Mediacenter // Opinions

Deidre Berger: “"The Problem has been ignored for too long”

Sat, 08/09/2014

Published in: Deutschlandradio Kultur

Deidre Berger, Director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, warns of growing anti-Semitism among Muslims in Germany. She says the vicious slogans heard in recent days and weeks are a sign the “the level of hatred which exists in these communities has become a danger.”

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Tacheles, the name of our program, is a word of Yiddish origin and it means to speak frankly about things. This is what we want to do today, speak frankly about the anti-Semitism that has become visible in recent demonstrations on German streets, and to an extent that very few people thought possible.  

My guest is Deidre Berger. She is the director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, a lobby organization that works on transatlantic dialogue and relations between the United States, Germany and Jews all around the world. – Welcome, Mrs. Berger.

Deidre Berger: Thank you for having me.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Mrs. Berger, you are an American citizen. You came to Germany more than 30 years ago, originally as a journalist. You have been the director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee for 15 years. As a Jew, do you currently feel under threat in Germany, maybe more so than in recent years? 

Deidre Berger: I don’t feel under threat, but I do feel as if we are in a situation that is different from how things used to be. You do have to watch where you’re going these days. And in general, when thinking about your family, one tends to be more careful than before.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Charlotte Knobloch, the previous director of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, recently advised Jewish people to make sure they can’t be identified as Jews when out in public. Would you give the same advice? 

Deidre Berger: You really have to be careful about feeling like you can’t live your life openly. This is a democracy. What kind of a democracy would this be if people felt they couldn’t be open about who they are? At the same time, I think there are some neighborhoods, some areas, where it is not advisable to walk around with the Star of David around your neck or wearing a kippah. It’s really terrible that this is how things are. It shouldn’t be like this. 

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Here in Berlin and in other German cities recently there have been demonstrations, on the face of it, to protest Israel’s actions in the Gaza strip, but they also included participants chanting the most vicious anti-Semitic slogans. Would you have thought this possible – here in Germany, after everything that has happened?   

Deidre Berger: The line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is always hard to draw, but in this case it was very clear, unfortunately. As you were saying, these were the most vicious anti-Semitic slogans that were heard on the streets, unmistakable hate speech. What we probably did not expect is that the district attorney’s office categorized these slogans as libel, and the police did not put an immediate stop to it. After all, yelling the most vicious anti-Semitic insults and slogans that didn’t seem possible anymore is incitement to racial/ethnic hatred. It is very dangerous. And I do believe that we need to have a serious discussion on how to protect freedom of speech without putting minorities at risk.

I would also like to add that these anti-Semitic slogans are not only dangerous for Jews. They put everyone who does not share the views of these protestors at risk. The real target of these insults were normal people, who were voicing their support for Israel. The protestors didn’t even care whether these people were Jewish or not. This shows that this is a threat to the whole community, to society at large, not just a minority.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: One of the slogans being chanted – I have to quote this, even though I think it’s really terrible – went: "Jude, Jude, feiges Schwein, komm heraus und kämpf allein" (“Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, show yourself and fight alone/for yourself”). It really needs no explaining that this is anti-Semitic. But as you said, the police did not consider it an incitement to hatred, which would have required them to take action immediately, but instead considered it defamation or libel, meaning police only have to get involved if someone files a complaint. Do you think it makes sense to argue about such legal niceties? After all, you filed charges for incitement to hatred (Volksverhetzung). 

Deidre Berger: Indeed, we are pressing charges. And we have no sympathy for the way the DA’s office has been handling this. This kind of slogan is a clear call to take action against Jews. In addition to that, I would even say: I don’t feel very comfortable hearing something like this. There is no question that I feel threatened. And that really has to count for something when a district attorney is considering whether this is an incitement to hatred or not. Do Jews or other people who become the target of these types slogans feel attacked or under threat? It is really hard to understand how something like this could merely be considered libel or defamation. 

Deutschlandradio Kultur: The authorities should therefore, if they allow such protests to go ahead, in your opinion take more decisive action against open expressions of anti-Semitism, as should the police when they monitor such protests and the prosecution when they then decide whether or not to press charges?

Deidre Berger: Absolutely, there needs to be more decisive action. But I also think that we are going to see this from now on. No matter what legal term you apply to these kinds of slogans, since we pressed charges the police are now showing greater sensibility. We have also been told that there is a lot of discussion among police officers about when to take action and when not to. This is extremely important.

I believe we need much more discussion, in Berlin and in other parts of Germany, about when it’s important to take action when the security of society as a whole is at risk.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Are you afraid that things are now becoming acceptable in Germany, maybe even among the majority, that were unthinkable before? Have things started to slide?

