BERLIN — A Jewish community-organized rally protesting the recent surge of anti-Semitism throughout Germany saw an eclectic 8,000-strong crowd at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate Sunday.
Among the heterogeneous protesters at the rally, organized by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, were non-German minorities including Syrian Christians, Muslims, and Africans seeking recognition of their own struggles at home and abroad.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel headlined the event and unequivocally condemned the anti-Semitism that came to characterize this summer’s demonstrations against Israel and its offensive in Gaza. She said those who have used criticism of Israel to veil their anti-Semitism have “abused our dear fundamental right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”
The theme of lurking anti-Semitism in anti-Israelism was echoed by current Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. He also called on the government to ban the far right nationalist party NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany).
Comments by Ron Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, were greeted by roaring applause.
“Jews and non-Jews stand together as one people to say ‘No!’ to intolerance, ‘No!’ to bigotry, and ‘No!’ to anti-Semitism,'” said Lauder, speaking in both German and English.
Despite the prominent and high-level German political and religious leaders who spoke at the rally, the fact that it was organized by Germany’s Central Council of Jews irked some attendees.
Gabriel Goldberg, a German Jewish leader based in Dusseldorf, came to the rally under the auspices of the WJC, which is having a conference in Berlin this week to discuss the rise in anti-Semitism.
“It would have been better if the non-Jewish community in Germany would have organized this rally, and not the Jewish community — but so be it,” said Goldberg.
‘We are against hate’
Among the thousands of non-Jewish activists who attended the rally was Nigerian immigrant Jeff Okaham, who spent the night in the Essen Central Train Station to catch an early morning train. He joined a group of fellow members of the Indigenous People of Biafra organization to demonstrate at the rally. He stood with his comrade Ifeanyi Ezeanyim and together the two held aloft a large flag from the former Republic of Biafra, which received support from Israel during its war against Nigeria.
“We are here today because we want the world to know about us. The British and Soviets killed 3.5 million people in Biafra and the world was silent. We have solidarity with Israel as Biafrans. [Nigerian Islamic fundamentalist group] Boko Haram is like Hamas,” said Okaham.
Other persecuted minorities took the rally as an opportunity to show their solidarity with the Jewish people — and also bring attention to their own struggles.
A women who identified only as Julia said that she was a refugee in her mid-twenties and had arrived in Berlin last year from Damascus. She came to the rally with a group of other Christian Syrians who held large Assyrian flags and posters calling for an end to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
“We have a similar history to the Jews, to what happened to them in Germany… We want to show our solidarity with Israel because we have the same values: We are against hate. In Syria many feel the same way, but cannot say what they feel,” she said.
Among the refugees and immigrants who came to show their support were also some of Muslim origin, like Benno Bahman from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan who carried a large Kurdish flag.
“Almost all of Kurdistan supports Israel,” said Bahman, emphasizing that “what happened with the Jews is similar to what happened to my people.”
There were also many native, non-Jewish Germans who attended to protest. Kay Schweigmann-Greve, of an progressive organization called the Socialist Youth of Germany-The Falcons, came with his daughter and other members of the youth movement from Hannover. The youth wore blue shirts with a red string, similar to the Israeli HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed movement.
“We came to be with our Jewish and Israeli comrades… to demonstrate against anti-Semitism,” Schweigmann-Greve said. He speaks fluent Hebrew and has led trips to Israel that focus on giving young people “a positive view of Israel.”
‘The government of Israel is not trustworthy’
Schweigmann-Greve’s progressive outlook on Israel was not shared by another German rally participant, Sebastian Reichel, an activist for the Social Democrat Party.
The SPD recently provoked ire in the Jewish community with its controversial politicians such as Achim Post (whose involvement in the pro-Iran trade organization NUMOV was the subject of a Times of Israel report), Rolf Muetzenich, who called for exploring financial pressure on Israel, and SPD Vice Chairman Ralf Stegner, who, in the wake of Hamas’s missile attacks on Israeli civilian centers, called for Germany to ban arms exports to Israel.
At the rally Reichel, while condemning anti-Semitism, said he supported discussions surrounding imposing sanctions on Israel since “the government of Israel is not trustworthy enough.”
More punishments, fewer rallies
The strong opposition to anti-Semitism evident at Sunday’s rally is not typical of the Germany that demonstrator and Jewish Ukrainian immigrant Vyacheslav Pyorushev has experienced since his immigration to Erfurt as a boy.
“Even though I’m blond, I’ve had some bad experiences living in Erfurt, in the former East Germany where there are many people against Jews and foreigners,” Pyorushev said.
While supportive of the involvement of high-level politicians in the rally, he felt that there was more to be done in the battle against anti-Semitism.
“The politicians and government are trying to do their best, but I wish they would be tougher on combating anti-Semitism by having more severe punishments for anti-Semitic acts. Rallies are not enough,” said Pyorushev.
The Berlin rally speakers’ “star power” dwarfed other protests against anti-Semitism in Europe.
Joshua Spinner, executive vice president and CEO of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, observed: “The quantitative and qualitative difference between this demonstration and what happened in London demonstrates how Germany is in a completely different place morally on this issue than any other Western European country.”
However, not everybody in Germany supported the rally. Small groups of Islamic and anti-Israel activists waved Palestinian flags and anti-Israel posters at its edges and remained after its conclusion. Heated arguments broke out between the anti-Israel group and the few remaining supporters.
Next to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, with its eerie rows of grave-like monuments, the anti-Israel group continued to shout invective against Israel. After the rally, among Palestinian flags, one young activist shouted in German, “Jews are killing children!”
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