September 2021: general election time in Germany. It will be the first since 2005 in which Angela Merkel will not be a candidate for chancellor.
It is also the first since then in which, according to every serious national poll in recent weeks, her Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU) party will no longer be the highest-scoring one.
Barring any major shifts in the last leg of the campaign, a three-way coalition will be inevitable and might conceivably exclude the CDU.
The CDU, which has been ruling Germany together with the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) as its junior partner in a grand coalition since 2013 – for two terms – has often been vocal in its support for Jews and Israel, not least for the assumption that protecting the former also means protecting the latter.
In a famous speech given at the Knesset in Jerusalem in 2008, marking the 60th anniversary of Israel’s foundation, Merkel referred to Israel’s security as part of Germany’s Staatsraison, a rarely-used term that can be translated as ‘reason of state’ or ‘raison d’etat’ and denotes a crucial pillar of a state’s self-identity and practices.
While this principle has been expressed materially in such arrangements as the sale of submarines with potential nuclear capabilities, the sense of post-Holocaust historical responsibility has also led to measures in civil society like the appointment of special commissioners for the fight against Antisemitism – one at the national level and one each (so far) for 14 of the country’s 16 federal states, as well as some equivalents in organisations such as the Berlin Police.
Though Antisemitism is clearly present in Germany, the work of these commissioners shows a disproportionate emphasis on advocacy for Israel.
The fact that they were appointed for the protection of Jews, with an estimated population of 200,000, but not for Muslims (5 million are said to live in Germany), people of sub-Saharan African descent (between 500,000 and 1 million) and Sinti and Roma (an estimated 120,000), should be a cause for concern to anyone who values minority rights.
A CDU campaign video entitled “Deutschland gemeinsam machen” [Making Germany Together] in which the party’s candidate for the position of chancellor, Armin Laschet, addresses viewers in what is clearly intended as a personal, relatable manner.
Laschet begins with the revelation that his father was a miner – underpinned by a scene in a mine in which he happens to be the only one in a group of men with a coal-stained face – and stresses the importance of social cohesion and mutual support, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
The CDU candidate underlines the importance of fighting “hate, incitement and violence”, and the camera briefly shows Laschet walking through the concrete maze of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial and then speaking to Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and the journalist Leah Rosh, who first pushed for the memorial’s construction in 1988 (it was completed in 2005).
On the SPD’s election website for Olaf Scholz, Laschet’s main rival and the most likely next chancellor, there is a page devoted to the issue of Antisemitism and racism.
Under the heading “Entschlossen gegenhalten!” [Resisting resolutely!], we see several photos of Scholz in Halle, the eastern German city in which, in 2019, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, an armed right-wing extremist attacked a synagogue and a Turkish kebab shop before attempting to kill a Somali man with his car.
In a strange irony of fate, the only fatalities in the attack were two non-Jewish white Germans, a passer-by and a kebab shop customer.
The main picture shows Scholz in front of the memorial plaque outside the synagogue, and a series of images further down has inside and outside shots of both the synagogue and the kebab shop.
Strangely, in a picture taken in front of a sculpture in the synagogue yard, Scholz is wearing a black kippa (Jewish skullcap) but the man next to him is not; like the extras in Laschet’s mine scene, he has nothing to prove.
In the final photo of that sequence, we see Scholz standing at a Jewish cemetery, presumably by the synagogue, while a woman points something out to him. In this picture too, Scholz is wearing a black kippa.
To be sure, it is absolutely appropriate to wear a kippa when visiting Jewish graves. One needs to understand, however, that the kippa has a particular significance in the German public consciousness.
Many articles about Jews, Judaism and Antisemitism in the German press feature pictures showing the backs of men’s heads adorned with kippas.
This iconic status was reinforced in 2018 when an Israeli man wearing a kippa in Berlin – not a Jew, as it turned out, but a Palestinian Israeli testing the hypothesis that it was unsafe to wear a kippa on the streets of Berlin – was attacked with a belt and injured by a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent.
Josef Schuster had been warning for a few years that going out wearing the skullcap was dangerous in some areas, especially in Berlin, and accordingly felt vindicated.
This led to a great display of solidarity: a march called “Berlin trägt Kippa” [Berlin Wears a Kippa]. This was followed by an even larger event taking place in several cities, “Deutschland trägt Kippa”.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (Israel’s foreign minister and alternating premier at the time of this article’s writing) weighed in to criticise Schuster for his timidity, insisting that Jews should not hide their faith and should walk the streets with kippas and clubs for self-defence.
However, the strange spectacle of non-Jewish crowds wearing skullcaps also prompted some accusations of cultural appropriation.
The kippa – leaving aside shtreimels and sidelocks, which are rarely seen in Germany – is the most visible signifier of Jewish identity and thus the prime trigger for Antisemitic attacks on strangers.
In August, a young man in Cologne was severely assaulted by a gang of ten because they recognised him as a Jew by his kippa.
It seemed a sad confirmation of a belief held by many: Jews are not safe in Germany. It also reinforced the assumption that the significant measures to address Antisemitism here are absolutely necessary, and perhaps not enough.
Two suspects were arrested immediately and soon released, but investigations are ongoing.
