Anti-Semitism in Germany

Germany hip-hop MC Kollegah, AKA Felix Blume. Munich, 2015.

Thanks to global media, it is easy to feel like one knows the world. Few regions evoke such a deceptive feeling of being ‘known’ to the Western observer as the Middle East. But in reality, what do Europeans know about the region’s histories, cultures, and accents? To this German, they all look kind of the same. It wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t tell Alawites from Alevis.

I was therefore surprised when Joel Schalit first told me that he had noticed how many of the ‘Syrian’ refugees in Berlin and Europe were, in fact, Palestinians who had often been effectively stateless already in the second or third generation. It was something that not only had I never noticed. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to me.

We were sitting in a crowded Syrian restaurant in Neukölln, a working-class district of the German capital that has become the epitome of multiculturalism, to the degree that the occasional old-Berlin Eckkneipe already appears a beleaguered outpost. I remembered this encounter as I read Joel’s take on the recent German panic over Middle Eastern (read: Muslim) anti-Semitism in our midst because this debate has been flaring up again and again over the past few years.

When I met Joel in November, US President Donald Trump had recently announced his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which had just provoked a series of demonstrations in Berlin, which in turn triggered an alarmed discussion about anti-Semitism on the part of Middle Eastern immigrants. In the previous years, the city’s annual al-Quds Day demonstrations and protests against the Gaza war in 2014 had provided similar occasions for concern.

Joel told me something which he has repeated in his latest piece: that Germans misunderstand the anti-Israeli rage of Palestinians if they think of it primarily in terms of the racist, eliminatory anti-Semitism of the European kind which it outwardly resembles. Instead, they need to take into account the political situation in the Middle East. “The problem is,” he writes in his latest piece, “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.

How could I argue? Though I am drawn to disagree, it is not out of any deep understanding of Palestinian politics. Instead, my views on the Israel-Palestine conflict were shaped by that most German of phenomena: the radical pro-Zionist position of the anti-German left. At a very basic level, this view is founded on the argument that anti-Semitism is a structural component of capitalist modernity, not just a provincial innovation of Middle Europe, and that it lies at the root of a very large portion of the contemporary hostility against the Jewish state – as Mahmoud Abbas apparently set out to prove once again recently.

From this vantage point, the cynicism with which large parts of the English-speaking left are willing to overlook or excuse the often patently obvious anti-Semitic ideology of large parts of the opposition to the Israeli ‘occupations’ in lieu of a Manichean anti-Israeli narrative is nothing short of disturbing. But equally – though, in my opinion, with less justification – it may disturb the Anglo left to know that Germany’s most prominent radical leftist magazine (for which I have often written) has only recently published a full speech on Zionism by Benjamin Netanyahu himself, and even supplied it with a glowing preface.

This, mind you, is the ‘left-wing’ of the anti-German left – not the neoconservative ‘right-wing’, which rails against a perceived multiculturalist, Islamophilic German consensus, and supports neoconservative politicians, Donald Trump, or anti-immigrant parties in Europe.

Though I am convinced that the American and British left, in particular, would greatly benefit from engaging with these German discussions, this is not the space to bridge that ideological gulf. So I want to merely take issue with the last part of Joel’s statement, which he formulated against towards the end of his piece: that the particular challenge Germans are confronting is the task 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.

I take this to mean that German society should resist brandishing Palestinian anti-Israeli political statements as akin to Neo-Nazi right-wing extremism, and thus replicating the deadlock of the right-wing Israeli discourse Joel criticises, in which anti-Israeli anger is essentialised as ‘anti-Semitic hatred’ and the political contexts of occupation, oppression, and Israeli violence are erased. I take the point but believe that in the German debate more, hopefully at least, is going on than that.

There are a million reasons to feel uneasy about the ‘Muslim anti-Semitism’ debate in Europe. It plays into racial fears and resentments against Middle Eastern and Muslim minorities of any kind. How do we address the issue without playing into the right-wing’s hand, which increasingly tries to brand itself as post-anti-Semitic and pro-Israel? It is a contradiction with which even Europe’s Jewish communities themselves are struggling.

Josef Schuster, head of the German Jewish Council, declared at a recent memorial service at the Dachau concentration camp that he, of course, does not want to condemn all Muslims, “and yet we cannot close our eyes to the fact that among some Muslims there exists a pronounced Anti-Semitism”. In a recent survey of German Jews, 62% of the respondents said the anti-Semitic insults, and 81% of the respondents stated that the physical attacks they experienced, were, in their estimation, by Muslims, while only 19% had experienced insults and physical attacks by right-wing extremists.

Meanwhile, the Austrian Jewish community struggles to square the fact that it boycotts the governing far-right FPÖ party, even though – as some have claimed openly – a sizable portion of Austria’s Jews seems to have voted for it. And the Vice-President of the European Jewish Congress, Ariel Muzikant, has stated: “Even though the left becomes ever more critical towards Israel, and occasionally crosses the line towards anti-Semitism, while the right presents itself as ever more pro-Israel, we have to remain principled.”

At the same time, even traditionally non-far right voices have discovered that anti-immigrant sentiments can best be packaged in a neo-conservative defence of Western liberty. Even in Europe, it’s the Judeo-Christian West, all of a sudden.

It’s a mess. And justified are those who are sick of how this issue is being instrumentalised against minorities, be it by Israeli hardliners who are eager to argue against peaceful coexistence with Muslims, or by German nationalists who are eager to agitate against Muslims, period.

But what can we do? Since the whole world seems to be speaking about Muslim anti-Semitism already anyway, little would be won if a few self-conscious left-liberal voices merely refused to join into the chorus. And I would go even further: there are good reasons why this is a discussion which German society should be having.

In the weeks pre-dating the current debate about the anti-Semitic assault in Berlin, the eternal media discussion about anti-Semitism (in this particular instance not directly coded as Muslim anti-Semitism) revolved around successful hip-hop MC Kollegah, née Felix Blume. Kollegah is one of the fewer successful street rappers not of immigrant background, but he converted to the Muslim faith and has made many public proclamations on ‘the Palestinian cause’.

“Apokalypse,” an insane 2013, 13-minute long track, chronicles Kollegah’s heroic struggles to liberate the world from an old evil force which has sought to control the fate of mankind throughout history. This force currently resides in the banking metropolis of London but must be defeated in Jerusalem.

If you haven’t got the hint, there’s also a Star of David somewhere in there. Of course, the song is, like most gangsta-rap narratives, silly and ironic in a post-modern way, but its content is also obviously anti-Semitic at the same time. The video has had millions of views on Youtube and hasn’t stopped Kollegah from becoming one of the consistently bestselling musicians in the country. So this isn’t about a tiny minority of dangerous extremists – it’s mass culture, right now.

Photograph courtesy of Pistenwolf/Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.