Germany's Jewish population is small, somewhere around 200,000. Yet in German schoolyards, the word “Jew” is heard regularly, and not in a good way.
“'Jew' is an insult here,” says Berlin resident Gemma Michalski. “If you want to insult somebody, whether they're Jewish or not, it doesn't matter, but it's the thing you throw at them: 'Ah he's a real Jew,' or 'You're a Jew.' That's a sort of go-to insult.”
Nowhere is anti-Semitism more sensitive than in Germany, with its history of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish population. But there are now fears in Germany that anti-Semitism is on the rise again. Michalski says her 14-year-old son was so badly bullied by fellow students that he had to move to another school. The reason? He’s Jewish, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. The bullies, in this case, were Muslim kids.
When Michalski’s son’s ordeal made headlines here, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) was quick to declare Facebook solidarity with Michalski’s family and the rest of Germany’s Jewish community — despite repeated anti-Semitic rhetoric from prominent AfD members.
“We are absolutely no[t] anti-Semites," says Georg Pazderski, who leads the Berlin branch of the AfD. "In Germany, it’s very easy to say right-wing is [responsible for] anti-Semitism." But Pazderski points the finger at Germany's new Muslim population.
Michalski rejects the AfD’s sympathies for her son as disingenuous. She says the party is exploiting what happened to him to further its anti-Muslim agenda. “To say that anti-Semitism in Germany is a Muslim problem is just factually incorrect,” she says.
According to police statistics, over 90 percent of anti-Jewish hate crimes in Germany in 2017 were committed by right-wing extremists. But Germany’s newly appointed anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, says the data are incomplete. There is no nationwide register of anti-Semitic incidents that aren’t considered crimes, such as schoolyard bullying.
“The sad truth is, it happens in schools with Muslim kids and it happens in schools where there isn’t a single Muslim kid, in a white German school,” Michalski says.
But, she says, she was most shocked by the school’s response to the physical and verbal abuse her son suffered at the hands of his Muslim peers.
“The fact that the school just said: 'Well look, they've got these views from home, what can you do?' and threw up their hands. That is deeply Islamophobic … or anti-Muslim. It's deeply racist,” Michalski says.
Dervis Hizarci agrees, but he acknowledges that anti-Jewish sentiment does exist among Muslim kids in Germany struggling to make sense of the Middle East conflict. Hizarci, 34, the son of Turkish immigrants in Berlin, heads an initiative that tries to tackle these issues. He says that many of the Muslim teens he works with often feel like outcasts themselves, not least because of the rise of right-wing populism.
“When the AfD says today that they are the guarantors of Jewish life in Germany because the enemy is the bad Muslim, it’s not about Jews and also not about their own anti-Semitism,” Hizarci argues. “It’s just because of their hate towards Muslims, which is not just an Islamophobia anymore. It is a clear and very radical and aggressive hate which is dangerous.”
Hizarci says it doesn’t help that most of the kids he deals with have never even met someone who is Jewish — somebody like Esther Knochenhauer. She's a member of a group called “Rent a Jew.”
“Rent a Jew is an initiative where people can write to us and say we really need to see a Jew. It sounds horrible!” Knochenhauer says, laughing. “Mostly it’s schools and that’s great because the young kids, they don’t have too many stereotypes and you can actually catch them from becoming anti-Semitic. So, if they meet us and they’re nice and we’re normal ... they’re all okay then.”
On a recent day, Knochenhauer, 33, led a workshop with seventh graders at a school in an affluent — and not particularly diverse — Berlin suburb. One boy asked her whether she wishes she hadn’t been born Jewish; another asked whether it’s okay to be gay if you’re Jewish.
Knochenhauer says each school group is interested in different aspects of Jewish life. “One was in Neukölln, so there was a lot of people from Arabic countries and they asked all the Palestine questions,” she recalls. “And there was a school out in Brandenburg and they actually asked us if we are fine with farmers who raise pigs. I was just like, 'I don’t really care, I’m fine, I do enjoy a bit of bacon!'”
Knochenhauer says she does feel anti-Semitism is on the rise, but that it’s hardly new. “Anti-Semitism hasn’t come here in the past two years," Knochenhauer stresses. “It’s something horrific. It’s been around. I just don’t think it’s right to say that if all of these migrants would leave then we would solve the problem with anti-Semitism because that’s just not going to work.”
Some, though, are more worried than others. In response to some high-profile attacks, Germany’s Central Council of Jews has warned Jewish people not to wear kippas and other religious symbols in public.
Following that, thousands of Germans of all faiths took to the streets in major cities across the country, wearing kippas in a show of support.
Since then, however, an 11-year-old girl and a 37-year-old woman suffered attacks that were reportedly motivated by anti-Muslim bias. Both were wearing headscarves.