There were statements expressing horror by senior politicians and officials, naturally including Felix Klein, the national Antisemitism commissioner.
Yet strangely, there was also a feeling in some parts of the Jewish community that nothing was being done – because people supposedly don’t care about Antisemitism, and consequently about Jews.
To test this claim, consider that around the same time as the attack in Cologne, a Muslim woman was assaulted as she left the Berlin metro. Her attacker verbally abused her, pulled off her headscarf, beat her and threw his bicycle at her.
Certainly one can find a few mentions of the latter incident online, but significantly less prominently than with the kippa attack, which was also covered in the Israeli media.
There were no dismayed speeches by government officials, no “Germany wears hijab” marches, no statement by the commissioner for anti-Muslim racism – because no such post exists.
Why not? It is difficult to bring up this disparity in discussions, especially with Jewish community representatives, without being accused of inciting Opferkonkurrenz – a “victim competition”, also known as “oppression Olympics”.
This usually goes hand in hand with the assumption that in even bringing this up, one is insinuating that fighting Antisemitism is not an urgent matter, and that – to quote the self-pitying title of a recent book by British Jewish comedian David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count.
Despite this impression, the German establishment does try to convey its concern; but it doesn’t always get it right.
On 8 May, the local SPD group in the western town of Borken held an event to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. For the location, they chose the town’s Jewish cemetery, and the ceremony was slated to begin at 6 PM.
That day was a Saturday, and the weekly day of rest for Jews, Shabbat, runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
Consequently, with the sun setting a little after 9 PM that day, the event would take place during Shabbat and was hence off limits to observant Jews – especially being at a cemetery.
To be clear: this is not some obscure convention known only to the initiated. It is one that is even maintained to some extent by barely observant Jews, and most people with Jewish friends are familiar with it.
This apparent lack of knowledge was surprising and inappropriate, but forgivable in the larger scheme of things. Perhaps the situation could have been improved by pointing out the mistake, as was done in a reader’s letter to the local newspaper.
However, this was answered by a letter from one of the SPD representatives responsible for the gaffe, who pointed out that the event had taken place at the same time every year for decades.
The letter also explained that whatever the seasonal differences in the exact time of sunset, one could use a “simplified time scale” that took 6 PM as the starting and endpoint of Shabbat – meaning the ceremony would take place after it was over.
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) April 19, 2020
It was a bizarre situation: a non-Jewish local politician lecturing a non-Jewish critic about Jewish customs, and doing so quite incorrectly. Of course, the actual time of day matters. That is why Jewish calendars give the exact sunset times for every Friday and Saturday.
When Lea Rosh was criticised by some Jews for the Holocaust memorial project, she reportedly told them that the memorial was not intended for them but for the Germans.
Perhaps there is nothing remarkable about that. After all, with so few Jews left in Germany, the majority audience (leaving aside the millions of tourists posing for selfies) would obviously be non-Jewish. But it also reflects the fact that in Germany, one often finds people talking about Jews than talking or listening to them.
There are some notable exceptions. For example, the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany), which shocked the country by scoring 12% in the 2017 general election and thus becoming the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, contains a small group called JAfD – Juden in der AfD – founded by 24 Jewish members in 2018.
Their deputy chairman, Marcel Goldhammer, is running for the party in Berlin this year, and is a curious figure: a former actor, he converted to Judaism in 2006 and went to Israel, where he served in the IDF.
Given the fact that Goldhammer is running in the Neukölln district, with large numbers of Palestinians and Syrian refugees, the AfD candidate is unlikely to receive many votes.
Goldhammer recently disseminated an election poster-style picture of himself on social media that promotes himself as a “patriot and Zionist”, states that he “defended Jews in the IDF”, and refers scornfully to the government-funded “professional Jews” [Berufsjuden] of the Central Council who denounce the AfD and have protested against the presence of Jews in its ranks.
Goldhammer may rationalise the attack as “inter-Jewish” politics, but there’s more than a hint of Antisemitism in the accusation. Just because he converted to Judaism, this does not give Goldhammer license to use language that, if used by a non-Jew, would broadly be considered Antisemitic.
The cherry on the cake, however, is the adaptation of the party’s campaign slogan “Deutschland. Aber normal” [Germany. But Normal] to “Juden. Aber normal” [Jewish. But Normal].
The former expresses the wish to return a topsy-turvy country to wholesome nationalist norms – none of all this multicultural nonsense, Holocaust guilt, rainbow flags and LGBT deviants, fake refugees and rapists from shithole countries.
Alternative für Deutschland has managed to enlist a handful of Jews who hope to be part of creating this “normality”. There is nothing outlandish about right-wing Jews, of course. But belonging to a party that harbours Holocaust deniers and violent skinheads certainly does have an element of turkeys voting for Christmas.
At any rate, the words “normal” and “Jews” will not belong together for a while yet in Germany.
I wrote that there are 200,000 Jews in Germany, but that’s not the whole story; there are another 6 million, lurking here and there as phantoms.
They can be summoned at will, but they can’t talk back.
And that’s why many in German politics, at election time too, find it easier to work with them than to engage with those living around them.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.