'Antisemitism Doesn't Come From the Arabs. It's Only Possible Because It Remained in Germany'

German public TV recently broadcasted two movies on the painful, persisting problem of antisemitism at school, made by Jewish directors with a Russian background

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A scene from Das Unwort (The Un-Word).
A scene from Das Unwort (The Un-Word). It tackles, with frissons of irony, a painful subject for German society: antisemitism in the schools.Credit: ZDF und Conny Klein
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

“You’re a Jew,” Leo Khasin’s German teacher said one day. This was in the 1980s, he had recently arrived from the Soviet Union and was in fifth grade. His initial reaction was to deny it: “Not true.”

“But the only Russians living in Berlin are Jews,” his teacher insisted.

“‘No way, my father was an officer,’ I answered. I began to invent all sorts of nonsense,” Khasin now recalls. “Later I felt bad that I lied, that I didn’t stand up for my religion, behind my nationality. A day or two later I came to school, saw a group of children by the classroom and told everyone: ‘By the way, I’m a Jew.’” The kids didn’t get it. “German children didn’t know what a Jew is. I could have said I came from Saturn – they would have looked at me with the same mystification.”

On the anniversary of Kristallnacht three weeks ago, the German public broadcast company ZDF broadcast Khasin’s feature film “Das Unwort” (The Un-Word), i.e., a word that may not be spoken. It tackles, with frissons of irony, a painful subject for German society: antisemitism in the schools.

The plot is simple. A Jewish boy in a Berlin high school is harassed and bullied by the other children, most of whom are Muslim. In one brawl he breaks the nose of a boy of Iranian origin, and bites the earlobe of another, a Palestinian. All are suspended and their parents are summoned to meet with the homeroom teacher, the principal and a representative of the city’s education department.

Others strike in their place, but the Germans allow it, it’s OK with them

Leo Khasin

Most of the scenes take place inside the classroom where they meet, in a situation that every parent in Germany who ever clashed with system knows.

The home room teacher, who could be described as a “bleeding heart” liberal Berliner, tries to ease the tension. She prepares felafel and very pale gefilte fish for the meeting and sticks little flags in them, Palestinian and Israeli, respectively.

The Jewish parents, frustrated by the flags, are compelled to advise – and it seems not for the first time – that they aren’t Israeli. The Palestinian parents don’t even show up for the meeting; the Iranian mother does show up, fashionably late, and reproaches the officials because a blonde child who also hassled the Jewish boy was not even summoned to the hearing. The principal is engaged mainly with protecting himself and the city’s education inspector – who keeps her cool throughout most of the hearing – finally erupts against the Iranian mother when she claims that Muslims are being made scapegoats in German society. The official shouts: “When you come to Germany and behave like you’re at home, it doesn’t work out eventually!” The gefilte fish that was placed on the table in the first act is fired in the third act – to be precise, gets mashed onto the young teacher’s face.

But after the uproar, which looks like a giant dead end for German multiculturalism, all ends well. Miraculously the Jewish and Palestinian parents find common language, the hard-nosed official turns flexible and the clashing teens are ordered to volunteer together at a home for old folks, where an old woman is overheard saying, “The Arabs always cheat. The Arabs are today’s Jews.” The kids can’t stop laughing. The principal, by the way, is promoted and becomes the district head. The Jewish family sees him on television lighting Hanukkah candles by the Brandenburg Gate and calling for an uncompromising fight against antisemitism.

That’s quite an optimistic ending. How realistic could it be?

Actually the ending isn’t happy ever after, it’s satiric, Khasin explains. “As things are, of course the ending is a fairy tale, but I decided on it because I want to spur discussion on the issue. A negative ending might have been more realistic but then no discussion would ensue. People would have shrugged, ‘Right, that’s the way it is and we’ve seen it already in documentaries.’ The ending I created is worth it even for the discussion of ‘whether it’s possible or not.’ Of course, everyone says it’s not, but I leave the viewers with a positive feeling. I am trying to bring in Jewish humor and leave the movie with a smile, without portraying us as an offended people.”

'There are a lot of members of Jewish community who don’t want to receive the community’s newspaper in their mailboxes'

Masel Tov Cocktail director Arkadij Khaet.

The Star of David test

Antisemitism by Muslims in German schools is covered often by the German media. Just recently, after a schoolteacher in Paris was murdered for showing the cartoons of Mohammed, the Berlin paper Der Tagesspiegel reported on educators talking about the problems they face with Muslim students. The quote, part of which was chosen for the story headline, was: “It’s good they murdered the Jews with gas, pity the Germans didn’t finish the job.”

Khasin suspects that the fear which caused him to deny his Judaism as a child may have been imbued in him by his parents, who suffered the same in the Soviet Union. But also the local Jews, mostly descendants of uprooted Polish Jews who remained in Germany after World War II,  felt at the time that they were “sitting on their suitcases” and tried to send their children out of Germany. The situation changed in the 1990s after Germany’s reunification, when tens of thousands of post-Soviet Jews began arriving in Germany at the invitation of the government, and the Jewish communities grew, Khasin says. Israelis, too, began to come and in general, the Jews started to feel safe in Germany.

