Learning to Live Together

Anti-fascist demonstration. Berlin, May 2018.

“Heil Hitler,” the shout rang out as we disembarked from the train. The largely Arab passengers were taken aback, immediately scanning the platform. Several hijab-clad women with young children made eye contact to see if I was the offending European party.

“La,” (No) I said softly and smiled at one of them, eliciting a relieved smile.  “Yahudi,” (Israeli) I added, pointing to my chest, in my elementary Arabic. Three days after reports first surfaced of an Iraqi refugee having murdered a 14-year-old Jewish girl in Wiesbaden, tensions were running high in the German capital.

Repeatedly hit by neo-Nazi attacks, the heavily Muslim Berlin borough of Neukölln has always been a magnet for right-wing violence. In 2017 alone, according to a report cited by Deutsche Welle, there were 36 racist and anti-Semitic attacks in the area and 38 the previous year.

Thankfully this was just verbal harassment and nothing more. Still, it left me feeling unnerved, as though this was just a foretaste of something worse to come.

The lack of a clear response, in the form of a firebombing or physical attack, is in some ways predictable. The victim of the Wiesbaden assault, after all, was Jewish. Could anyone imagine the irony of fascists taking revenge on Arab refugees for such a crime? The refugee was doing their work for them.

Ali B was just an unconscious subcontractor, taking out another despised minority while implicating other Arabs in his racist act. Let the minorities do each other in. They’ll only confirm their worst fears about each other, and educate naive German liberals why they should never have been allowed into the country in the first place.

Besides, as one of Europe’s only countries with a growing Jewish population, Arab immigration is a safe way to limit Jewish growth without having to be charged with racism.

Police separate AfD marchers from leftists. Brandenburg Gate, May 2018.

The irony is not lost on anti-Semitism-conscious German fascists, for whom the slightest gaffe, such as Alternative für Deutschland co-leader Alexander Gauland’s recent statement that the Nazis were just “birdshit in over 1,000 years of successful German history” triggers the most furious of public condemnations.

Better to focus on less charged strategies for problematising the presence of minorities in Germany, such as the discourse about ‘rapefugees’ epitomised by the killing of Susanna Feldman.

Found raped and strangled, instead of focusing on the fact that she was a Jew murdered by an Arab, the AfD and its followers have focused on the gendered aspect of her killing, to the exclusion of any other potential factor.

Because Islam prescribes traditional gender roles, so the logic goes, Muslim men do not respect women. Recurring rapes and murders by refugees in other parts of the country already prove that. Anyone surprised by what happened in Wiesbaden has their head in the sand.

If only things were that simple. Still, the implicit right-wing claim to respect for gender equality has permeated the debate about Germany’s admission of a million plus refugees, since the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne in 2015, in which dozens of women were molested by Arab men.

Renewed in the wake of the death of Susanna Feldman, the idea that Muslim gender mores are incompatible with European ones has been the most discussed topic on German talk shows and news media since her body was first discovered two weeks ago.

Hitler is dead. Pariser Platz, May 2018.

Never mind referencing rape and murder statistics of German on German violence, or spousal violence amongst white ethnics. That Feldman is reported to have been the girlfriend of Ali B, of course, is of little importance to his religious intolerance of women’s rights.

When I first heard about the killing, my initial reaction was one of frustration. Why can’t refugees learn how such violence feeds their detractors here, I thought. Curiously, I was reading German reports, which largely dispensed with references to Feldman’s Jewishness.

Of course, the Germans would not discuss that, inferred my booker, when he asked me to do a spot on it for Israel’s i24News, whom I comment on EU affairs for. Though he did not specify why we both know well enough to do the math. Germany wants to present itself as a tolerant, multicultural state, in which Jews are now safe.

The fact that a neo-Nazi could shout out a tribute to Hitler, in a train station full of Muslims, is a case in point. No minority is safe in Germany, was the message. Neither Arabs nor Jews. The fact that fascists feel no inhibitions in attacking both of them is all the proof that’s needed.

Just because there were no obvious Jews present is beside the point. This one was, and though the threat was issued at the Arabs on the train, it was binding on all of us.

It’s just that kind of ambiguity that contemporary German fascism is dependent on to explain why it’s so strong. The space it creates for justifying intolerance, in defence of ostensibly liberal values, is what makes it work, and why it is so easy to defame minority groups and get away with it.

Arab mother and child. Karl-Marx-Str, June 2018.

Writing in The Guardian last week, Berlin correspondent Kate Connolly recounted a growing debate about the role that German talk shows play in promoting racism, by consistently othering Muslims conceptually and linguistically, through contrasting Germany with Islam.

The Nazis may be gone, but their ideas insidiously live on, was the gist of the article’s message. It’s just a question of how we rationalise and repurpose right-wing prejudices about ethnic, religious and gender differences, in the service of older ideologies.

That’s why Hitler is still such a threat, and Germans do such a lousy job of identifying the fascism that lurks among them. They’ve forgotten that its core prejudice, racism, is so deeply intertwined with how they think about politics and social conflict.

The sooner Germans can dispense with that, obviously, the better. Unfortunately, the period of de-Nazification is long gone, and it is hard to imagine, under such circumstances, what might inspire its revival. That’s the biggest takeaway from hearing salutes to Hitler in Berlin’s subways.

Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.