The Victimhood Contest

No other society deals so seriously and frankly with its stained past as does Germany. And yet, a growing number of Germans today dare to express anti-Semitic sentiments. How much of an effect does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have, and what's the connection between hatred of Jews and xenophobia

BERLIN - "You know who's now buying apartments in Berlin," a real estate agent asked the shocked Michaela, a non-Jewish philosophy professor who is looking to buy a home, "only the Jews. They're turning up here again." It is not politically correct in public but it seeps out in private conversation: "The Jews don't pay taxes," says the assistant kindergarten teacher, about 40 years old, to the astounded Nurit, an Israeli married to a German, who has been living in Berlin for two years. "The victims don't pay taxes, but others suffered as well, and it's not fair," continued the woman.

Ayala, 26, is a native of Berlin whose parents are Israelis of German origin. She worked as a guide in the Jewish Museum. "What do you think of when people say `Jews'?" she used to ask the groups of visitors. The answers were often: "Very educated, rich, intelligent, well connected."

Ayala is now writing her doctoral dissertation in history, about anti-Semitism in the internal-Jewish discourse. At an interview with a professor who was supposed to decide whether she will receive a stipend, he said to her, "Fraulein xxx," with an emphasis on her Jewish-sounding name: "Don't think that I'll approve the stipend because you're Jewish." He didn't give her much time to wonder if this was a positive statement, meaning, "You're so good you don't need your Judaism as pull." He continued: "As opposed to others of my generation, I have no complexes." But he didn't stop there: "You know, I don't understand why the Jews, who suffered so much, are now causing so much suffering."

That's already classic: As a Jew she represents Israel. The individual represents the whole, is responsible for the whole. And not only in the present, it turns out. The respected professor continued, apparently in a kind of trance over which he had no control: "You plan to refer to Freud in your work," he said to the open-mouthed doctoral student. "Freud claimed that the Jews invented monotheism, and lately I read in Der Spiegel that even if that's not true, there is proof that the Jews were pagans, too." In other words, the woman in front of him had now turned into a representative of the pagan Jews, who were pretentious enough - imagine the chutzpah - to claim they were the inventors of monotheism, too.

Several such examples were trotted out, not without bemused grins, one afternoon in the home of Ayala's parents, in a pleasant and quiet section of Berlin. The guests were Israelis and the children of Israelis, who were asked about encounters with anti-Semitism. Some have been living in Berlin for 30 years, others for two to three years. They all identify with Peace Now and groups further left. As Israelis who are not blind to the discrimination and stereotyping in their own society, they try to distinguish between simple foolishness and ignorance on the one hand, and a deep-seated anti-Semitic outlook, such as that of the professor, on the other. But racist stereotypes always reveal more about those who encourage them than about their target. And in Germany, naturally, anti-Semitic stereotypes reverberate with particular power.

After the fall of the wall

"In the summer of 1990, a rumor was doing the rounds in Moscow: (East German leader Erich) Honecker was taking Jews from the Soviet Union, by way of a kind of compensation for East Germany's never having paid its share of the German payments (reparations) to Israel." Money. Jews. Holocaust. Israel. If in today's Germany one is looking for covert undertones of anti-Semitism, these will be the damning components. All of them together, or some of them.

But the above statement was not made by some anti-Semite. It's the opening sentence of the book "Russian Disco" by Wladimir Kaminer, a Jew who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Berlin and is very successful there. He is referring to a step that led to a major change in the Jewish community in Germany: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when East Germany was still pretending that it would remain a sovereign independent country, it invited the Jews of the Soviet Union to come "if they felt that they were liable to be persecuted," as a result of the dramatic changes in the collapsing Soviet empire.

Until 1990 there were about 30,000 Jews in Germany, most of them displaced persons and the children of DPs from Poland, survivors of the Nazi death industry, who found themselves in camps in Germany, and for various reasons did not continue on to the United States or to Palestine. There are now about 170,000 Jews in Germany, the majority of them natives of the former Soviet Union. About 80,000 are registered in Jewish communities, the largest of which - 10,000 to 12,000 - is in Berlin.

Cilly Kugelmann, program director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was born in Germany to parents from a remote Polish town, who survived the death camps. She has lived her entire life - except for five years in Israel - in West Germany. She testifies that only once did she personally experience an incident that can be described as anti-Semitic: About a year ago she stopped a cab and asked the driver to take her to the museum. "Do you know where the Jewish Museum is?" she asked him. And the driver replied: "Yes, that's the place where they demand that Israel be paid after all these years." Then he added something like "You and Sharon want all our money." He had a distinct East German accent. "I asked him if he was from the GDR (East Germany). He replied: `What's the connection?' I told him that he was right, that one couldn't blame the GDR for everything."

