Anti-Semitism is alive and well in Germany
Germany needs a booster injection for its ‘never again’ vaccine against the anti-Semitic virus
A participant of the ‘Berlin wears a kippa’ movement. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images
Once upon a time, Yorai Feinberg was the man with Berlin’s best Israeli food. In his eponymous restaurant, the Israeli man’s eyes shine with delight as he discusses what makes his falafel – dark brown outside, glowing emerald green inside – so good. But a wary shadow returns to his eyes, however, when talk turns to his health and the attack.
“When I came here to Berlin six years ago it was very nice, drunk guys hugged me saying ‘you’re welcome’,” he says. “But now I don’t know.”
Money is all you Jews have on your mind. You’ll all land in your stupid gas chambers
Just before Christmas, having a smoke outside his restaurant, a man came over and became berating him. In a six-minute video, shot by Mr Feinberg’s girlfriend, the 60 year old shifts effortlessly from attacking Israeli politics towards something darker. If you want an instructional video in letting your anti-Semite mask fall, this is it.
“Money is all you Jews have on your mind,” the man shouted. “You’ll all land in your stupid gas chambers. Nobody wants you here.”
Mr Feinberg hailed down passing police who detained the man and later charged him with defamation, incitement and resisting arrest. Five months on, Feinberg is full of praise for the police, who regularly pass by the restaurant in a patrol car. And what became of the man? Feinberg shrugs his shoulders.
Since German unification in 1990, the popular narrative surrounding anti-Semitism in Germany has been straightforward: isolated incidents involving young, drunk skinheads in eastern Germany. Added to the narrative in recent years: testosterone-filled young men from families with Arab and Turkish roots.
But with almost two attacks a day on Jews and Jewish venues in Germany now, and Jewish research groups documenting many more, that narrative no longer holds up.
Ingolf Schaller, the man who attacked Mr Feinberg, is a grey-haired physiotherapist in western Berlin. Until recently he practised in a 19th century building in a leafy residential street where, beside the door, 20 brass “stumbling stone” plaques recall 20 Jewish residents of this building murdered in Riga, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
“I’m very unhappy with what happened. I feel attacked by Mr Feinberg,” said Mr Schaller.
Why? He felt “provoked” by the menora – the seven-armed Jewish candelabra – in the restaurant window. The video shows him pointing to it, shouting, “I don’t want to see this here.”
Ask him today why not, and he says: “I’ve been apolitical for 40 years but Netanyahu politics make me furious.”
So furious that he felt entitled to blame Mr Feinberg personally, bring up gas chambers and threaten Jews in Germany with genocide?
“That’s not like me,” he says cryptically before ending the conversation.
Given Germany’s tragic past, it’s not surprising that media reports about Jewish life here often accentuate the positive: young Israelis embracing the hedonistic freedoms of the country their grandparents fled. But no feel-good reportage can change how, though growing, the Jewish population today is still less than half that of 1933, at about 270,000. Official figures suggest today’s Germany has as many Buddhists as Jews.
There is a more pessimistic counter-narrative, that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the land of the Holocaust. Despite police guards on synagogues and Jewish buildings, it’s a narrative many would rather overlook.
If a rabbi is attacked or an Israeli couple spat on near the Brandenburg Gate, all such events are brushed off, after two days of outrage, as regrettable one-off incidents. But pressure is building now for Germany to address an anti-Semitic triple threat.
The first threat is from asylum seekers and refugees raised in Syria and other countries where Israel, Judaism and Zionism are mixed together and served up with mother’s milk.
The effects were clear two weeks ago when a 20 year-old Israeli student, Adam Armoush, wore a kippa on the street to prove to a friend how safe Berlin was for Jews. He was set upon by three Arab-speaking men, including a 19-year-old Palestinian man raised in Syria and now a refugee in Germany, who flogged him with his belt shouting “yahudi” – Arabic for jew.
The second anti-Semitic threat is from young second- and third-generation men from immigrant families raised on satellite television from Turkey and neighbouring countries that mixes anti-Jewish stereotypes with demands to exterminate Israel for its Palestinian politics.
Regular Palestine solidarity marches in major German cities often descend into young men, under the eye of police, burning Israel flags and chanting slogans like “Jew! Jew! Cowardly Pig!”
