BERLIN – Working with youths in his largely Turkish and Arab neighborhood of Berlin, Aycan Demirel was shocked by the anti-Semitic sentiments he heard mixed with criticism of Israel.
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Some 10 years ago Demirel, of Turkish background, co-founded the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism. It was around the time of the second intifada.
Since then, out of offices on Oranienstrasse, a main drag in the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood, the organization has run pedagogical projects with youths from Turkish and Arab backgrounds, but also with adults. In 2012, the group even took Turkish and Arab teenagers to Israel and the West Bank. The aim was to challenge anti-Semitic attitudes.
Still, anti-Semitism isn’t especially common among Turks and Arabs, the group says. Research has shown that there is latent anti-Semitism among around 20 percent of Germans. Demirel, today director of the initiative and a member of Germany’s expert panel on anti-Semitism, cites a 2010 study by the University of Bielefeld which found that the figure of 20 percent is at roughly the same level among all the country’s ethnic groups.
According to the study, based on evidence gathered over 10 years, the difference is the way anti-Semitism is expressed.
German young people without immigrant backgrounds mention resentment at a sense of being pressed to feel guilty about the Holocaust, while Muslim youngsters mention the Middle East conflict. Members of a third group, mostly immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, express more typical anti-Semitic attitudes.
Turkish labor migrants started coming to Germany in big numbers in the 1960s. Arab labor migrants started coming in the ‘70s and later included refugees from Mideast conflicts – Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians and now Syrians.
Today, Germany has the second-largest Muslim population in Western Europe after France. In neighborhoods with very large Turkish and Arab populations, anti-Semitism in schools is often related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Malte Holler, a board member of the initiative.
“Israel is seen as responsible for the conflict and as the aggressor, and sometimes this point of view is mixed with a wide spectrum of anti-Semitism,” says Holler, adding that of course not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. The spectrum ranges from denying Israel’s right to exist to seeing the founding of Israel as a conspiracy backed by “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
One also hears stereotypes like “Jews are rich, Jews control the world” and “the legend that Muslims and Jews are eternal enemies,” Demirel says. This is “basically the same old anti-Semitism but with new imagery and frames of reference,” Holler adds.
Anti-Semitism surges in relation to political events, they note. One example is the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when many young Lebanese Germans spent the summer with family in Lebanon, directly experiencing the conflict.
Other examples are the 2009 Gaza war and the 2010 Mavi Mamara incident, when nine Turks were killed by Israeli forces aboard a flotilla headed for Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hostility toward Israel has been very influential in the Turkish community, Demirel adds.
Kreuzberger Hasan-Ali Yildirim, 23, is one of the organization’s “peers,” a member of a small team giving workshops in local schools. An Azerbaijani-Turkish German born and bred in Berlin, he studied Turkology based on an interest in his roots.
His work with the initiative has taught him much about Judaism, prejudice and the relationship between the Abrahamic religions, he says. Although he believes that anti-Semitism in Germany isn’t as widespread as it once was, and that Islamophobia is seeing a rise, he recognizes that prejudice against Jews is a problem in his community.
“I’m sad to say that in the Middle Eastern community where I’m from, anti-Semitism exists,” he says. “I have noticed anti-Semitism among conservatives, and unfortunately our youngsters use the term yahudi with a negative connotation. But to teach them to stop that is our job.” Borrowing from Bob Marley, this reggae fan adds, “Get up, stand up and don’t give up the fight.”
Dealing with the Holocaust as a part of the German past and identity can be a source of tension for the people the group works with. Critics say Germany’s political establishment is aware of anti-Semitism while giving little acknowledgment to Islamophobia and racism toward Turks and Arabs.
Demirel and Holler often hear questions like “why are synagogues guarded while mosques aren’t?” Germans still see third- or fourth-generation Turks as immigrants, Demirel says. “Many Germans still refer to them as foreigners,” Holler adds.
Today the organization is facing a funding crisis that will leave it unable to pay the rent by the end of March, but Demirel and Holler are optimistic that their new donation drive will let the group continue its mission – a still very relevant one. More than three-quarters of respondents to a November EU poll said anti-Semitic hostility had increased in their countries over the last five years
So looking back on the first 10 years, has the group effected any real change? “When we began, it was very difficult to get into schools and find partners,” Demirel says. “We were really pioneers. We were even accused of racism for focusing on one group.” The biggest achievement, he says, was simply getting the conversation started.