GURGAON - Shoes are not allowed on the foam mat. We are surrounded by the noise of fists hitting the leather of the punching bags, the high-paced breathing of two fighters training one-on-one.
We are in Gurgao, in the suburbs southwest of New Delhi, a snapshot of the fast-developing India with its shiny new buildings. But meanwhile, Pallevi Sarda and Shruti Sharma, both 20, are feeling a bit awkward in this self-defense club.
“I’m just giving it a shot, to see how it goes,” Sarda says, grinning. You can tell how new the young women are to this activity by the fact that they still have all their clothes on: jeans, coat and scarf. The instructor stands next to them, demonstrating a few moves: dodging and disarming an assailant.
Sarda and Sharma are emblematic of the social movement that flared up in New Delhi late December, and that still is going strong. They represent, in their own way, just how strong was the impact of the December 16 rape – and subsequent death – of an Indian student, was on the young women of this country.
“This tragedy convinced us to quickly act for our self-protection,” admits Sarda. “It’s becoming a necessity,” adds Sharma.
The two women have the typical profile of the young Indian women stepping into the professional world – they are analysts in a counseling company, and they are at an age where they face insecurity on a daily basis. Working in Gurgaon, a business district far from the city center, means a long daily commute. And after they get off work rather late, they take public transportation. “We have to take the subway or the bus,” explains Pallevi Sarda. “If we leave work at 8 p.m., we get home around 9:30 or 10. The streets can be dangerous then.”
They have both been sexually harassed on their commute. “I don’t know a single Indian woman who hasn't faced this problem,” continues Sarda. "It’s part of our daily lives.”
Sharma notes that she and her friends rarely react: “We don’t want to make a scene.”
Just like Pallevi Sarda and Shruti Sharma, more and more young women have decided it was time to take care of this themselves. The club’s chief instructor in Gurgaon, Anuj Sharma, a muscular man with a ponytail is a primary witness to this phenomenon. “More and more women are joining,” he says. “The awareness is growing on a large scale.”
Within a year, the number of female members in his club - Invictus Survival Sciences - went from 20 to 50 approximately. “The women represent now around 20% of our customer base. We didn’t have any in 2005,” he says.
Sarda and Sharma giggle during the opening exercise, but they appear determined. They believe that the New Delhi demonstrations, people in the streets, the news coverage and the politicians making promises are not sufficient to make the women feel safe. “I don’t think Indian men will change their attitude toward women after all this," says Sarda. "We are still hearing about new incidents. Men don’t change so women have to change. That’s why we’re here.”
It’s going to be a long struggle to make that change. “The Indian society is still dominated by men,” Sarda says. “We’re going to have to get at the roots of the problem – family values. We need to teach boys how to respect a woman from an young age.”
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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