HAMBURG, Germany — Europe is living through a new wave of anti-Semitism. The president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews calls it the worst the Continent has seen since World War II. He may well be right. Attacks on synagogues are an almost weekly occurrence, and openly anti-Semitic chants are commonplace on well-attended marches from London to Rome. And yet it is here, in Germany, where the rise in anti-Semitism is most historically painful.
On Sunday, thousands of people marched through Berlin in response, and heard both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck denounce the resurgence in anti-Jewish hatred.
We’ve seen this before, of course. But there’s an important difference this time. The new anti-Semitism does not originate solely with the typical white-supremacist neo-Nazi; instead, the ugly truth that many in Europe don’t want to confront is that much of the anti-Jewish animus originates with European people of Muslim background.
Until recently, Germany has been unwilling to discuss this trend. Germans have always seen Muslim anti-Semitism as a less problematic version of the “original” version, and therefore a distraction from the well-known problem of anti-Jewish sentiment within a majority of society.
And yet the German police have noted a disturbing rise in the number of people of Arabic and Turkish descent arrested on suspicion of anti-Semitic acts in recent years, especially over the last several months. After noticing an alarming uptick in anti-Semitic sentiment among immigrant students, the German government is considering a special fund for Holocaust education.
Of course, anti-Semitism didn’t originate with Europe’s Muslims, nor are they its only proponents today. The traditional anti-Semitism of Europe’s far right persists. So, too, does that of the far left, as a negative byproduct of sympathy for the Palestinian liberation struggle. There’s also an anti-Semitism of the center, a subcategory of the sort of casual anti-Americanism and anticapitalism that many otherwise moderate Europeans espouse.
But the rise of Muslim anti-Semitism is responsible for the recent change in the tone of hate in Germany. Until recently, the country’s anti-Semitism has been largely coded and anonymous. Messages might be spray-painted on walls at night; during the day, though, it would be rare to hear someone shout, as protesters did in Berlin in July, “Jews to the gas!” Another popular slogan at this and other rallies was “Jew, coward pig, come out and fight alone!” — shouted just yards from Berlin’s main Holocaust memorial. And this is the difference today: An anti-Semitism that is not only passionate, but also unaware of, or indifferent to, Germany’s special history.
Talking to Muslim friends, I can’t help but believe that the audacity of today’s anti-Semitism is in part a result of the exploitation of a “victim status,” an underdog sentiment that too many European Muslims have embraced enthusiastically. This is not just the sort of social-science explanation we often hear for hatred, as racism from people who are themselves the victims of racism and discrimination.
Yes, there is discrimination against and exclusion of Muslims in Europe, and many of them certainly have reason to be frustrated. But this sentiment is more complex, born not only from how someone feels about himself and his neighbors, but about himself and his country. It is twofold: Germany’s history is not my history. And: I’ll never fully belong to your nation anyway, so why should I take on its burdens as you do?
One friend, whose parents are from Turkey, told me that when she learned about the Holocaust at her German school, she wondered what all that had to do with her biography. As someone born in 1973, though with blond hair, I could ask the same question.
The point is, it’s not about personal involvement; it is not in our blood, but it is in our history, in the timeline of a place that migrants have become part of. For Germans, accepting responsibility for the Holocaust has to mean feeling ultimately and more than any other nations’ citizens responsible for keeping the memory of its horrors alive — simply because those crimes were ordered from our soil.
Nothing more, but also nothing less has to be expected from every citizen of this country, no matter where her or his parents are from.
What has become obvious this summer is that the “old” Germans have not yet managed to properly deliver this message to all the “new” Germans. Emotionally, this may have been understandable, given how many “bio-Germans,” as we call ethnic Germans, actually had Nazi family members that they still got to know, which may have made them wary of telling others what to think.
But the lesson of the Holocaust is a lesson for mankind. And it’s every German’s job to make that clear at all times and to everyone, regardless of where you think you come from.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.