German Leaders Alarmed Over Resurgence of Anti-Semitism

Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier on January 31, 2018. Photo: AFP

German leaders are increasingly alarmed about a resurgence of anti-Semitism 73 years after the Holocaust, stemming from an emboldened far right and an influx of refugees from countries hostile to Israel.

Germany is marking the 1945 liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz with solemn ceremonies, but also warnings of the need for stronger vigilance.

At a ceremony in the German parliament Wednesday, Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, 92, warned hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial were staging a dangerous comeback.

“Anti-Semitism is a 2,000-year-old virus that is apparently incurable,” Ms. Lasker-Wallfisch, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and later Bergen-Belsen, told the packed chamber. “Denying something that is part of Germany’s past is simply unacceptable.”

It was the first time the Bundestag lower house had held its memorial ceremony since the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won seats in last September’s general election.

On the anniversary itself on Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned revisionist forces seeking to call into question the country’s commitment to atoning for its Nazi past.

Ms. Merkel said fighting anti-Semitism and racism must be a “daily task.”

“It is inconceivable and shameful that no Jewish institution can exist without police protection, whether it is a school, a kindergarten or a synagogue,” she said.

Ms. Merkel, who a decade ago became the first German chancellor to address the Israeli Knesset, has committed to creating a new position of commissioner on anti-Semitism under the new government she hopes to form by March.

The move was prompted in part by demonstrations in Berlin in December against the U.S. decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which saw some protesters chant anti-Semitic slogans and torch Israeli flags.

The demonstrations heightened a sense of anxiety expressed by the Germany’s Jewish community, now more than 200,000 strong, over the arrival since 2015 of more than one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers.

A series of incidents have unsettled German authorities and the Jewish community. In Berlin in November, 16 Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) — small brass memorial plaques outside the homes of Holocaust victims — were dug out of the ground and stolen.

While perpetrators were never identified, the violation was unnerving, coming just days before commemorations of the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) pogroms on November 9, 1938.

“It was the first time that so many Stolpersteine were taken in just a few days,” said Silvija Kavcic, the Berlin coordinator of the initiative that has laid more than 7,000 of the plaques in the German capital.

The head of the German chapter of Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, said that anti-Semitism in the country is growing “ever more virulent and more violent.”

The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, shared his concern, saying that taboos that had held for decades after the war seemed to be crumbling.

“People dare to say much more today that they always thought but never would have expressed,” he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

Germany’s post-war identity and acceptance in the community of nations has been built on its remembrance culture, including a full reckoning with the atrocities committed under Hitler. But as the elderly survivors die off, fears are growing that the country’s collective memory will erode.

The rise of the AfD, which came in third in Germany’s general election with nearly 13 percent of the vote, has compounded tensions. Key AfD members have challenged Germany’s culture of atonement over World War II and the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, rights experts say pockets of the traditionally moderate three-million-strong community of Turkish origin are radicalising, due in part due to incendiary rhetoric by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Everything Erdogan says is sacred to them,” Mr. Michalski said.

A further concern is the growing prevalence of anti-Semitic sentiment in schools, particularly among many young Muslims. In Berlin, teachers say that “Jew” has become a common insult.

Mr. Schuster said tensions had become more aggravated in the past two years with the influx of refugees “some of whom grew up with anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

However, analysts note that without proper study of actual sentiment among the newcomers, some complaints may be wrapped up in more general angst about the influx amid heated political debate. Criminal statistics also show no rise in anti-Semitic acts committed by refugees.

Amid calls to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, some officials have called for obligatory visits to former concentration camps for both Germans and newcomers to the country.

The director of the Sachsenhausen memorial north of Berlin, Guenter Morsch, noted that “more than a person’s geographical origin, the level of education determines” susceptibility to racism and anti-Semitism.

Germany Vows to Fight Local and ‘Imported’ Anti-Semitism