Class Enemy Anti-Semitism at School in Berlin

Some Jewish families in Berlin are afraid to send their kids to public schools, fearing anti-Semitic reprisals. Teachers are often helpless.
Some Jewish families are concerned about sending their kids to regular public schools in Berlin, fearing anti-Semitism. Picture source: Picture Alliance / DPA

It was in early April when Berliners learned about the latest anti-Semitic incident at one of their state-run schools. A 14-year-old student of British origin had faced nearly four months of verbal harrassment after he revealed his Jewish identity at school. When the verbal attacks escalated into physical violence, his mother decided to pull the boy from the school, resulting in a flurry of international news reports and a renewed episode of German soul-searching over how to respond.

The student, who asked to remain anonymous, attended a high school in Berlin's Friedenau district — a densely populated, but quiet area in southern Berlin, known for both its shopping streets and calm residential neighborhoods. The Friedenauer Gemeinschaftsschule, the high school the Jewish teenager attended, has a close to 75 percent share of students of non-German background, data by the Berlin administration shows - many of them of Arab and Turkish origin.

It was this mix of cultures that had originally attracted the teenager's parents. But when their son told his fellow students about his Jewish background, he was met with hostility, his mother told the Jewish Chronicle. "Listen, you are a cool dude but I can’t be friends with you, Jews are all murderers," one of the boy's classmates said, according to his mother.

The situation reached its tipping point when a group of students physically attacked the teenager and "almost strangled" him, while pulling a toy gun on him that looked like a real gun, the mother told the Jewish Chronicle.

The student now attends a different school, but the case has led to public outcry, with the head of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, calling for an investigation by the Berlin education ministry.

But Berlin's education ministry says such incidents are isolated cases, adding that Jewish students only rarely had to switch schools due to anti-Semitic incidents. But the principal of the Moses Mendelssohn Jewish High School in Berlin, Aaron Eckstaedt, told the Jewish Chronicle that his school receives six to ten applications each year from Jewish parents who want to move their kids from other schools due to anti-Semitic incidents.

Anti-Semitic tendencies and even attacks, are hard to measure, as many insults are never reported. But the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism, know under the acronym RIAS, which receives financial support from Berlin's education ministry, said that anti-Semitic incidents increased last year: Up 16 percent to 470 reported cases, from the year prior. Berlin's police, which only registers crimes people filed official complaints about, only reported 174 anti-Semitic offenses last year.

Statistics don’t always make note of who carried out the attacks, whether neo-Nazis or radical Muslims. Many times it cannot be determined who the perpetrators were at all. However, Jews in Berlin are reporting that they are often threatened by Muslim youths — even when many victims often added they don’t want to contribute to anti-Muslim sentiment.

Islamic radicalization is resulting in more anti-Semitism in certain circles. That doesn’t change the fact that most Muslims are not anti-Semitic. Dilek Kolat, Berlin Health Senator

That was the case in 2016 when a Jew was beaten up in a central Berlin district, or when a man running a hamburger shop in downtown Berlin told a customer he didn’t serve Jews. Or in 2015 when youths in Kreuzberg spat on a man wearing a Jewish skullcap. Just prior to that, Arabs had beaten up a Jew there. Last year, five schools reported vulgar behavior and mobbing to the police - even though everyone assumes the actual number to be much higher.

There is little research on the scale of antisemitism in Arab countries, but a Pew poll from 2011 shows a large majority of people there hold unfavorable opinions of Jews.

Researchers say too little effort is put into teaching Western and German values to many of the old and new immigrants, including about the country's relationship with Jewish communities. There are only a handful of smaller studies that look at the differences in anti-Semitic attitudes between German students without a migration background and those who have at least one parent that moved to Germany after 1949.

While only 2 percent of German teenagers agree with the statement that, "Jews had too much influence in the world," nearly 36 percent of the children with Arab background and some 20.9 percent of the students with a Turkish background agreed, a 2010 study by the University of Bielefeld showed.

But Berlin's Social Democratic health senator, Dilek Kolat, warns against drawing conclusions too fast. "We need to encourage teachers to deal aggressively with such cases,” Ms. Kolat said in reference to the teenager in Friedenau. But the “tense situation in the world” played a role, she said. “Islamic radicalization is resulting in more anti-Semitism in certain circles. That doesn’t change the fact that most Muslims are not anti-Semitic.”

Many educators have no awareness of the problem. Or have simply given it up. Daniel Alter, Berlin rabbi

But many teachers and members of Berlin's Jewish community point out that the slogan "You Jew!" has become one of the most popular slang terms among students in predominantly Muslim schools and neighborhoods.

