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A Modern Tale Of Anti-Semitism In A Berlin School

Paul is 14 years old. For months, he was assaulted and bullied by his classmates, and finally had to leave the school. Anti-Semitism lives on in Germany — but it's changing.

'I knew my son was no longer safe at this school...'
"I knew my son was no longer safe at this school..."
Verena Mayer and Thorsten Schmitz

BERLIN — Paul has started taking karate classes. Once a week he practices striking, blocking, kicking. He says he wants to be able to defend himself if he is attacked. Never again will he be a victim or have to fear for his life.

Paul sits in his family's kitchen in the Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg. The apartment has a rustic air with parquet floors, high ceilings, and art on the walls. Holding his backpack with his sports gear on his lap, Paul fidgets in the chair. He has to go to practice soon.

Whenever recalling how he became a victim, he often says "that." That was pretty intense, he says. Or yes, today he would do that differently. "That" — as if he wants to shut himself off from his experiences.

Paul's is a story of a teenager in Germany in 2017. A boy, 14 years old, is abused, bullied, and beaten for months at his school. Why? Because he is Jewish.

Emma Budinsky, Paul's mother, is British and runs a catering company. His father hails from Berlin and works for an international human rights group. Emma and Paul have written a report documenting the violence he suffered. It is sitting on the kitchen table. It details how dangerous it can be for a student to reveal his Jewish identity in a Berlin school.

Paul was looking forward to his new school. He had left his old one in Potsdam in November because it was too far away. Family friends had recommended the school in the Friedenau neighborhood in southwest Berlin. "We thought it was cool because of its colorful mix of cultures," says Paul's mother, who asked for their names to be changed because Paul still receives nasty messages on Whatsapp from his former classmates.

Paul describes his first few days at the new school with a single word: cool. His eyes glisten when he talks about the other boys. Eren, whose family is Turkish, shared a love of rap music and enjoyed beatboxing like Paul. Then, on Thursday in his ethics class, discussion turned to different religions, mosques and synagogues. Paul recounted to his classmates that he had been to a synagogue, adding: "I'm Jewish."

Everyone stared at him, including Eren. "It was totally silent in the classroom," Paul says, "I thought that something was up."

The next day, Paul walked with Eren to the bus. Paul wanted to arrange a meet-up to rap. "You're cool," Eren replied. "But I can't be friends with you." The reason: because he was Jewish, and "Jews are selfish and murderers and are only interested in money."

"At first I didn't understand at all what the problem was," he recalled. Sure, he knew that rappers, like Bushido, pose in front of maps of the Middle East that are missing Israel. But anti-Semitic confrontations were foreign to him.

Paul says Eren began to see him as "a wild animal of sorts." Other students would come up and ask "are you really Jewish?"

And then, classmates began to push and hassle him when they passed by. In the report that Paul and his mother wrote, it states: "Eren shoved me several times. Eslem and Binnur told me a joke: A Jew says to the mirror on the wall: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the prettiest in this land? You don't have any land."" Paul's everyday life at school became a nightmare, which only ended once his parents removed him from school.

During breaks, Paul was kicked, punched, shoved. Some students liked to slap him repeatedly on the neck. His abusers were almost always boys, and always of Arab, Palestinian, or Turkish background. There were afternoons when Paul came home with bruises. One student shouted "screw Israel" in his face. Another hollered "Turkey screws Israel." A boy declared that "all Jews hate Palestinians."

Rumors abounded, with some accusing Paul of insulting Palestine. Paul said he would never say anything like that. Speaking with a light English accent, Paul has a rational way of recounting events, as if he is in a classroom.

Some other parents were more worried about the school's reputation.

His mother is still torn up about the ordeal. