Anguished Germany raises anti-Semitism alarm

Leaders warn of need for stronger vigilance after a series of worrying incidents unsettle authorities and the Jewish community

A woman strikes a pose in front of the Brandenburg Gate with the Israeli flag projected onto in Berlin, on January 9, 2017, to pay tribute to the victims of the ramming attack in Jerusalem. (AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN)
A woman strikes a pose in front of the Brandenburg Gate with the Israeli flag projected onto in Berlin, on January 9, 2017, to pay tribute to the victims of the ramming attack in Jerusalem. (AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN)

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — German leaders are increasingly alarmed about a resurgence of anti-Semitism 73 years after the Holocaust, stemming from an emboldened far right and an influx of refugees from countries hostile to Israel.

Germany is marking the 1945 liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz with solemn ceremonies, but also warning of the need for stronger vigilance.

On the anniversary on Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned revisionist forces seeking to call into question the country’s commitment to atoning for its Nazi past. She said fighting anti-Semitism and racism must be a “daily task.”

“It is inconceivable and shameful that no Jewish institution can exist without police protection, whether it is a school, a kindergarten or a synagogue,” she said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Elke Buedenbender, left, wife of German President Frank Walter Steinmeier, follows with Holocaust survivor Renate Lasker-Harpprecht, at a German parliament Bundestag remembrance session to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, January 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Merkel, who a decade ago became the first German chancellor to address the Knesset, has committed to creating a new position of commissioner on anti-Semitism under the new government she hopes to form by March.

The move was prompted in part by demonstrations in Berlin in December against the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which saw some protesters chant anti-Semitic slogans and torch Israeli flags in response.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said at the time that although Berlin opposed the move by US President Donald Trump, it strongly condemned the aggressive rallies in German cities.

Protesters hold a banner reading ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine’ during a demonstration of members of the Palestinian community on December 16, 2017 in Frankfurt am Main, to protest against the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (AFP/dpa/Boris Roessler)

“One has to be ashamed when hatred of Jews is put on display so openly on the streets of German cities,” he said.

The demonstrations heightened a sense of anxiety expressed by the Germany’s Jewish community, now more than 200,000 strong, over the arrival since 2015 of more than one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers.

The former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, spoke of a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic acts on German soil and said that Jews could no longer hold events “in public places without police protection.”

‘More violent’

A series of incidents have unsettled German authorities and the Jewish community.

In Berlin in November, 16 Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) — small brass memorial plaques outside the homes of Holocaust victims — were dug out of the ground and stolen. While perpetrators were never identified, the violation was unnerving, coming just days before commemorations of the Kristalnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, pogroms on November 9, 1938.

“It was the first time that so many Stolpersteine were taken in just a few days,” said Silvija Kavcic, the Berlin coordinator of the initiative that has laid more than 7,000 of the plaques in the German capital.

Mandy Eisemann from Dickerson, Maryland. with her son Levi (4), relatives of the Cohn family, places flowers at four “Stolpersteine” (stumbling blocks) for Karolina Cohn and her family in Frankfurt, Germany, November 13, 2017. (Arne Dedert/dpa via AP)

The head of the German chapter of Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, said that anti-Semitism in the country is growing “ever more virulent and more violent.”

The current director of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, shared his concern, saying that taboos that had held for decades after the war seemed to be crumbling.

“People dare to say much more today that they always thought but never would have expressed,” he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

Germany’s post-war identity and acceptance in the community of nations has been built on its remembrance culture, including a full reckoning with the atrocities committed under Hitler.

But as the elderly survivors die off, fears are growing that the country’s collective memory will erode.

Supporters of the Alternative for Germany party react after exit poll results were broadcast on public television at an election night event in Erfurt, eastern Germany, during the general election on September 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/dpa/Martin Schutt)

The rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which came in third in Germany’s general elections in September with nearly 13 percent of the vote, has compounded tensions.

Key AfD members have challenged Germany’s culture of atonement over World War II and the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

Meanwhile rights experts say pockets of the traditionally moderate three-million-member community of Turkish origin are radicalising, due in part due to incendiary rhetoric by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Everything Erdogan says is sacred to them,” Michalski said.

Obligatory concentration camp visits?

A further concern is the growing prevalence of anti-Semitic sentiment in schools, particularly among many young Muslims.

In Berlin, teachers say that “Jew” has become a common insult.

Schuster said tensions had become more aggravated in the last two years with the influx of refugees “some of whom grew up with anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

However analysts note that without proper study of actual sentiment among the newcomers, some complaints may be wrapped up in more general angst about the influx amid heated political debate. Criminal statistics also show no rise in anti-Semitic acts committed by refugees.

A man with a Jewish yarmulke walks in front of the camp entrance after a wreath-laying ceremony on occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany, Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Amid calls to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, some officials have called for obligatory visits to former concentration camps for both Germans and newcomers to the country.

The director of the Sachsenhausen memorial north of Berlin, Guenter Morsch, noted that “more than a person’s geographical origin, the level of education determines” susceptibility to racism and anti-Semitism.

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