Did German anti-Semitism ever really disappear?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (16th June, 2019)

Nine months ago, Liam Rückert left his home and mother in Berlin to start a new life at a boarding school in Israel.

Aged just 16, he had been driven out of  Germany by anti-Semitic bullies. The attacks had gone on for two years, with classmates openly talking about killing Jews and calling him vile names.

The fearful teenager’s grades declined as he ducked school, then he was sent to join a special unit for struggling children.

The final straw was a school trip to Rome.  Liam refused to go – and only told his mother recently that the reason was a threat from the bullies that he would never return from Italy.

His story is chilling enough. But a twist makes it even more shocking.

‘My son was forced to leave Germany 80 years to the month after his grandfather – and for the same reasons of anti-Semitism,’ says his mother Billy. ‘It’s just too awful to see this again.’

Liam was offered sanctuary by a school near Tel Aviv, where he is now thriving. But his story of fleeing Germany as did his grandfather Issak Munves highlights the explosion of anti-Semitism in the nation that unleashed the evils of the Holocaust.

Little more than seven decades after the hideous discovery of Nazi gas chambers, the German government’s commissioner for anti-Semitism Felix Klein has warned it is unsafe for Jews to display their faith by wearing skullcaps in public.

‘My opinion… has changed after the ongoing brutalisation in German society,’ he told a newspaper two weeks ago. ‘I cannot recommend Jews wear the kippah whenever and wherever they want in Germany.’

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin responded by saying the warning – which followed the release of data showing rising incidents of abuse and violence – amounted to ‘an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil’.

Chancellor Angela Merkel added that ‘unfortunately there is to this day not a single synagogue, not a single day care centre for Jewish children, not a single school for Jewish children that does not need to be guarded by German policemen’.

These are frightening statements. Many French Jews have fled to Israel in recent years, while anti-Semitism stains the Labour Party in Britain – but Germany was meant to be the model state, exorcising such demons after the Nazi horrors.

Instead, this ancient bigotry has seeped back, with school pupils abused, women harassed, restaurants attacked, rabbis forced to stop using public transport and Jews urged by community leaders to hide symbols that might identify them.

Many fear this hostility has become ‘permissible’ again in a harsher political climate fuelled by social media and surging populism. ‘It seems as if people dare to say again what they have always thought, but did not dare to say,’ said Josef Schuster, of the Central Council of Jews.

Official figures disclosed 1,646 hate crimes against Jews in 2018, a ten per cent rise on the previous year, with a sharper increase in physical attacks from 37 to 62 incidents. The vast majority were blamed on the far-Right.

But many incidents go unreported. A recent report found 1,083 anti-Semitic incidents in the capital alone, including 46 physical assaults and 43 desecrations of property.

‘We can understand why people are worried,’ said Alexander Rasumny, spokesman for the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism. ‘This is an extremely serious situation. A lot of Jewish people do not feel safe in Germany.’

Jewish groups acknowledge the far-Right remains the biggest problem – but say there is evidence of simmering anti-Semitism erupting from all sides, including from the hard Left and liberals hostile to Israel, as well as among Islamic migrant groups that were swelled by hundreds of thousands of new arrivals welcomed by Mrs Merkel at the height of Syria’s civil war.

Yechiel Brukner, rabbi for Cologne’s 4,000-strong community, now has to rely on cars after a series of ‘unsightly’ incidents on public transport, which included a man shouting that he should be dead while drawing swastikas with his hands.

‘I was petrified and shocked,’ said Brukner. ‘Another time, I was on the subway at the main station with my wife and we wanted to make way for a man aged about 60, who said to us: “That’s not going to change the hate against you”.’

Much of the concern has focused on abuse in schools, such as that faced by Liam Rückert. His liberal-minded family moved him from a Jewish school to ensure he was fully integrated in wider society – and the attacks started on his second day.

‘The teacher talked about the conflict in the Middle East and some Muslim kids said they hated Jews and would kill them,’ said his mother Billy, who works with Palestinian migrants. ‘One asked if there were any Jewish children in the school. My son is a proud Jew but was very afraid.

When they found out Liam was a Jew he started not attending school. I would send him off with his lunchbox but he did not go to the classroom. They were threatening him but he did not tell me.’

She found out only when summoned to a school meeting over his truancy, which led to Liam attending an unsuitable special unit for disruptive and struggling pupils. ‘The school seemed to have no understanding for his situation,’ said his mother.

The family spoke out after a similar case that involved a pupil who is half-English, half-German, who also moved to a more diverse school in Berlin only to suffer bullying. It sparked huge publicity – yet was dismissed by the authorities as a one-off.

On his fourth day, Solomon Michalski told his classmates he was Jewish, which led to abuse and ostracisation. It began with hostile comments on ‘greedy’ Jews, then escalated to being hit, and even having a fake gun pointed at his face.

‘I was not so shocked by the events,’ said his father Wenzel, director of Human Rights Watch in Germany. ‘What I found astonishing was the school management and social workers wanted to silence us, calling us pushy.

