BERLIN, Germany — Mention Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to the Arab customers and stylists at Salon Balbaak in the predominantly immigrant neighborhood of Neukoelln and the response is sighs of disgust.
“It's not just us Palestinians,” says Mustafa, a young man with wavy hair. “Every free-thinking person in Berlin is angry. You only have to see the children being killed.”
He may be exaggerating, but not by much.
Even as the United States continues its staunch support of Israeli policy, opposition to Israel’s actions is growing across Europe as the death toll mounts in Gaza.
However, demonstrations against the military offensive have been marred by racist slogans and violence that is shifting the focus of the debate here from the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza toward the extent of anti-Semitism in Europe.
A court in France jailed three men on Thursday for rioting after a pro-Palestinian rally in a Paris suburb turned into anti-Semitic violence.
In several German cities, protestors have attacked pro-Israeli counter-demonstrators and chanted anti-Semitic slogans.
Mustafa, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, decries the damage such actions is inflicting on the protest effort.
“The protests have nothing to do with anti-Semitism,” he says. “We are not against the Jews. We are against the Israeli government.”
More than half of Germans believe Israel and Hamas bear equal responsibility for the fighting and 86 percent say Germany shouldn’t publicly support Israel, according to a recent survey.
However, Jewish groups argue that the racial slurs and anti-Semitic slogans suggest the protests are rooted in ethnic hatred rather than politics.
"We are experiencing an explosion of evil and violent hatred of Jews,” said Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, in an official statement.
“All of us are shocked and dismayed that anti-Semitic slogans of the nastiest and most primitive type can be chanted openly on German streets.”
In Berlin last week, protesters chanted “Jew, Jew, cowardly bastard, come out and fight alone!” at a downtown rally against the military action in Gaza.
Earlier this month, police in the western German city of Essen arrested 14 people suspected of planning to attack an area synagogue.
Among other countries, protests have been particularly violent in France. In Paris, dozens looted shops and set a kosher grocery store on fire in a Jewish-dominated suburb over the weekend when a pro-Palestinian demonstration held in defiance of a French ban erupted into violence.
In Austria, pro-Palestinian protesters stormed onto the field at a soccer match, attacking players from Israel's Maccabi Haifa in town during a scrimmage against a French club.
In Berlin on Monday, 13 protesters were detained at a demonstration in front of the Israeli embassy for throwing stones at the police, who have prohibited specific slogans as a threat to public order after facing criticism for failing to silence earlier anti-Semitic chants.
“Especially in Germany, anti-Semitic protests have a very strong impact because of our history, and there always should be resistance to make clear that this is not what the public thinks,” Berlin police spokesman Stefan Redlich Redlich said.
“But for the police, we can only stop people from shouting slogans if the law says they are not allowed.”
However, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups say they were disappointed by the initial police response. Diedre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, said it's difficult to understand how officers at the scene could have doubted that what they were hearing was hate speech.
“Free speech has nothing to do with threatening people and creating an atmosphere of physical violence,” she said.
In a joint statement issued Tuesday, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy vowed to fight anti-Semitism, giving the issue equal prominence to remarks from the UN high commissioner for human rights suggesting that Israel's actions in Gaza may be classified as war crimes.
More demonstrations are expected on Friday, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
Opponents of the Israeli offensive worry that more violence will further mute their message.
“The protests are against the war, but of course there are some ignorant people who shout slogans against the Jews,” said Mohammed Barkat, editor of a magazine for Arabic speakers in Germany. “The problem is that the media in Europe is always on Israel's side — whether they're right or wrong.”
Online debates suggest some believe the shift is part of a deliberate Israeli public relations strategy.
Israel is “again hiding behind the anti-Semitism flag,” said a comment under an article in the Huffington Post.
“The greatest weapon of the Zionists is the term anti-Semitism,” added another.
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That perception may have been boosted by some ill-considered remarks by Israel's ambassador to Germany, whom the Daily Mail quoted as saying, “They pursue the Jews in the streets of Berlin… as if we were in 1938.
However, the American Jewish Committee’s Berger says the focus on anti-Semitism by the press here is natural given Germany's history and the recent advances made by far-right parties across Europe.
“The notion that concerns about anti-Semitism are raised to squash criticism of Israel is a pretty shocking assertion,” she says. “It’s a good way to deflect attention from very serious incidents of anti-Semitism.”