Never-ending fight Germany’s bureaucratic answer to rising anti-Semitism

The Bundestag is appointing a commissioner to fight anti-Semitism as hate crimes surge. Some doubt this will make Jews feel safe again in Germany.
Angela Merkel commemorating Nazi crimes at a Berlin synagogue.

When Donald Trump decided last month to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, he probably didn’t suspect the move would fan the flames of anti-Semitism in Germany, of all places. But it did.

It also triggered events that culminated in the Bundestag appointing a commissioner to combat anti-Semitism.

As thousands in Berlin demonstrated against Mr. Trump’s decision last month, angry pro-Palestinian protesters burned Israeli flags and Jewish symbols. The incidents, coupled with shouts of “Death to the Jews” in front of Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate — close to the American embassy — caused outrage across Germany. Months of anti-Semitic incidents compounded the general dismay.

But burning flags and anti-Jewish chants at the famous monument forced politicians to act. Five of the seven parties in the lower chamber of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, have jointly submitted a proposal proposing a federal commissioner to combat anti-Semitism. This echoed calls by representatives of the Jewish community in Germany, whose pleas long fell on deaf ears.

“The Bundestag condemns and opposes any form of anti-Semitism,” the draft says in its introduction. Titled “Determined to combat Anti-Semitism,” the draft lists 16 measures to counter the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment.

On Thursday, lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in favor of creating a new appointee for anti-Semitism after a two-hour session. The four parliamentary groups that jointly prepared the bill, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc in the Bundestag, voted in favor. The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, also supported the bill, while the Left Party, which had been excluded from preparatory work, abstained in protest.

Jewish life is only possible in public under police protection and strictest security precautions. Charlotte Knobloch, former chairwoman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

According to the bill, the commissioner will coordinate measures taken by the German government to tackle anti-Semitism. They will also become the main contact persons for Jewish communities, the civil society and federal states. Several German states, including Baden-Württemberg or North Rhine-Westphalia, have in recent weeks appointed their own delegates against anti-Semitism.

“Anyone living in Germany cannot be an anti-Semite,” said Volker Kauder, who leads Ms. Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc in the Bundestag. He added that it was society’s responsibility to ensure that Jewish life is protected from fear in the future.

Mr. Kauder’s words echoed those of the former chairwoman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Right now, “Jewish life is only possible in public under police protection and the strictest security precautions,” Charlotte Knobloch told German media in late December. Alternatively, events “end up being canceled altogether for security reasons,” she deplored. Ms. Knobloch, also a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, made the statement shortly after a Hanukkah chandelier was vandalized in Baden-Württemberg. The same week, a public Hanukkah celebration was called off in North Rhine-Westphalia due to a shortage of security staff.

According to official data, almost four anti-Semitic incidents occur every day in Germany. The interior ministry recorded 681 incidents in the first six months of last year alone — 4 percent more than in the first half of 2016. These include verbal abuse, propagating anti-Jewish material and physical assault.

The sprawling Holocaust memorial is just one block away from the Bundestag building — and the US embassy.

Although far-right extremists were responsible for a whopping 93 percent of the incidents recorded last year, anti-Semitism among Muslim arrivals has led to scrutiny and concern. Many fear that immigrants from Arab countries, where hatred of Israel is rife, are “importing” anti-Jewish sentiment to Germany. Earlier this year, Sawsan Chebli, a minister in Berlin’s state government with Palestinian roots, suggested that refugees be made to visit former concentration camps in order to catch up on the history of the Holocaust. Though thin on detail, the proposal by Ms. Chebli — a practicing Muslim — was widely praised.

This is why the anti-immigrant AfD party unexpectedly voted in favor of the bill on Thursday, despite its own checkered record on Jewish concerns. The far-right party has repeatedly come under fire for revisionist statements downplaying the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. During the debate in the Bundestag, AfD lawmaker Beatrix von Storch accused Muslims of being anti-Jewish and demanded more immigrants be deported. Lawmakers from other parties lambasted Ms. von Storch for conveniently ignoring anti-Jewish hatred "within your own ranks."

Not everybody agrees that a new appointee can make a difference. Michael Wolffsohn, a German-Israeli historian, called the bill a "well-intentioned but completely naïve bureaucratic idea.”

The son of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in 1939, Mr. Wolffsohn told public broadcaster MDR Kultur on Thursday that he doubted such an institution would defeat 3,000 years of anti-Semitism. “If any politician thinks he or she can eliminate such a deep-seated human prejudice by appointing an additional authority, that’s very nice, but also completely naïve — not to say megalomaniac.”

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: [email protected].