllemann came both earlier and more forcefully than the Christian Democrats’. What matters — and what won’t be known until after the election on September 22 — is whether the Christian Democrats will accept the FDP, with an ascendant Möllemann, as a coalition partner. Unlike the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats have not ruled out such a coalition.
In a recent Der Spiegel poll, almost 50 percent of respondents said they believe Germany still has a special responsibility for Jews. Interestingly, those who gave the highest positive response to this question were affiliated with the Greens at 79 percent, followed by the Social Democrats at 55 percent, and the Christian Democrats at just 40 percent. In this respect, the German Green Party outdoes the American version (both have links to the Global Greens movement). Unlike the American Greens, who are still struggling to find an identity and among whom virulently anti-Israel opinions are frequently voiced, the German Greens have emerged as relatively supportive of Israel. Although he strongly advocates negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Foreign Minister Fischer, the Greens’ highest-ranking politician, is uniquely outspoken among European politicians in favor of Israel’s right to self-defense. Fischer got his start in politics as a street-fighting anarchist in Frankfurt during the 1970s (Germany’s Der Stern magazine caused a stir last year when it published a 1973 photo of Fischer battling a police officer in a Frankfurt riot), during which time he harbored an anti-Israel bias. But over time, Fischer and other German Greens recognized that the anti-Israel sentiment of some groups often mutated into a form of anti-Semitism — something the Greens, with their strong sense of the burden of history, want to avoid at all costs. Determined to avoid such a stance, therefore, the Greens now defend Israel’s right to exist. It’s an evolution in thought that likely stems from the guilt many Germans feel about their country’s past.
Still, despite Der Spiegel’s poll and my conversations with ordinary Germans — which revealed positive developments in Germany’s relationship with its Jews, Israel, and even its past — the splashy magazine covers warning of burgeoning anti-Semitism are right on the mark. The evidence can be found in the same Der Spiegel poll that points to such progress. A little-remarked-upon question in the poll asked if respondents agreed with the following statement: "What Israel does with the Palestinians is in principle the same as what the Nazis in the Third Reich did to the Jews." Nearly a third of all respondents said yes.
It’s a sickening statistic that tells us two things about Germany. The first is that many Germans aren’t getting a fair picture of what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians. Whatever anyone may think about the conflict, it in no way resembles the whole-scale, deliberate, automated slaughter of one ethnic group by another that defined the Holocaust. The second thing it reveals is that nearly a third of the Germans who responded to Der Spiegel’s poll have absolutely no understanding of what their forebears did at places like Auschwitz, a killing factory at which 2000 Jews were routinely murdered each day. Operated at maximum capacity, Auschwitz’s system could kill 12,000 to 15,000 Jews daily. To even begin to compare this with what’s happening in the Middle East is ridiculous. The significance of doing so is obvious: a good chunk of the German population is tuning out the conversation about its past.
"For younger people, many are not interested in this discussion of anti-Semitism," says Holger Dohmen, a columnist at Hamburger Abendblatt, a right-leaning Hamburg daily newspaper. "Anti-Semitism is some sort of virtual discussion for them. When I talk to my daughters, who are 27 and 30, they don’t understand what I mean when I talk about the responsibility I feel about what my fathers and grandfathers have done."
With this in mind, Möllemann’s boast that he can capture 18 percent of the vote doesn’t seem so preposterous. Political analysts figure that the politician is trying to woo three distinct groups: members of Germany’s small but persistent far-right wing; members of Germany’s Islamic immigrant community; and the undecided young voters who no longer wish to be burdened by the past. Möllemann will probably get the first group. There aren’t enough voting immigrants who agree with him to make the second group statistically significant — unlike in France, where such immigrants make up a significant electoral bloc. The real question is how many voters in the third group will pull the voting lever for FDP candidates in the September election. As yet, nobody knows the answer.
Some optimists, such as the Social Democratic leaders I spoke with privately, have cited Der Spiegel’s poll results as evidence that Möllemann’s support is weak. Others, however, suggest the poll results may reflect something similar to the "Bradley effect." A phenomenon noted by American pollsters, the Bradley effect takes its name from former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley’s 1982 run for California governor. In that race, polls routinely showed Bradley, a moderate African-American, with a five percent lead over Republican George Deukmejian — who ultimately won the election. Pollsters determined that whites, fearing accusations of racism, had taken to lying about whom they planned to vote for. Experts in Germany, where political correctness has fused with the country’s tendency toward outward conformity, believe that more people may agree with Möllemann than the polls indicate.
"The problem of Möllemann will be solved by the election," says the Weisse Rose's Kaufmann. "If not, we have a real problem." Jay Tuck, an American who produces Tagesthemen, Germany’s most prominent television-newsmagazine program, has stopped running stories on the Möllemann/Friedman affair on the grounds that publicizing it only popularizes the FDP leader’s cause. "Minister Möllemann. Get used to it," Tuck says. "He could be the foreign minister."
THE MOST FRIGHTENING thing about Der Spiegel’s poll, however, is that the percentage of Germans who equate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with the Nazis’ treatment of Jews is the same as the percentage of voters who backed Hitler in 1930, his breakthrough year. It’s often forgotten that Hitler only came to power through a deal with Germany’s ruling class of industrialists and the military, which believed it could control him. The Nazis finished as the second-leading party in 1930 with more than six million votes, but this represented little more than 35 percent of the total vote. Only with collusion from other leaders, who offered him a place in the government, was Hitler ultimately voted in as chancellor in 1933.
None of this is to say that Möllemann is like Hitler. He isn’t, though he flirts with anti-Semitism. The point is that with nearly a third of Germany's voters likening Israel's recent actions to those of the Nazis in the Holocaust, there is fertile ground for the success of an anti-Semitic candidacy. In a system with proportional representation, this represents a frightening trend.
There’s a confusing maze near the end of Berlin’s Jewish Museum. One exhibit on Germany’s past follows another. Finally, visitors reach a section about modern Germany that tells the story of how the country has tried to assimilate immigrants and make itself into a more civilized place for Jews and others. When I left this final section about the Germany of today, I went through a door and found myself back in a section devoted to the Third Reich. I don’t know if that’s a deliberate part of the design, but the metaphor couldn’t be clearer: Germany’s present could lead to its past.
Seth Gitell can be reached at email@example.com
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