Deidre Berger: All these protests have shown that there is a level of hatred that exists in parts of this society that is really dangerous. It’s not just incitement to hatred, it really is a threat to this society as a whole

What really, really worries us is that there were a lot of young people at these protests, even teenagers and children. They were sent there repeatedly by their families. What is going to happen when they return to school in the fall? This was almost like brainwashing (indoctrination). I was at quite a few of these protests. What impact does this have on young people? There really aren’t very many programs for this and not enough debate. This is a really big problem.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Just as a reminder, the demonstrations were in response to the actions of Israel in the Gaza Strip. Many of the participants are of Palestinian or Arab background, maybe also Turkish background. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the diplomatic representative of the Palestinians in Germany have publicly condemned the outbursts of anti-Semitism at these demonstrations. Is that enough for you?

Deidre Berger: No, that’s not enough, far from it. It is very important that this is happening, it certainly took long enough. Many of these protests came together almost spontaneously, organized via social media. Nobody really “represents” the people there. Yes, it is very important that the Central Council has issued this statement, but this can only be a first step in a larger attempt to address a problem that is very far-reaching.  

There is more and more anti-Semitism in the Arab world. I think this is not being adequately addressed. If the governments of Israel’s neighboring countries allow a constant stream of anti-Semitism in their media and in their mosques, if that is the climate everywhere, then this also reflects back toward Europe and Germany. It is reflected via the Internet, via social media. It is then also reflected on to the minds of the people who live here.

If we take, for example, Prime Minister Erdogan and his very questionable recent comments on Israel, which really bordered on anti-Semitism, we suddenly see for the first time a large number of Germans with a Turkish background taking part in these demonstrations. Of course, this has impact here in Germany.

I think these developments do not get the attention they deserve. There is something growing in Muslim communities here in Germany that is very dangerous. But of course it isn’t only happening there. If there wasn’t something within society at large that is contributing to this, the problem wouldn’t be as widespread. That’s what I believe.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Mrs. Berger, perhaps before we address this issue a bit further, I would like to go back to a point you’ve already mentioned: Where is the line between legitimate criticism of the policies of the Israeli government, including the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces on the one hand, and anti-Semitism and hatred for Jews on the other?

Deidre Berger: There is no clearly defined line, there cannot be. That is one part of the problem. But if someone is obsessively and continuously criticizing Israel, if there is a level of criticism that just doesn’t compare to the way other countries are being criticized, then that is a step too far. If Israel’s right to exist is being questioned, then that is a step too far. That just makes it clear that the real target of such criticism is the Jewish people, not a government, a single government. 

Deutschlandradio Kultur: So perhaps we must also question how German media has been covering the conflict in the Middle East. Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor of linguistics, has analyzed the current news coverage of the military actions in the Gaza Strip. And he thinks that a clear anti-Israel bias can be identified. Israel as the aggressor, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as the victims. Do you agree with that? Is German media partly biased against Israel? 

Deidre Berger: We really have to differentiate here. Sometimes yes, very biased. And in a way that you hardly notice it. I think half the time it is not even intentional. But whatever the reason, there are stereotypes at work and what’s being transported is the views of the Hamas government, without even thinking about it.  

If this wasn’t the case, we would regularly see reminders in the German media about how the information coming out of the Palestinian territories is tightly controlled. We have no verifications on the number of casualties. We also have no way of knowing how many of them really were combatants. We hardly have any pictures of combatants, because that’s the way Hamas wants it. There is no real information on the extent to which humans are used as shields by Hamas, it’s really cynical. None of this is being reported. Without this context, there is a lack of understanding for this conflict.

And what’s more, nobody is reporting on how many people inside of Israel have had to flee their homes in the last few weeks because they are under attack. People forget that this is what started the whole thing. Israel is the country that’s under attack…

Deutschlandradio Kultur: ... from rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.

Deidre Berger: ... from rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. This cause and effect relationship is not portrayed very clearly. 

I think another important aspect in the reporting is a lack of separation between what’s Jewish and what’s Israeli. This leads to confusion, and it’s not easy to understand that criticism of Israel is often anti-Semitic after all. It is very important to think of Israel as a country, a state, and the Jews in Europe as a religious minority, and to not confuse the two.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Has German society and have the German authorities overlooked something in recent years, by only looking to the right when dealing with the issue of anti-Semitism?

Deidre Berger: I think so, yes. There are programs aimed at minorities here in Germany, but that’s nowhere near enough. For the last one and a half years, there have been no programs at the federal level. And all in all, we don’t really know what to do about this. We need much more experience, many more projects. And I do believe the problem has been overlooked in Muslim circles in particular, along the lines of “They are being discriminated against and they are victims, too.” These are separate discussions and to mix them up is very dangerous.

