Study: In Germany, anti-Semitic Hate Mail Doesn’t Come From Far-right

More than 60 percent comes from educated Germans, with only 3 percent coming from ultranationalists.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

BERLIN – Over months, Prof. Monika Schwarz-Friesel read 14,000 letters, emails and faxes sent to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. She was looking for an answer to a question that had preoccupied her for some time: What does anti-Semitism look like in Germany at the start of the 21st century?

“I wanted to find out how modern anti-Semites think, feel and communicate,” said Schwarz-Friesel, a linguistics professor at the Technical University of Berlin, in an interview with Haaretz.

Previous studies of anti-Semitism didn’t satisfy her, nor did public opinion surveys, questionnaires or the annual reports put out by various agencies on anti-Semitic incidents round the world. “I wasn’t satisfied with the methodology of asking in a survey, ‘Do you think that Jews are ...,” she explained.

So she decided to search for data in another source that had never before been studied so systematically and comprehensively. She asked the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the local Jewish community to send her all the hate mail they received over a 10-year period, from 2002 to 2012.

They gave her 14,000 letters, to which she added 2,000 letters from other Israeli embassies in Europe.

Her approach to these institutions was made easier by the fact that her husband, Prof. Evyatar Friesel, once served as Israel’s state archivist. “In the end, I had a unique collection of information that enabled me to understand how modern anti-Semites think in the 21st century,” she said.

Her research partner was Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, a historian and past president of Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Together with a few research assistants, they read and analyzed all the letters. “We were helped by modern technology that enabled us to sort them better than in the past,” Schwarz-Friesel said.

Their findings were detailed in a book published in Germany last year, “The Language of Hostility toward Jews in the 21st Century.” Next year, it will be published in English.

What they discovered is that more than 60 percent of the letters were sent by educated Germans, including university professors. The proportion sent by right-wing extremists was negligible – about 3 percent.

“At first, we thought that most of the letters would be sent by right-wing extremists,” Schwarz-Friesel said. “But I was very surprised to discover that they were actually sent by people from the social mainstream – professors, Ph.Ds, lawyers, priests, university and high-school students.”

She was also surprised to discover that most of the letter writers had no qualms about giving their names, addresses and titles. “Twenty or 30 years ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” she said.

Still another surprise was the fact that there is no significant difference between the extreme right’s anti-Semitism and that of the educated mainstream. “The difference is only in the style and the rhetoric, but the ideas are the same,” Schwarz-Friesel noted.

“It is possible that the murder of innocent children suits your long tradition?” one letter said.

“For the last 2,000 years, you’ve been stealing land and committing genocide,” said another.

“You Israelis ... shoot cluster bombs over populated areas and accuse people who criticize such actions of anti-Semitism. That’s typical of the Jews!” declared a third.

Certain key phrases kept cropping up in letter after letter. For instance, many letters sent to the Central Council of Jews in Germany said, “The Jews are doing to the Palestinians exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews.”

Schwarz-Friesel’s training as a linguist helped her identify anti-Semitic motifs even in letters that at first glance seemed innocent. An opening such as “I’m not an anti-Semite, but ...” is liable to be a substitute for a general statement about “Jewish” traits, which in itself has anti-Semitic elements.

About 80 percent of the hate mail was anti-Israel. Surveying these letters led Schwarz-Friesel to an unambiguous conclusion: “Today, it’s already impossible to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. Modern anti-Semites have turned ‘the Jewish problem’ into ‘the Israeli problem.’ They have redirected the ‘final solution’ from the Jews to the State of Israel, which they see as the embodiment of evil.”

The study’s bottom line is gloomy. “Anti-Semitism is embedded very deeply in Western society, even after the Holocaust, all the learning of its lessons and the memorialization,” Schwarz-Friesel said. “For 2,000 years, they fashioned the image of the Jews as the enemy of Christianity and of humanity. That’s not a simple thing that can be erased in 60 years. It’s etched too deeply into the collective memory. Thus people who see themselves as humanists and are familiar with the lessons of the Holocaust permit themselves to express themselves in an anti-Semitic fashion even afterward.”

Now, Schwarz-Friesel is busy with a new study of modern anti-Semitism on the Internet. “It hasn’t been confined to extreme right-wing sites for a long time now,” she said. “It’s also on fairly ‘ordinary’ sites.”

Hebrew gravestones desecrated in the Jewish cemetery of Weyhers, August 28, 2005 (illustrative)Credit: Reuters

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