BERLIN — Dervis Hizarci is a practicing Muslim, a German citizen of Turkish origin, and a guide in Berlin’s Jewish Museum. His services aren’t available to just anyone: Hizarci’s job is to guide teenagers from the surrounding Kreuzberg neighborhood, one of Berlin’s main migrant districts. Today, his visitors are a class of mostly Muslim students from a nearby high school.
Hizarci begins the tour with a question: How long does German-Jewish history span? For reference, he adds that Turkish-German history is about 50 years old. A student volunteers: 350 years? Hizarci tells them the answer: 2,000 years.
Next, he talks about another number: six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. To give the students a sense of scale, he adds that today there are around three million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. The teens seem surprised and moved.
Fostering these kinds of conversations is the mission of the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, whose German acronym is “Kiga.” The nonprofit fights prejudice among migrant teens, many of them Muslim. It has been awarded prizes by Germany’s Jewish Community and the Anti-Defamation League, but despite the plaudits, it remains virtually the only organization doing this type of work in Germany.
Kiga teaches pupils about contemporary Jewish life in Germany and similarities and differences between Judaism and Islam. But it also educates them about Islamist groups and the image of Islam in German media. Its activities range from neighborhood walks tracing former Jewish life to educational trips to Israel for German Muslim youths.
Most importantly, since much of the anti-Semitism Kiga deals with is Israel-related, the nonprofit tackles the issue head-on with curricula about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — an issue not addressed in German public schools.
The organization’s work is groundbreaking in taking on a problem that’s hardly restricted to this migrant minority of Middle Eastern origin. A 2014 survey by Friedrich-Ebert, a foundation aligned with a major center-left party, found that Israel-related anti-Semitism is widespread in German society at large.
Kiga teaches its classes at select high schools, sometimes in week-long workshops and sometimes as a component of year-long elective subjects. Its programs are not a regular part of the school system and the organization teaches where it can, and when asked to do so.
‘What we do is like a headache pill: Too short to make a lasting change’
Working with short-term funds and within a rigid educational system doesn’t make this an easy task, says Hizarci, the Jewish Museum tour guide,
“What we do is like a painkiller,” says Hizarci, “too short-lived to make a lasting change. We’re fighting to have our educational program become a real subject that students can choose as an elective at schools.”
Kiga was founded over a decade ago by Aycan Demirel, a German-Turk of Muslim origin. Formerly a professional social worker with youth associations in his neighborhood, he was very disturbed by the anti-Semitism he encountered there. After the 2003 terror attacks on synagogues in Istanbul, he decided that something had to be done.
Demirel says the migrant youths are no more or less anti-Semitic than other Germans. But he does think that their Turkish or Arabic cultural backgrounds call for a unique approach. They understand the minority experience in a way other Germans might not.
So Kiga tackles anti-Semitism by starting with its students’ own stories.
“Many of them want to know why they are made to feel like outsiders in this society, even though they are fourth-generation Germans. It’s vital that we address their questions about identity and feelings of marginalization,” says Demirel.
Twenty-five year-old Hasan-Ali Yildirim knows about those questions. As a teenager, he wasn’t interested in Judaism at all.
“I never had anything against Jews, but at that time in my life I had Palestinian friends who did,” he recounts. The reason he himself knocked on Kiga’s door was because a friend had told him that here he might find someone to talk to about what it’s like to feel torn between being German and being Turkish.
He did, and gradually also became more involved with the nonprofit. He became one of the organization’s “peer educators” – young men and women with migrant backgrounds in their late teens and twenties who are trained to lead workshops for their younger peers. Naturally, they have much higher credibility when talking to students about religion, identity and stereotypes than regular school teachers do.
Today, Yildirim teaches high school students about Judaism, Islam, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Kiga’s approach to the latter is refreshingly evenhanded. The extensive educational material it has developed teaches facts such as that the decision that there would be a State of Israel was made by many countries in the world, via the UN Partition Plan of 1947. In a multiple choice quiz, possible answers to the question of who had to flee in the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948 are: Palestinians, and Jews in Arab states. The quiz also asks students to list the countries where Palestinians live today.
Kiga has not always garnered the approval of other Muslim organizations, some of whom fear that what it does incites Islamophobia, or, at the very least, suggests that anti-Semitism is a problem specific to the Muslim population. Demirel shares that concern and confirms that they are walking a tightrope. But he is convinced that what they are doing is absolutely necessary.
Teachers regularly approach Kiga when at a loss about what to do when confronted with the conflict at school. The number of calls was especially high at times like the Gaza conflict in 2014, when pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Germany turned blatantly anti-Semitic.
“Many teachers know next to nothing about the Middle East. They are put into schools with migrant kids, but they have no idea how to connect with their students,” says Demirel. In their professional education, teachers aren’t properly taught how to approach children from different cultural backgrounds.
Demirel says that though Kiga’s programs have a fixed syllabus, they do react to acute situations when the conflict flares up. He mentions the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010 as an example – it happened just as they were about to go on an Israel trip with Muslim youths. The most important thing, he says, is to stay factual, and to take the emotion out of the situation.
“We explain the different perspectives on what’s happening, so the kids can form their own opinion,” says Demirel.
Soon, teachers will even be able to call a special hotline that the nonprofit is setting up. Demirel says they help teachers assess what’s happening in their classrooms and how to handle it. At the very least, the core advice is to have a clear position — that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated.
And Kiga is not just for teens. At the conclusion of the Jewish Museum tour, a high school student asks Hizarci, the guide: “What about the powerful Rothschild family and the Jews who own the banks?” Hizarci responds with his own question: “Do you think that what you’re asking about is fact, or could it just be a stereotype?”
The class teacher chimes in, “You have to be careful with these kinds of statements,” she opines, “but it is true that a large number of Jews work in finance.”
Without hesitation, the guide shoots back that what the teacher just said reveals a classic anti-Semitic stereotype. It’s another problem they are confronted with frequently, Kiga’s founder Demirel adds – teachers confirming the prejudice of the students.
There is obviously more work to be done.
Before the kids leave the museum, Hizarci distributes kosher Gummi Bears to the pupils. They ask him to come and visit them at school, so that they can talk some more.