Don't mention 18

There is something artificial about all these examples of anti-Semitism: One could get the impression that it's dangerous for a Jew to live in Germany, and that is not the case. Or that the oppressive quality of life in Germany stems from the perpetual encounter with anti-Semitism. But the truth is just the opposite. Ayala herself tells how serious and honest the preoccupation is with Nazism and the Holocaust - socially, intellectually, politically and emotionally. There is no European society that confronts its stained past as much as Germany. "The preoccupation with the Holocaust is an inseparable part of the history of postwar Germany. Since the 1960s, it has become part of the West German political identity, and since 1989 - part of the political identity of all of Germany," says Micha Brumlik of Frankfurt, a professor of education.

It's true that various public opinion surveys and sociological analyses show that there is a more less fixed percentage of "hard core anti-Semites" - and that it ranges from 15 to 20 percent of the German public. Brumlik says that 42 percent hold some kind of anti-Semitic stereotype. Kugelmann believes that the percentage has remained much the same for years, but now more people dare to express anti-Semitic sentiments. There are fewer constraints than in the past. And this lifting of constraints enables institutional and political systems to act decisively.

In Germany it is forbidden to wear a swastika. In Germany, Holocaust denial is a punishable offense. Numbers such as 18 and 88 raise suspicions and in effect forbidden: In neo-Nazi code, the first stands for "Adolf Hitler" (the first and eighth letter in the alphabet), and the second, using the same system, is "Heil Hitler."

When the German Liberal Party (FDP) opened an election campaign about two years ago with the slogan "FDP 18," it referred to the party's two target numbers: setting 18 as the age for first-time voters, and getting 18 percent of the votes. But people suspected that the 18 signified something else, especially since the initiator of the campaign was Juergen Moellemann, a senior party official. In local elections in spring of 2002 he apparently hoped to attract voters by appealing to anti-Semitic sentiments (under the guise of criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Micha Friedman, a fast-talking and arrogant television broadcaster and the deputy head of the Jewish community, who was discovered to have been involved in drug use).

Moellemann apparently thought that in the spring of 2002 - around the time of the Israeli army's incursions into Palestinian cities during Operation Defensive Shield - he would be able to make political capital out of anti-Israel sentiments. Some assumed that his 18 was not innocent, but a coded message for the more extreme right. But these tricks apparently only hurt the election campaign of the Liberals, who reached less than half of their target (7.4 percent). Eventually, Moellemann resigned and later committed suicide in 2003, after the exposure of his own tax offenses.

In other words, one must take into account that German political culture does not tolerate anti-Semitic overtures or disguised anti-Semitism. Such behavior does not generate political capital. On the contrary, it endangers the public status of those who make anti-Semitic remarks: That's what happened to Martin Hohmann, a member of the Christian Democratic faction in the Bundestag. In a 2003 speech on the anniversary of the reunification of Germany, he decided to "mention" the large number of Jews among the Bolsheviks. Therefore, he said, they can also be called "a nation of perpetrators." He was removed from his conservative party. Kugelmann believes that 20 years ago such a statement would have been swept under the carpet, and members of the party would even have rallied to his support.

Drawing a parallel between Nazism and other dictatorships is seen as a way to "normalize" and minimize the murder industry built by Germany, as a kind of denial. Juliane Wetzel, from the Berlin Technical University's Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, is one of the two authors of the notorious report on anti-Semitism, which the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) ordered and later shelved, and then published under pressure. Wetzel says that any kind of Holocaust denial is a significant index for examining "levels of anti-Semitism" in German society. She says it's absurd to speak of "new anti-Semitism," when it's actually the same anti-Semitism.

A telethon for Israel

"Undercover police are guarding the place," promised two of the Jewish activists who organized a benefit concert on Saturday night, March 6, and were afraid of a provocation that would break up the event. They didn't fear rightist skinheads or Muslim extremists, but a group called the Antideutsche (anti-Germans). Its members are connected to a coalition with the overall name Antifa - the Anti-Fascists, which includes small leftist groups and organizations. Antifa activists are always present at any demonstration of neo-Nazis, sometimes in numbers much larger than those of the right-wing demonstrators, to ensure that no Nazi demonstration will pass quietly. They meet with survivors, they conduct memorial services on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The Antideutsche, which even bestowed upon itself the barbed name, has developed over the past five years. The revulsion expressed by the name is not new: The left, the student movement of the 1960s, was disgusted by its parents' generation, and badgered them with questions that remained unanswered. The members of the student movement were reluctant, or refused, to present themselves as "Germans." In recent years, since the reunification, one hears both from the Christian Democrats and from the Social Democrats, expressions such as "It's all right to be a proud German." That's an oxymoron as far as the Antifa activists are concerned.

