79 years after Nazi Olympics, Jewish athletes find Berlin welcoming, not entirely safe
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79 years after Nazi Olympics, Jewish athletes find Berlin welcoming, not entirely safe

Maccabi participants encounter the new, accepting face of Germany; beefed-up security underlines persistence of anti-Semitism

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

File: Members of Israel's Maccabi team at  Berlin's so-called 'Maifeld,' where the Nazis once held mass rallies, on July 28, 2015. (AFP Photo/Tobias Schwarz)
File: Members of Israel's Maccabi team at Berlin's so-called 'Maifeld,' where the Nazis once held mass rallies, on July 28, 2015. (AFP Photo/Tobias Schwarz)

BERLIN — “This is not Berlin of ’36 anymore,” said Marcel Reif, public ambassador of the 2015 European Maccabi Games, between sips of his cappuccino. The German soccer announcer had summed up why the Foreign Office brought journalists from around the world to Berlin. Bizarrely, it reminded me of Japanese manga.

“A Message to Adolf,” Osamu Tezuka’s fictional graphic novel about Nazi Germany, opens with Sohei Toge, a Japanese journalist, visiting Berlin for the 1936 Olympic Games. His German hosts eagerly showcase the glories of National Socialism to the world at the Olympiastadion, the Stripped Classical behemoth arena built for games that excluded Jews.

Hosting the European Maccabi Games this week, the first since World War II, Berlin was eager to exhibit “the new face of Germany,” as Mayor Frank Henkel told journalists this week at a soiree at the city hall: one of tolerance and acceptance which rejects anti-Semitism and embraces Jews as equals. Like Toge, journalists from far-flung places such as Argentina and San Francisco, Iceland and Israel (this writer included) were flown in to witness the transformed Germany, one in which Jews from around the globe could compete in a secure, welcome environment.

Throughout the official programming, Maccabi and German officials alike touted the new Deutschland as home to a growing Jewish community that lives in peace and prosperity. A country which has now had diplomatic ties with the Jewish state for 50 years.

Cover of Japanese edition of Osamu Tezuka's 'A Message to Adolf'
Cover of Japanese edition of Osamu Tezuka’s ‘A Message to Adolf’

The games are “historic” and “symbolic,” they pressed home.

Indeed, while ghosts of the past remain, Nazi Germany is gone, and with it the racist ideology that perpetrated so many crimes. Israelis have flocked in droves to the new Germany — 20,000 to 30,000 in recent years according to some estimates. Hebrew chatter can be heard all over the graffitied streets of Berlin. The presence of a uniformed IDF officer in the shadow of the Glockenturm was unimaginable in 1936.

“It’s something unbelievable,” the colonel related in his native Hebrew at a ceremony honoring Jewish athletes banned from the ’36 Olympic Games. Behind him, the hulking mass of the Olympiastadion, the amphitheater where Hitler crowed about the supremacy of the Aryan race and was greeted by cheers from tens of thousands of heiling masses. Empty for the games (organizers said they couldn’t dream of filling its 75,000 seats), the sole difference from outside was the swastika missing from the stelae flanking the stern stone ring, and the Maccabi Games taking place nearby, in the various fields and structures of the stadium complex.

An IDF officer stands before Berlin's Olympiastadion for a ceremony during the European Maccabi Games on July 28, 2015. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
An IDF officer stands before Berlin’s Olympiastadion for a ceremony during the European Maccabi Games on July 28, 2015. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Behind the veil

But looking past the curtain of the Maccabi games’ festivities, the phalanxes of police officers and private security guards at every venue reflect a different reality: one which requires police officers stationed outside every Jewish kindergarten, hospital and museum, and the placement of steel barricades, metal detectors and blast doors at the iconic New Synagogue.

Of the European Maccabi Games’ €7 million budget, a vast amount (“a lot, a lot, a lot,” president of Maccabi Germany Alon Meyer said, declining to disclose the exact sum) was spent on security. According to a New York Times report, a fifth of the budget was allocated to private security, in addition to that provided by the Berlin Police.

Police officers on the ready inside the Olympic Park in Berlin, where the 2015 European Maccabi Games were held (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Police officers on the ready inside the Olympic Park in Berlin, where the 2015 European Maccabi Games were held (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Athletes were advised to be cautious in public, avoid wearing yarmulkes on the streets, and not take public transportation. All participants were housed in a hotel in east Berlin, clear across the city from the main venues, and were shuttled to and fro by private bus. Armed police manned a cordon outside around the clock.

Part of this had to do with the ever-present, vocal kernel of extreme right neo-Nazi groups. In the lead-up to the games, anti-Semitic hate speech directed at the Jewish athletes appeared on neo-Nazi websites. With the games in full swing, vandals painted anti-Semitic graffiti on one of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now an art venue.