But the fear revived after Middle Eastern refugees began to arrive too. “On one hand, the right strengthened, on the other hand, a very large number of Arabs arrived, and the Jews were once again ‘sitting on their suitcases.’ All my friends wondered whether to stay in Germany or leave. Such a thing didn’t use to exist. Now we all ask ourselves if there is a future here, and many, if they are honest, say they no longer see a future here in Germany.”

Asked if he personally runs into antisemitism, Khasin replies: “Not open antisemitism. But after all I’m not religious, I don’t go out with a kippa. I can pass as a Turk or Italian. I don’t announce that I’m a Jew, so I don’t encounter it. Just yesterday we talked with friends about the part in my movie where the kid shows his Star of David that he wears underneath his sweatshirt. But we all remember times when we would wear them on top of the shirt.”

Even though the focus of Khasin’s film is on the conflict between a Jewish boy and Muslim boys, the antisemitism displayed by Arabs is not the film’s message, he says. “It exists, but it’s boring to tell about it. This antisemitism is possible only because the Germans are antisemites – subtly, in various ways. They enable it. Others strike in their place, but they allow it, it’s OK with them. I can’t say it openly, but antisemitism doesn’t come from the Arabs, it exists within the Germans too. It was hidden, but remained. I realized that in recent years. It’s my feeling – that I’m living in a country in which people don't accept me."

Incapable of saying ‘Jew’

Another film, broadcast by the public broadcaster ARD, actually says it out loud. The 30-minute-long student film “Masel Tov Cocktail” – a combination of mazel tov and Molotov cocktail – directed by Arkadij Khaet won awards at film festivals in Germany before being aired on television in October. It has parallels with “Das Unwort”, portraying conflict between a Jewish teen and his antisemitic classmate. It also includes comedic elements and is told in the first person. It too features a broken nose and students suspended from school. But it differs from Khasin’s film in important ways.

To watch the film in full click here

In “Das Unwort” the main protagonists are a German-Jewish couple, Berliners who were born in Germany and are well-off; Khaet’s film features a more typical Jewish family in Germany, hailing from the former Soviet Union and living in a panel building in a small, remote working-class town. The antisemitic teen who gets hit in the nose is a German, not an immigrant, while the main character, Dima, is a sort of “new German Jew” – angry but good-hearted, nervous but ironic and self-aware; most importantly, he doesn’t shrink from telling everyone around him exactly what he thinks of them. His criticism is directed not just against the antisemitic teen but also against the philosemitic teacher who is incapable of speaking the word “Jew” or the student for whom it is so important to say that there were no Nazis in his family.

The film treads the fine line between fiction and an educational PR program, and features informative interludes of depressing statistics – such as, 69 percent of Germans believe that their grandfathers did not participate in crimes during the Nazi era, and 29 percent of them believe that their grandfathers helped the victims, for example by hiding Jews: In reality less than 0.1 percent of the German population helped Jews.

The main character does not spare his own grandfather, who palled around with an activist in the right-wing populist party AfD, or the local Jewish community, which has nothing to offer beyond a choir of elderly women singing “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” as if they were in a community center in Ashdod. The movie’s ending does little to heal any wounds either. Dima may meet Tobi the antisemite with the intention of reconciling with him, but it ends in a totally different way.

What the two directors have in common is that they cast the main responsibility for the flourishing antisemitism on the Germans, not on the immigrants, though they deal with it in different ways.

Khasin, 47, emigrated to Germany from Moscow when he was 8; Khaet was brought to Germany by his parents when he was only a few months old, from Balti in Moldova.

“The old generation, for example my grandmother and grandfather and their environment, don’t feel comfortable with the exposure of their Judaism. There are a lot of members of Jewish community who don’t want to receive the community’s newspaper in their mailboxes, because ‘the Jewish community’ is written on it,” says Khaet. “But in my generation, people grew up with a completely different awareness of Judaism, with self-confidence, with Jewish pride, and I don’t think that they are afraid to reveal their Jewishness.”

One of Khaet’s goals in his film is to detach the Jews from their typecasting of Holocaust victimization. “The German narrative is that ‘we are bringing back the Jews we murdered in the Holocaust.’ But this is not the narrative that the Russian Jews brought to Germany. The Germans expected that Jewish intelligentsia would come and breathe Jewish life into cities and communities, but all that they got were assimilated Russians who eat pork and don’t join the [Jewish] community at all,” Khaet says. “All the communities nowadays are empty, but the German government gives a lot of money to build big impressive synagogues in city centers, in order to serve the narrative that the Jews are back in Germany. They put Jewish life into a framework of being thankful and proving to the Germans that [the Germans] experienced catharsis and metamorphosed from being the perpetrators into a nation that serves the Jews and making everything possible for them.”

This approach, which sanctifies the remembrance and tiles German sidewalks with brass plates in memory of the murdered Jews has failed, Khaet says. In evidence: note the high number of Germans who hold antisemitic views – about 25 percent, according to research published last year. There’s something of fakery in all this, he suggests: Germany may have been coping with its history on the level of the German institutions. But it didn’t necessarily percolate down to the personal level.

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