The Antideutsche, who also call themselves Communists, protest against anything that looks to them like Holocaust denial and a minimizing of German responsibility. Their abhorrence of the German Nazi legacy has given rise to a series of new a-historic identities and theories. In their eyes, the United States and Britain, which fought against Nazi Germany, are the heroes. Therefore they support the American-British war against Iraq. German opposition to the war against Iraq, they claim, stems from German anti-democratic traditions.

Israel is the refuge of the victims of Nazism, and therefore one must express solidarity with Israel at all costs. This solidarity is translated by some of them into anti-Palestinian and anti-Islamic sentiments. In anti-Nazi demonstrations, they raise the flags of Israel, the United States and Britain. They even organized a telethon to raise money for the Israel Defense Forces.

This January the neo-Nazis held a demonstration in Hamburg, to protest against the exhibit depicting the crimes of the Wehrmacht in World War II. All the Antifa groups organized for a counter-demonstration. One of the organizers says that they had agreed among themselves that no national flags would be carried. And then the Antideutsche showed up with Israeli flags, and refused to remove them. The organizers say that they presented the demand to remove the flags as "anti-Semitic." Instead of beating up the neo-Nazis, Antifa activists from the various contingents began fighting among themselves. And the police were confused.

The concert on March 6, sponsored by a Jewish-Palestinian group, went smoothly. The profits will be divided between two medical organizations: Palestinian Medical Relief and the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights.

A young man from Jenin, who has been living in Germany for eight years and came to the concert, said that he was "marked" when he tried to argue with the Antideutsche at a lecture entitled "Palestinianism as a profession," and later was attacked physically and verbally. A Palestinian activist in the Jewish-Palestinian group said that the Antideutsche stifle any serious criticism of Israel's occupation policy, because they immediately define such criticism as anti-Semitism. Because of the heightened sensitivity in Germany, he said, people prefer not to intervene, so they won't be called Holocaust deniers.

Historian Julius Schoeps, deputy director of the Berlin Jewish community, says that the Antideutsche have already labeled him an anti-Semite. He said something they didn't like. In their role as supreme censors, they integrate the usual methods of the anti-globalization anarchist left: They don't hesitate to threaten to break up events, they aren't afraid of blows, of provocations - while they bear aloft the banner of anti-Fascism and present themselves as the defenders of the real and eternal victim: the Jews. Their numbers are estimated at about 500 in all of Germany. The German secret service says that there are 50 to 100 in Berlin. But the waves they manage to create give the impression that their numbers are much higher.

D. was shocked to hear that the organizers of the concert were afraid of the Antideutsche. On the contrary, he protested. The other, pro-Palestinian groups are the ones who persecute the Antideutsche. D., a 30-year-old (non-Jewish) German, says that he is an Antideutsche "sympathizer." He works for a Jewish organization. His history thesis is about anti-Semitism in the German media immediately following World War II.

In his opinion, the opposition to the war against Iraq stems from a tradition of strong anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiments, which were always typical of Germany - both on the left and on the right. In Germany, D. finds, there is a tendency to "universalize," as he puts it, in an attempt to diminish the burden of the Holocaust - that is, to speak in a general way about the "violation of human rights," to equate the Nazi regime with other oppressive regimes.

He is especially furious about explicit and implicit comparisons between Israel and Nazism on the left. There are expressions, even in the respectable newspapers, which are code words implying a comparison and, in effect, denying the Holocaust: "Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians." Or comparing the Palestinian suicide bombers to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. In his opinion, all the governments of Israel have wanted peace. "But the conflict with the Palestinian national movement and Arab behavior have long since developed from a regional conflict to anti-Semitic belligerence." The suicide attacks are not a military means stemming from personal despair and used against a powerful IDF, but are carried out in a certain ideological framework of anti-Semitic Islamic pan-Arabism in dictatorships. "Maybe Israel has made some mistakes, maybe many mistakes, but anti-Semitism is a factor in the conflict." Israel, in his opinion, is the one that is threatened and vulnerable.