While Germany is generally safe for Jews, Jewish men should be careful before donning a skullcap in public, the country’s incoming anti-Semitism czar said, echoing controversial remarks from a top German Jewish leader amid a rise in anti-Semitic attacks, mostly from Muslim immigrants.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Dr. Felix Klein also said the recent increase in anti-Semitic violence on German streets is due to a “brutalization of our political culture,” and argued that the beating of an Israeli last week in Berlin proved that German Jews’ concerns about the major influx of Muslim and Arab refugees were legitimate.
Calls for the boycott of Israel and denouncing the country as an “apartheid state” can be considered anti-Semitic, Klein, who is not Jewish, said further. On the other hand, the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany party — shunned by Jerusalem and Germany’s organized Jewish community — has problematic views of the Nazi era but cannot be considered anti-Semitic as a whole, he argued.
Asked if a Jew in today’s Germany can wear a kippah in public without fear, Klein, recently appointed as the German government’s first special envoy for Jewish life and combating anti-Semitism, replied: “In principle, yes. But not always.”
Jews can generally feel safe on Germany’s streets, even when they are recognizably Jewish, he went on. “But they have to be vigilant. It’s not entirely without danger; one has to be alert. In the end, everyone has to assess the risks for himself. The danger is there. But I wouldn’t necessarily agree with those who say it’s absolutely impossible to show one’s Jewishness in public in Germany.”
Klein’s comments came just a few days after an Israeli man wearing a kippah was beaten with a belt in Berlin by a man yelling “Yahudi,” Arabic for Jew. Adam Armoush, the 21-year-old Arab-Israeli victim, later said he donned the traditional Jewish head covering as an experiment, trying to disprove his friend who believed it was dangerous to wear a kippah in public.
In response to this incident and other anti-Semitic attacks over the last few months, the leader of Germany’s local community, Joseph Schuster, on Tuesday advised Jews not to wear a kippah in large cities.
His warning sparked a backlash from some religious figures, who argued that concealing one’s Jewishness would play into anti-Semites’ hands.
On Wednesday evening, the Jewish community in Germany’s capital organized a “Berlin wears a kippah” protest in front of the Fasanenstrasse Jewish community center, which was joined by non-Jewish Germans.
Klein, who addressed Wednesday’s rally, will formally take up his new post on May 2. For the last four years, he served as the German Foreign Ministry’s liaison to the country’s Jewish community, which included representing Berlin to US-Jewish groups or the International Holocaust Remembrance Authority.
His new job has a more domestic focus, such as coordinating the government’s various efforts to combat anti-Semitism and promoting awareness of issues of Jewish concern within Germany.
“I always had a lot of sympathy for the Jewish world. Already in school I had Jewish friends, some of who I remained in contact with,” Klein said. He visited Israel for the first time in 1986, as a 16-year-old, when his orchestra group sent a delegation from his home town of Darmstadt to Haifa.
“The multicultural atmosphere in Haifa fascinated me from the very beginning. I thought, that’s a land that’s worth being involved with,” he recalled. “Since then I’ve been fascinated by the country and have had a lot of sympathy for the Jewish world and Israel especially of course.”
Klein’s appointment to his new position, located in the Interior Ministry, followed the recommendation of Germany’s Jewish community, and was widely welcomed.
“His appointment was an excellent choice,” Israel’s ambassador to Israel, Jeremy Issacharoff, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “It’s an important position with an important mandate. He’ll have our fullest cooperation.”
Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Union’s coordinator on combating anti-Semitism, has been working with Klein in his previous job and said she was looking forward to continuing the cooperation in his new position. “He understands the complexity of fighting anti-Semitism, is bold and has the trust of the Jewish community — an excellent choice,” she told The Times of Israel.
Yes, the situation got worse
A career diplomat — he has served in Italy and Cameroon and had several positions at Foreign Ministry headquarters in Berlin — Klein addresses questions about anti-Semitism with a great degree of diplomatic prudence, though he does not seem to want to sugarcoat the issue.
“Anti-Semitism has many facets. Unfortunately, it can be found also in the center of society,” he said, citing a recent study that says that one in five Germans harbors anti-Semitic attitudes.
