“I believe that we live in an atmosphere in which the threat of anti-Semitism is growing,” Armin Laschet told Haaretz and the Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in the run-up to his visit to Israel this week.
“Anti-Semitism has been present in Germany for centuries, not just since 1933 or 2015,” said Laschet, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
As he put it, “The right-wing anti-Semitism has always existed and we must consistently combat it, yet we must also make it clear to migrants, some of whom have grown up with anti-Semitic beliefs and are now coming to Germany, that we never tolerate anti-Semitism.”
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When asked which of the two groups poses the larger threat to Germany’s Jewish community, he said: “In terms of numbers, right-wing extremists.”
In the interview, Laschet was asked about the way Germany is dealing with hatred of Israel by some of the migrants and asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany from Arab countries in recent years.
“We have to explain the special challenges of German history to those who have come to us early on,” he said. “Because of its historical responsibility, Germany has a special relationship with Israel, and we have to make that very clear to migrants. In particular this is also a task for schools and educational institutions.”
How do you explain to the children of migrants that they have a special responsibility toward Israel?
“This challenge also applies to many young Germans, sadly. Many Jewish academics and intellectuals fled the Third Reich for the newly formed Republic of Turkey. Young Turks could also continue this tradition of helpfulness.”
Should school students be required to visit a Holocaust memorial?
“Out of principle, young people often have reservations against things that are demanded of them. It’s much more productive to reinforce commemoration in curricula and to provide motivation to visit memorial sites or travel to Auschwitz. Thanks to the commitment by the parliamentary parties of the CDU and the FDP [the liberal Free Democratic Party] in our state parliament, we are also providing financial resources for that.”
Shadow of BDS
Last month Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said many German textbooks contain anti-Semitic stereotypes, with illustrations reminiscent of those in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. He was basing his remarks on a new study by Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research.
“It is very important to take this criticism of German textbooks seriously,” Laschet said. “I would like to place the revision of textbooks on the agenda of the next meeting of my cabinet with the Jewish associations. This applies to books at all types of schools. Anti-Semitism is not limited to certain levels of education.”
Last month Laschet decided not to take part in the important arts and music festival Ruhrtriennale currently underway in North Rhine-Westphalia. The festival’s director supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which was evident in her invitation to a concert by the Scottish band Young Fathers that supports a boycott of Israel. The festival’s organizers say the BDS campaign is not anti-Semitic but rather reflects “support for the Palestinians’ right to exist.”
Laschet takes a different view. “I see the tactlessness expressed by the invitation as extremely critical. The circumstances surrounding the Ruhrtriennale harmed the festival more than anything else. For that reason I did not attend it this year, and we canceled the state government reception. I believe that was a clear and necessary signal that we do not approve this invitation.”
In July a Jewish university professor was attacked in the North Rhine-Westphalia city of Bonn, which was the capital of West Germany and briefly the capital of united Germany before it moved to Berlin. The attacker, a Palestinian-German, shouted out “No to Jews in Germany” and knocked the skullcap off the professor’s head.
That incident occurred about three months after Berlin’s “march of kippas” to protest a Syrian migrant’s attack on an Israeli Arab who had hoped to show that he could walk Berlin’s streets safely wearing a Jewish-style skullcap.
Is it dangerous to wear a kippa in North Rhine-Westphalia?
“Any such incident is one too many. But in North Rhine-Westphalia, we have a long tradition of peaceful coexistence of different religions and cultures. We want to keep it that way. But we must always be alert. In Berlin, for example, there have been cases of Jewish students being systematically bullied and harassed. I have thus asked our minister for education to take additional precautions and make schools aware of anti-Semitic bullying.”
How will Germany change in the coming decades due to the migration of Arabs and Muslims?
“It won’t if we practice our Western values with conviction. Germany has always had a tradition of migration. First came the migration of miners from Poland in the 19th century, followed by Italians and Portuguese after the Second World War, and with them came the first Muslims to Germany – from Turkey. I am confident that the refugees who came to us in 2015 will be, or already are, a part of our tradition of coexistence in Germany.”
Belonging and religious freedom
Merkel has said a number of times that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, takes the opposite view.
When asked where he stands on this debate, Laschet said: “That is a particularly engaging phrase. The discussion of it has not brought any substantive progress. It does not solve any problems, but rather veers away from the actual questions. If 5 million people of the Muslim faith live in Germany, then of course they belong to us.
“They are a part of this country, just as Jews and Christians are. Islam has not shaped the history of our country as Judaism and Christianity have. But the clear acknowledgment of religious freedom is also a part of Christianity and of our Constitution.
“We must now expand the Christian-Jewish discussion of Islam. I am planning to initiate a joint declaration by Jews, Christians and Muslims in North Rhine-Westphalia for the 80th commemoration of the pogroms against Jews on 9 November. It is good if Muslim communities can also discuss the commemoration of the Holocaust and we can take a joint position on German history with Muslims.”
Asked about immigration’s effect on his state’s economy, Laschet replied: “Unfortunately, the shortage of professionals in Germany is hampering our economic and social development. We have 300,000 jobs that refugees have been able to fill, and thus the great opportunity to somewhat cushion our workforce shortage with help from migrants.”
Is the migration debate in the federal government putting Merkel at risk?
“No. The most difficult time was 2015 …. The number of refugees is going down. There is a bipartisan consensus with regard to the integration of migrants.”