The News of Racism

Arab migrant, German coverage. Berlin, September 2018.

It couldn’t have been more personal. Granted, the topic was European anti-Semitism. I happen to be Jewish and live in Berlin, and I worked for a French news outlet for nearly four of the last five years.

A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) reported that the highest levels of anti-Jewish racism are to be found in France and Germany.

Between the two of them, France scored the highest, with 65 percent of Jews surveyed responding that anti-Semitism is a very big problem in France, versus only 43 percent in Germany.

Still, according to the study, both cosmopolitan, highly multiethnic member states, and staunch supporters of the European project, outclassed newer EU members, with far worse reputations for anti-Semitism: Poland, at 39% and Hungary, at 26%.

What gives? For anyone familiar with European identity politics, it doesn’t make sense. Hungary and Poland are the two member states whose government policies come the closest to promoting traditional anti-Semitism.

The Hungarian government’s campaigning against philanthropist George Soros, for example, is unambiguous in its reliance on racist caricatures of Jews as agents of global capitalism seeking to undermine Christendom.

Poland’s government, on the other hand, has waged a vigorous campaign to criminalise its undeniable complicity in the Holocaust during WWII, contending that it too was a victim of the Nazis and that the blame lies entirely on the German side.

But France, and Germany? With a 460,000 – plus strong population – Europe’s largest – French Jews occupy key posts in government and civil society, all but ensuring the country’s commitment to their safety is assured.

Anti-Semitism is experienced at the opposite end of the spectrum, in everyday life, through conflicts with Muslims, and the far-right. No country in the EU can boast a higher level of violence against Jews than France.

In Germany, the picture gets even more complex. Though other recent studies confirm that rightwing extremists are primarily responsible for the country’s high level of anti-Semitism, the EU survey curiously points its finger at Muslims.

Why the difference? Most likely, it is the European Commission’s adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which includes criticism of Israel as a form of Judeophobia. While this ought to be taken into account in evaluating the entire survey’s results, Germany is the most problematic.

Few countries in the EU can boast as many refugees from the northern Middle East – Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine – as Germany. All frontline states in the Arab-Israeli conflict, each one hosting large refugee communities displaced from pre-1948 Mandate territory.

No member state is home to more Palestinians than Germany, in which an estimated 80,000 live, approximately 40,000 in Berlin. Boosted by the Syrian Civil War, and the refugee crisis, Palestinians are overrepresented among the refugees arriving from Syria.

Every time there is a violent incident between Palestinians and Jews in Berlin, for example, Arabic terms such as “Yahudi” (‘Israeli’) get used, making it difficult for Germans uneducated in Arabic slang to not hear it as ‘Jew’, who therefore interpret it as anti-Semitic.

For a country whose government is allergic to any instance of anti-Semitism, this kind of language doesn’t help. But neither does German unfamiliarity, as Israeli and Arab sociologists have repeatedly pointed out in the German press when asked about it.

As someone who lives in Neukölln, a heavily Palestinian and Kurdish neighbourhood in southeastern Berlin, it can be especially frustrating to watch conflicts between Jews and Arabs get misread this way because it is not only wrong but provides a pretext for Germans to duck their responsibility for anti-Semitism.

Most of my Middle Eastern neighbours know I’m Jewish and are far more friendly towards me than the ethnic Germans I know. I’m not shy about disclosing my background or giving obvious hints, such as how I pronounce Arabic words in their presence, like “hummus” at Syrian restaurants.

When it comes to Germany outside of my neighbourhood, anti-Semitism is far more real. One often discerns it in German news media, with its non-stop coverage of the challenge of Islam and foreigners, and anxiety about German culture and integration. It’s not hard to read between the lines, especially if you have some knowledge of the country’s history. 

As a journalist, I’m equally sensitive to how press attention on nationalism can have the effect of making minorities feel discriminated against. It’s not so much that German news media adopt the positions of far-right parties like Alternative für Deutschland as how they act like echo chambers for them,  because of how outspoken, albeit tabloid, their politics are.

It all adds up, conveying a discernible sense of us vs them, obvious to outsiders without any stake in the framing, which news media find it hard to contain. The ethnic anxieties informing it are palpable. As an editor, I have my ideas about how this could be remedied, starting with the idea, seemingly alien to Germany’s bigger papers, that they need to publish for minorities, too.

My point in relaying this is not to tell other media what to do but to explain, from my professional point of view, the crucial role that German news media often play in opening the way for far-right parties to mine public anxieties about diversity. At least once a week I see newspaper adverts in front of local convenience stores, attacking Arab migrants for engaging in criminal this or that.

It also comes from being insulted, personally. To that end, one of the weakest parts of the EU survey is its lack of data indicating that anti-Semitism plays a significant role in the workplace. That doesn’t correspond with my experience or that of Jewish friends.

My first week on the job, at one French news outlet I worked for, I wrote, “Oy vey,” in passing, in an email to one of the managers, who already knew me to be Israeli-American. My supervisor, who I had CC’d in the message, wrote back to me almost immediately, extremely alarmed.

“Do not use any phrases that might identify your ethnic background,” they wrote. “It could be held against you, and you’ve got to be careful. You’re new here. These people are provincial, so you must keep a low profile.” It was quite a strong message, but the message was well taken.

They were right. As it so transpired, whenever there were Israel wires that could be filed or stories in which Israel figured prominently, the derogatory remarks would inevitably come out in our newsroom, along with the requisite long looks at me. Contrary to the predictable complaints by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, they never came from the left, either.

Usually, they’d get filtered through symptomatic jumps from Israeli topics in the news to Jewish ones, as though Israel were some sort of lubricant to download about anything related to Judaism. One such conversation, I recall, eventually wound up moving to the naming of a colleague’s children, though I gave them the pretext, by asking about their then-newborn.

“We decided to not give our child a Hebrew name,” the French editor explained to me, “because we have a Biblical-sounding name already. We didn’t want anyone to think they’re Jewish.” He said it all with a straight face, knowing full well my background, almost as though I understood why no one would want to be confused with me. You get the idea.

I took a deep breath and stood there for a moment, speechless. Another editor was present and made eye contact, indicated he understood what had just transpired. It was a complex reproach, piggybacking on what should have been a joyous occasion, that somehow turned into an opportunity to say something entirely unrelated. It wasn’t the last time he spoke to me that way, either.

The point, or so I take it, irrespective of my quibbles with the FRA survey, is that its conclusions are entirely legitimate, and come from very real places. The fact that I can connect to its findings so personally is what makes them so powerful.

Ironically, for an immigrant, who has lived in Europe for a decade, I cannot help but note how native they make me feel. If that’s their ultimate personal consequence, I can live with that, knowing that if I am to survive Europe, I’m going to have to fight like hell to ensure my equality.

Photograph courtesy of the author. Published under a Creative Commons license.