The opening ceremony of the European Maccabi Games in Berlin, a first since World War II, at the Waldbüche amphitheater, constructed for the 1936 Olympic Games and originally named for Adolf Hitler's mentor Dietrich Eckart, July 29, 2015. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
The opening ceremony of the European Maccabi Games in Berlin, a first since World War II, at the Waldbüche amphitheater, constructed for the 1936 Olympic Games and originally named for Adolf Hitler’s mentor Dietrich Eckart, July 29, 2015. (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

“The Berlin neo-Nazi scene is quite weak,” said Benjamin Steinitz, director of an anti-Semitism watchdog group in Germany. Their popularity is limited, he said, and, while radical, “they pose a physical threat only in very small geographically restricted areas of Berlin.”

“The EMG 2015 creates an extraordinary visibility of Jewishness in German public,” Steinitz pointed out, referring to the games by their acronym. Though rabidly anti-Semitic, online outbursts such as one directed at the Maccabi on the neo-Nazi Altermedia website are “not an explicit threat” — more bark than bite.

Acknowledging the presence of such radicals, the head of the Berlin Senate said the city-state’s legislature had proposed a ban on the NPD, Germany’s fringe fascist party.

The unmentioned

Throughout the press conferences, galas and interviews, however, an elephant loomed unmentioned in the room: radical Islamists. Germany’s tolerance extends to its burgeoning Muslim population, a small but vociferous portion of whom adheres to an extreme creed. German Justice Minister Heiko Mass called for his country “to fight anti-Semitism with the utmost resolve,” and Reif, the ambassador of the games, spoke of the country’s strides in combating racism and anti-Semitism. The source of the hate, however, was always nebulous.

“The radical Islamists probably are the main threat,” a Berlin Police spokesperson said, along with “people who are radicalized by the Israel-Arab conflict.” He declined to give particulars about the police force’s operations to protect the Maccabi participants.

Vegan jihad graffiti in east Berlin (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Vegan jihad graffiti in east Berlin (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Ahmad Mansour, an Israeli-born Palestinian psychologist, deals with the increasing radicalization of Muslim youths in Germany, what he refers to as “Generation Allah.” He works to fight the spread of Salafist Islam, some of whose adherents assume a violent stance against Jews, democracy and the West. Combating anti-Semitism among Muslims in Germany is a “taboo subject” and “many politicians and the majority of society no longer dare to address such problems,” he said in a recent interview with Web.de.

Not far from the Estrel Hotel where Maccabi athletes stayed are neighborhoods where “if you go right, you go to Gaza, if you go left, you go to Berlin,” said David Blau, an Israeli who’s lived in Germany for several decades and served as the national delegation’s soccer trainer.

He was immensely proud that German Jews are able to “walk with chest out and head raised” at the games and play against fellow members of the tribe. Unlike back home in Frankfurt, he said, the players from the local Makkabi club he coaches won’t get called “a stinking Jew” on the pitch.

Chess players duke it out at the 2015 European Maccabi Games (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Chess players duke it out at the 2015 European Maccabi Games (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

When a team that’s lower in the standings, he related, “comes to play against Makkabi, they bring their best game ever. They want to screw the Jews. It doesn’t work out for them, but they try and they bring a lot of nerve.”

Hundreds of German citizens who joined the ranks of the Islamic State have returned to the country, and that figure keeps rising. As of last September, there were about 140 investigations in Germany against citizens who went to fight for the Islamic State and their supporters, according to a Der Spiegel report. “The flood of cases has begun clogging up dockets across the country,” the paper said.

Ultimately, Berlin’s Maccabi Games were intended for the Jewish world’s consumption, not the German public’s. Spectators were sparse. Most were family and friends of the athletes who flew in for moral support (footing their own cost, like the participants did). Few Berliners knew about the spectacle or cared enough to attend.

An exhibit of photographs of German Jewish athletes, some of whom were excluded from the 1936 Olympics, outside Berlin's Hauptbahnhof train station (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
An exhibit of photographs of German Jewish athletes, some of whom were excluded from the 1936 Olympics, outside Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof train station (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

The city’s burgeoning Jewish community, and its growing attraction for young Israelis fed up with the high cost and lower standards of living back home, point to Germany’s drastic change since 1945.

“If it weren’t good for me here – I’m not a masochist – if it were bad for me here, I’d go home,” Blau, the Maccabi Germany soccer coach, said.

Nonetheless, it’s still Europe, where synagogues are fortresses and skullcaps are verboten unless you seek trouble. The situation may not be as dire as in France, but that shouldn’t be the measure of Jewish life in Europe.

Graffiti in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Graffiti in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

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