Even in tranquil Friedenau, the current case isn’t the first. A three-minute walk away from the school, an Arab youth asked a rabbi in August 2012, “Are you a Jew?” And broke his cheekbone. His little daughter was standing next to him.

Five years later, the rabbi is walking through Friedenau. After the attack, Daniel Alter had visited the school class himself with an imam. He explained to the children what Judaism is all about, why tolerance and respect were important, what constituted a democracy. “I did it gladly,” said Mr. Alter. “Even if it wasn’t always easy.”

For the rabbi,  the fight against prejudice is part of teacher education.

Certainly, a lot is being done, Mr. Alter admits. “But everywhere just a little bit, and it is not coordinated. A real strategy against anti-Semitism is lacking.”

Mr. Alter walks by the Friedenau high school. He said he doesn’t want to appear “didactic and disapproving,” and does not want to be considered a complainer. “Many educators have no awareness of the problem,” Mr. Alter said. “Or have simply given it up. A jolt of values needs to pass through society. Anti-Semites not only persecute Jews but also reject our open, democratic society.”

Jewish communities across Germany are concerned over anti-Semitism in schools.

Micha Brumlik, a former professor and educational scientist who works for the Center for Jewish Studies in Berlin, said teachers needed help in dealing with the widespread anti-Semitism among children whose families come from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. "Even when it comes to the minor incidents, it is best to explain things to the children, give them facts, insist on an apology," Mr. Brumlik said.

For students with such a background, anti-Semitism is often motivated by Middle Eastern conflicts, the stories their parents tell them at home and the news they see on TV, experts say. One teacher at a school in downtown Berlin, asking to remain anonymous as her principal had not authorized her to speak, said her students stubbornly regard the Holocaust as something the Israelis made up.

“Their parents don’t allow any other view. The Shoa, the Nazi’s genocide of Europe's Jews, is the propaganda of unbelievers,” the teacher explained her students' attitudes. “They have never seen Jews, their families hardly ever leave the district.”

For many of her students, the teacher said, only Germans are associated with racism. The Muslim population are seen as the victims of this. Adolescents were now not only yelling “Jew” or “fag” to taunt their fellow students, she said, but also use “Christian,” “Gypsy,” and sometimes “Kurd” and “Armenian” as epithets.

The German government and the city of Berlin sponsor many educational projects to allow social workers and religious leaders, as well as young and old Jews to visit schools. The office of Berlin's education senator, Sandra Scheeres, points to the curriculum offering “a wide range of starting points” for taking up the subject of anti-Semitism. There is also advanced training for educators; in addition, last school year the project “Strengthening Democracy- Active Against Salafism and Anti-Semitism” started and 50 teachers took part.

There is, however, no authoritative person or office to check the success of such projects. Germany lacks a coordinating commissioner on a state or federal level, someone who could keep tabs on anti-Semitic crime and the initiatives developed to tackle it.

Calls for such a position have been voiced frequently by Germany's Jewish community and even a government-tasked panel of experts in 2011 suggested its creation.

But until now, schools and teachers are mainly asked to find a solution to the problem on their own. Sabrina Oehler, a teacher at an elementary school in Berlin's Neukölln district, has launched her own education project on the Holocaust, teaching children as young as ten years old about the Nazi atrocities.

Almost 560 children attend the school Ms. Oehler is teaching at, and 92 percent of them are of non-German origin, 80 percent from households on welfare, and 30 percent don't hold a German passport. Even in families that have adopted German citizenship, many  quite naturally identify themselves as Arabs, Turks, or Albanians.

On a sunny day in April, Ms. Oehler asks her grade five students to read out loud parts of a children's book on the Holocaust called "Papa Weidt." The book, written by Holocaust survivor Inge Deutschkorn, tells the story of Otto Weidt, a German broom-maker who saved the lives of several of the Jewish employees at his factory.

Ms. Oehler speaks slowly, sentence by sentence. She wants the children to realize that the hatred toward Jews ended in mass murder. That it wasn’t water that came out of the showers in the camps, but gas. That six million men, women and children died.

“Six million,” one boy interrupted, “that’s as many as a whole country!”

The teacher waits to have him read further and once again explains in her own words how hate defined life back then. “There were people lurking everywhere who wanted to kill Jewish people. Just imagine that happening to Muslims!”

At the end of the lesson, Ms. Oehler lets another one of her students have a chance at reading. “Alice came to Aus... Ausch... Auschwitz”, Sinan reads aloud with great effort. “It was a death ... camp.” After the recess bell, the boy who was amazed about the six million dead, says: “I thought the book was good. I mean, just so I can know what it was like.”


Hannes Heine is an author with Tagesspiegel. Tina Bellon is an editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected] , [email protected]