This second threat has now reached German schools. Earlier this month, 15-year-old Berliner Liam Rückert, tired of dealing with “shitty Jew” remarks and death threats in school, told the Bild tabloid he was now moving to boarding school in Israel.
“The [Berlin] school board had no understanding at all for my son’s situation,” said his mother, Billy Rückert.
We have primary school children beating up Jewish pupils
Anti-Semitic bullying and threats at German schools are now as common, parents say, as school management viewing them as a greater risk to the school’s reputation than the perpetrators.
Ms Vladislava Zdesenko, a Berlin lawyer, has urged Jewish parents to come forward and press charges to increase political pressure for greater action and education work.
“We have primary school children beating up Jewish pupils,” she said. “We can only act repressively, by pursuing their parents.”
She sees the growing situation in Germany as part of a wider problem in Europe: how to react when one group attacks western fundamental values to attack another group? But Germany suffers from a unique “misunderstood political correctness” towards minorities, she argues: a lack of will to defend – and impose – the non-negotiable social contract that emerged from the painful lessons of its own history.
“We find ourselves in a cul-de-sac over what do when our societal consensus is tested by one ethnic or religious group attacking a minority: Jews, women, homosexuals,” she said.
The paradox of Germany’s “never again” lip service became clear this month when an “Echo” prize – the local equivalent of a Grammy – went to a rapper duo who sang about having bodies “more defined than an Auschwitz prisoner”.
It took two weeks – and dozens of returned prizes from previous winners – for the prize committee to abolish the awards on Thursday in their current form.
That move was criticised hours later as a rebranding exercise by those filling an entire city block of Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse for a solidarity demonstration: “Berlin wears the kippa”.
It was an historically burdened site for a demo: between the post-war synagogue that replaced the original structure burned in Nazi-organised looting in 1938, and a hotel seized from its Jewish owners a year earlier. The date was historic, too: 85 years ago to the day since the Nazis passed a law squeezing Jews out of universities.
Berlin mayor Michael Müller told the kippa-wearing crowd that “our fundamental values are non-negotiable” but, asked about his concrete plans to defend these rights, he talked instead of the need for “everyone to be alert, every day, everywhere”.
Pouring a sauce of harmony over everything will not do our society any good
In a speech Mr Josef Schuster, head of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany, called out political lip service and took a swipe, too, at efforts by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to hijack anti-Semitic attacks for their anti-Muslim policies.
“We’ve had enough,” he said, demanding “100 per cent respect” for all minorities in Germany. He warned that “pouring a sauce of harmony over everything will not do our society any good”.
As the demo broke up, many Jews in the crowd said the reason they were not even more anti-Semitic attacks in Germany was because they had learned to be scrupulously discreet.
“It’s not brave to wear the kippa at this demo but it would be to wear it home,” said Myriam, a 68 year-old Berliner, watching the crowd removing their hats as they left.
Waiting for disaster
Back in the cellar-cum-office of his Berlin restaurant, surrounded by bottles of oil and kosher wine, Yorai Feinberg looks like a man in a nuclear bunker, awaiting disaster.
After last December’s attack he was touched by a groundswell of support from Berliners. Now he is tired.
Every day his restaurant gets answering machine bookings, in accented German, like: “Fuck off Jews. We will put you in the oven and kill you. Heil Hitler.”
Pulling out his mobile phone he shows a series of online bookings, including one from Adolf Hitler personally, using the made-up email address like “firstname.lastname@example.org”(Better-without-Jews).
After seven decades, Germany is seeking a new booster injection for its “never again” vaccine against the old anti-Semitic virus – for refugees, Turkish-German youths and even ageing German physiotherapists like Ingolf Schaller. Five months ago, he shouted at Mr Feinberg: “No one will help you. In 10 years, you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
Berlin’s state prosecutor said the investigation against Mr Schaller was ongoing and that a decision was “imminent” on whether to proceed with the charge of incitement.
Emerging from his bunker, wearing his kippa and a tired smile, Mr Feinberg said he was “very disappointed” with the state prosecutor.
“Will there be Jews living in Germany in a decade?” he wonders aloud. “I don’t know.”