‘They never did anything when my son was attacked – so the perpetrator thought “I can beat the Jew” while his teachers looked away. Then, when we complained, other parents accused us of ruining the image of the school.’

His wife Gemma, granddaughter of former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, said that when she moved to Berlin 30 years ago, she found people became defensive about the Nazi past if she mentioned being Jewish. So she decided to keep quiet about it. ‘Now both here and in Britain I see a creeping normalisation of nastiness about me and my family in places you least expect it, like the Labour Party in the UK, or a Berlin school,’ she said. ‘It is so distressing – especially when it is dismissed by the authorities.’

After the Nazi defeat, about 15,000 Jews remained in Germany, where they were joined by 20,000 others displaced by war. Boosted by exiles from the former Soviet Union, there are today about 200,000 Jews in a country of 82 million.

Yet Wenzel Michalski believes his nation failed to fully confront its darkest deeds, despite the imposition of rigid controls on Nazi insignia and more recent instigation of a ‘culture of remembrance’ about the Holocaust, symbolised by a striking memorial in Berlin.

‘Germany buried responsibility for the Holocaust beneath big memorials, but people never questioned their own family connections,’ he said. ‘Everyone said “my own grandfather was a soldier but he was never a Nazi”. I feel very depressed because, like many others, I fell for the narrative that Germany had dealt with its past, but I was kidding myself. This is not unique to our country, as you can see with Labour in Britain, but because of our history it is different.’

Michalski added he would be tempted to leave if he did not have his job. ‘Anti-Semitism is always one of the first indications something is going wrong in society.’

Much of the hate is fostered on the internet. One study in 2017 analysed 300,000 entries on German social media on relevant topics, and found almost one-third of them were anti-Semitic – compared with less than eight per cent a decade earlier. Content had also grown angrier.

After restaurateur Yorai Feinberg posted a video of an anti-Semite yelling ‘Go back to your gas chambers’ outside his Berlin restaurant, he received a fusillade of death threats, fake bookings and abusive calls. ‘They don’t like what I am doing here,’ he told me.

Or take the appalling events at Schalom, a kosher restaurant in a quiet side street in Chemnitz, a city in the far-Right heartland of Saxony. It has had swastikas painted on the building, windows shattered and a pig’s head left at the door.

Last summer, the owner was hurt when a group of black-clad protesters, marching against asylum-seekers, stopped to hurl rocks and bottles at his restaurant. They were reported to have been screaming: ‘Get out of Germany, Jewish pigs.’

Yet most of the anti-Semitism is more insidious, such as blaming Jews for Israel’s actions in the Middle East. Psychologist Marina Chernivsky told me she was called ‘child killer’ by a man who heard her talking Hebrew on a train last month.

‘I was speechless and got out at the next station,’ said Chernivsky, a government adviser who runs an anti-Semitism watchdog offering counselling to victims. She believes her country must accept the prevalence of anti-Semitism in its midst. ‘In Germany, they always blame other people, not themselves,’ she said.

Certainly the populist and anti-Islam Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), now third biggest party in the Bundestag after feeding off concerns over the 2015 migrant influx, has sought to blame bigotry on new arrivals from the Middle East.

Critics say its focus on German identity and its furious political discourse helped foster a more open anti-Semitism. Senior figures in the party have also brushed aside the Nazi era, one even asking why Germany planted ‘a monument of shame in the heart of the capital’ by building a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

More than half of AfD supporters were found last year to agree with the statement that Jews have ‘too much influence in the world’ – more than twice the level found in the wider German population.

‘When I go to the cinema or theatre, every third person has a prejudice against me,’ said Daniel Alter, a rabbi who was beaten in front of his daughter seven years ago after being asked if he was Jewish. ‘That does not make you feel very easy.’

There have also been fears over the reach of anti-Semitism after 14 police officers in Bavaria were dismissed for membership of an online group sharing offensive videos, along with a series of probes into far-Right cabals in the army. 

Yet there are signs of a fightback. Berlin has appointed its first anti-Semitism official. Germany’s main music awards, meanwhile, were simply cancelled when a winning hip-hop duo was accused of having anti-Semitic lyrics.

Muslim leaders are working with other faith groups to combat hate, including taking people on trips to former concentration camps, while there is even a provocatively titled body called Rent-A-Jew, which offers speakers for schools and workplaces. 

‘We realised how few Germans had ever met a Jew,’ said Mascha Schmerling, one of its organisers. ‘So we offer insights into Jewish life and all its diversity in Germany.’

Last week saw the launch of a website backed by journalists, experts and faith leaders offering responses to common anti-Semitic statements.

But this does not stop the fears. Sigmount Königsberg, anti-Semitism commissioner for Berlin’s Jewish communities, was born to a mother who survived Auschwitz and a father who spent the war hiding from fascists in Ukrainian forests. He told me after the fall of the Nazis, Jewish families like his in Germany kept a suitcase by the door.

‘It was always in their mind that they might have to leave suddenly,’ he said, adding that such fears disappeared only in the 1990s.

‘I am still optimistic as I can see decent forces working to stop anti-Semitism. We are not sitting with our luggage packed, but we are wondering where the suitcases might be. People are getting nervous.’

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