Of course there are problems with minorities in Germany. And there’s a lot to do in terms of integration, there is a lot of exclusion. There’s no denying any of this. But this can never be an excuse for people to act in anti-Semitic ways.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: The problem has been addressed at least a little. About two and a half years ago, a commission of experts on anti-Semitism, set up by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, released a report, which recognized anti-Semitism as a rising danger in Islamist circles, but also in Muslim communities – and it’s important to keep these two separate. Have the authorities drawn the right conclusions from this early warning?

Deidre Berger: The expert commission of the German Bundestag and the German government did draw the right conclusions. The problem is, this report was released in December 2011 and nobody is implementing the recommendations of this report. Valuable time has been lost. For the past three years, there have been no programs, no projects to raise awareness in different parts of the community, among the police, for example. There’s a lot that could have been done in the past three years that simply has not been done.  

Deutschlandradio Kultur: You have already mentioned Arab media, the Internet. It is easily possible to watch Hamas’ TV station or that of the Lebanese Hezbollah via satellite here in Europe and they disseminate the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. Is there a good way to deal with this? How can we prevent Muslims living here from being radicalized in this way or by preachers of hate such as the imam in Berlin-Neukölln, who supposedly called for the mass murder of Jews in a mosque? Is there anything we can do about this?   

Deidre Berger: There’s a lot that can be done. To begin with, a lot needs to be done in the educational sector. Young people must understand that anti-Semitic attitudes and anti-Semitic statements are not acceptable. A lot more needs to be done to build better relations with all the mosques, so we know what is being said in these mosques. Who are the imams? The German government is working on educational programs for German-speaking imams, but we’re a long way away from that. Maybe what we need is a lot more surveillance, so that we know what is really going on in there.

A lot more work needs to be done on community relations. Something needs to be done that reaches out to more people.

I think we need more creative ideas on how to approach this. But the first step is to recognize the problem for what it is.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Mrs. Berger, Germany is unfortunately not the only country experiencing a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in recent days and weeks. Is Europe witnessing the return of anti-Semitism in its really violent form?  

Deidre Berger: Unfortunately, we have seen this already. What is happening now is not something that should be compared to other times, but it has gone too far already. In France, finally, the President and the Prime Minister have used the strongest terms and given a clear signal that this will not be accepted. But it’s a case of too little, too late. Nothing has been done about these tensions for years, even though they were there for everyone to see.   

In France, they are now asking themselves what can be achieved through educational programs. In Great Britain there’s a lot of tension, too. And it’s important in Germany as well. The world is different now. For example, Salafism is on the rise, unfortunately, not only in the Middle East, but also here in Germany and in France, too. This is happening very, very rapidly, the radicalization of young people who are leaving for Syria now, the Jihadists – and they then return to Europe. The man who shot and killed four Jews in Brussels, he was one of those. They come back full of hatred.

And then there’s the Internet, and radicalization here happens really fast. Well, this is a new phenomenon and we have to be prepared to take a different approach. We are dealing with levels of hatred that were unknown until a few years ago.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: We have talked about measures adopted by nation states. Is it also necessary for the European Union to take action? Is there something the EU can do?

Deidre Berger: That’s a very good question. We’re very frustrated by the lack of activity so far. Germany and France are starting to react; they have realized that this is a very critical situation. But have we heard anything from the European Parliament in recent weeks? Hardly anything. Have we heard from leading European politicians? Only from a handful. Something really needs to happen here, and it needs to happen quickly.   

The European Parliament could set up a committee, for example, as a reaction to the developments. That would be more than justified. At the European level, it is possible to start initiatives that are not reduced to just one country, initiating more exchange on solutions for combating anti-Semitism.

Deutschlandradio Kultur: Mrs. Berger, Jewish institutions like the Central Council of Jews are being flooded again with abuse in emails, letters and also on social media. I imagine that the American Jewish Committee has not fared any better. How do you deal with this? Do you still read all of it? 

Deidre Berger: This type of abuse is not a new phenomenon, unfortunately. There is a focus on the Central Council of Jews, but also on the Jewish Museum, for example.   

There are more and more targets for this type of hate mail. And this needs to be taken seriously, especially as it is not only coming from the fringes of society. Increasingly, it’s coming from the mainstream.



About the author
Deidre Berger

ist Direktorin des American Jewish Committee Büro Berlin / Lawrence und Lee Ramer-Institut für deutsch-jüdischen Beziehungen.

08/09/2014 Opinion

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