The Kippa Crisis

We are all Semites. Turkish-German Greens MP Cem Özdemir.

“Muslims are the enemy,” the cab driver told me. “My parents grew up in Iraq. They learned firsthand that their middle name is jihad.” “When did your parents make Aliyah,” I asked him. “In the 1950s, as kids,” he answered.

I should have known better. The driver had asked me where I was flying, and I’d told him Berlin. The first thing he said was “They beat Jews up for wearing kippot there,” as though I hadn’t been there before. “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

Few cities in Europe are more beloved by Israelis than Berlin. The new point of entry into the EU, following decades of migration to London and Paris, the German capital, with its low cost of living, and Middle Eastern public sphere is an ideal bridging space from the Eastern Mediterranean.

That means that when you say you’re going to Berlin, Israelis also know how Muslim it is. “If you’re referring to the kippa beating,” I replied, “that took place in Paris. Political relations between Jews and French Arabs are much more charged there.”

A few weeks earlier, Tzvika Klein, a kippa and tzitzit-wearing American journalist had videotaped himself walking through Muslim neighbourhoods, being subject to racist insults, and published the video on Israeli tabloid Maariv’s NRG website. Of course, it went viral. Ma’ariv is Israel’s second-most read newspaper.

For Jewish conservatives seeking to affirm the persistence of anti-Semitism in Europe, Klein’s video was manna from heaven. Coming two months after the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which four Jews were killed by French Muslims, the narrative was like applying bacteria to an open wound. It was a ready-made argument for immigrating to Israel.

Trouble can be called in, though. You just have to know where to apply the pressure. If this had happened today, it would get called fake news, generated by a right-wing reporter hoping to get victimised. And it was another wedge driven between Muslims and Jews in Europe. As though we needed another.

I couldn’t help but get on my flight and bemoan the instability that media like this had created for my own residency in Europe. Inevitably, friends and family would fear for my safety, and I would be patronisingly reminded that I would just have to work through my naivete before returning home.

I live in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, equal parts Turkish and Palestinian. It’s a perfect dinner party irritant to disclose in Israel, where I always get asked why I chose to live amongst terrorists.  Nevermind the nudniks, an elderly cousin once whispered in my ear. You’re getting the same experience of Semitic diversity we had during the Mandate.

It’s not that living with Muslims is better than living with Jews. It’s just better living in a Middle Eastern community, as their culture can be more familiar, and reassuring, than that of the Germans. That we are in Berlin is still obvious. The experience is still very much one of both worlds. The Arab part makes the European one easier, particularly in light of the Holocaust.

Berlin Childhood

Part of that overcoming is allowing Jews to live freely where they so choose. Within reason, of course. Dispossessing Palestinians of their homes simply because we have the ability to do so is wrong. But resettling in poor neighbourhoods, inherently diverse, in cities such as post-Cold War Berlin, is not. We were once native to the region, like Palestine, but within memory.

The problem with discourses about Jewish vulnerability in Europe is that it is predicated on dispossessing another Semitic people, albeit in the Middle East. Surely, Jewish trauma, as a consequence of the Holocaust, plays a role. We can only be safe in spaces where we are a majority, and in military control.

However, to artificially amplify sectarian tensions between minority communities, when diversity abroad may enhance Israel’s security at home, is self-destructive. Where would Israel be without a strong Jewish community in the United States? The same logic ought to apply to Germany, too.

This lesson is often lost on Europe in internal Jewish discussions about our ability to live there. Given how Jews have flourished, in both Israel and America since WWII, without a doubt, there are good arguments to be made about living there, for many, that are just as valid as the call to return to the Holy Land. Safety is first. Where you find it ought to be secondary.

But, given the choice, not every Jew would choose to uproot themselves and start their lives over again, anywhere, irrespective of the opportunities that might await them in Tel Aviv or New York. We often forget that it was poverty and discrimination that drove Jewry from Europe. To try and inspire such movement without it is manipulative and genocidal.

The problem is when incitement, for lack of a better word, like that of Tzvika Klein, gets taken up by the other side, without prompting, ignorant of how it might be interpreted in a country that tried to liquidate Jewry. The April 2018 attack on a kippa-wearing Israeli Arab, in Berlin, who, ironically, was trying to showcase the city’s tolerance, is a perfect case in point.

The Syrian youth who attacked him, who was also caught on video that similarly went viral, ended up confirming the conclusions of Klein’s 2015 recording. Jews are unsafe throughout Europe, and Muslims, no matter where they come from – the Maghreb or Idlib – are their sworn enemies. My Mizrahi cab driver could not have felt more correct.

That is, in the intellectually vacuous, superficial world of right-wing politics, which feeds off of fear, without reference to context. Consistently referred to as anti-Semitism, the Berlin attack is inevitably removed from the Arab-Israeli conflict, and recent events, such as the Israeli army’s killings of unarmed Palestinian protestors on the border with Gaza.

Without a doubt, the German inclination to call the attack anti-Semitic has merit. In Germany, violence against Jews is historically racist. The problem is when that racism has a political element to it not informed by German history or culture, which Germans misunderstand. This is the challenge of integrating refugees from countries party to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nine out of ten of the Syrian refugees I meet in Berlin are of Palestinian origin. As I have written elsewhere, many of them are in Europe as second and third country displaced persons, having previously lived in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Coming from a region plagued by civil war the last seven years, encountering Jews is going to be explosive.

That’s not to exonerate the teenager who belted the kippa-wearer. Rather, it is to point out that what’s wrong is the German take on what happened, and why this is not another incident of fascist racism. Nor, for that matter, is it an opportunity for the Germans to demonstrate their sense of responsibility for their Jewish compatriots, either. 

The challenge of understanding Arab violence against European Jews is appreciating geography. Europe is the most important and obvious place of Muslim-Jewish encounter outside of the Middle East. It also the most likely place for it, as it plays host to both minority communities, who inevitably come into contact with one another in ways they would not in Israel or America.

What is incumbent on the Germans, given their history of anti-Semitism, is to not play to their own insecurities about protecting Jews by reinforcing Jewish fears of renewed racism. Rather, the mitzvah that Germany must perform is to promote the idea that the country is a place that the Arab-Israeli conflict can be politically worked through in ways that defy its own history.

Introducing the Outerclass

Screenshot courtesy of Deutsche Welle. All rights reserved.