“Therefore, you cannot say that it exists only on the fringes. There is a connection between this finding and the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes that are coming from the fringes. They are committed by people on the extreme right, of course, but also increasingly by Muslims.”
Klein also does not try to deny that things are currently not looking positive.
“There is a tendency — anti-Semitic sentiment is more openly expressed,” he said. “Anti-Semitism among Muslims and the extreme right and left existed before. But it is being expressed more unashamedly. Yes, the situation got worse. It has many causes, but is mainly due to the brutalization of our political culture and the way people treat each other in our society.”
Klein is not denying that the situation was exacerbated by the influx in 2015 of about a million mostly Muslim refugees and migrants from the Middle East. German Jews have long warned that many of the new arrivals hail from countries where hatred of Jews and of the State of Israel were taught from an early age.
Muslim high school students react to the depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust in exactly the same way that Christians or non-believers do
“These concerns are legitimate,” Klein said. “The events of the last week showed that there are concrete reasons for it,” he added, referring to the anti-Semitic attack on the Arab-Israeli man in Berlin. “That must spur us into examining this problem and not simply ignoring it. However, I’d like to point out that Jewish institutions needed police protection even before 2015.”
The German government’s decision to allow 1 million refugees was borne out of a humanitarian emergency, Klein explained.
“At the time, Joseph Schuster, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, pointed out the views on Israel and Jews that these people have and the problems that come with that. He was right, unfortunately. But given the circumstances at the time, the government’s decision is understandable. Now this will have to be an incentive for us to tackle the integration of these people.”
Anti-Semitism does not necessarily have something to do with a person’s religion or ethnicity, Klein posited.
“It’s mostly a question of education, not of religion or ethnic background,” he said. “Schools are already taking classes to memorial sites, and I’ve been told that Muslim students don’t react differently than their non-Muslim peers. Muslim high school students react to the depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust in exactly the same way that Christians or non-believers do.”
But it’s not only Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism that troubles German Jews. The rise of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, known by the acronym AfD — has the local Jewish community worried about a renaissance of traditional right-wing anti-Semitism.
Klein understands the concern yet stressed, “The AfD as a whole is not anti-Semitic. But it tolerates anti-Semitic slogans some its members make, without any consequences. That’s unacceptable.”
Klein declined to comment on Israel’s government policy not to have contacts with the AfD. “It’s Israel’s right to have this position. That’s all I want to say about this.”
However, if Jerusalem were to reconsider its stance and embrace the the AfD — which is currently the third-largest faction in the Bundestag — he would also take another look at the issue.
“I observe very carefully what the Israeli government does in order to combat anti-Semitism. Its policy vis-a-vis problematic parties is a key part of this, clearly. In the end, Israel needs to know for itself how it tackles this problem. Having said that, Israel’s position would influence my own analysis of this matter.”
Is calling Israel an apartheid state anti-Semitic?
The borders between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism are sometimes difficult to define, Klein said. Calling Israel an “apartheid state,” for instance, is anti-Semitic because it equates Israel’s democratic system with an illegitimate regime, he argued. “Such sweeping statements are unacceptable and, yes, they’re also anti-Semitic.”
The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement also belongs in that category, according to Klein.
“Yes, BDS is anti-Semitic. It’s an anti-Semitic organization. But it’s not so easy to declare it illegal, due to German law, which makes it very difficult to outlaw certain organizations. The leaders of BDS know exactly how to operate in order to evade being banned. But we do have some municipalities that no longer offer its event halls for groups affiliated with the BDS movement,” he said.
At the same time, not everything BDS does is necessarily anti-Semitic, he allowed.
“They also point out problematic things regarding the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. Generally, I think that people who want the help the Palestinians would help them much more if their criticism weren’t so loaded with anti-Semitism but focused more on facts, so that there would be discussion about the content of their criticism.
“But as is stands now, regarding BDS, the focus is on our duty to condemn anti-Semitic rhetoric,” he added. “Like this, we don’t manage to actually get to the original political debate, which is hopefully that they actually want — to promote the legitimate interests of the Palestinians.”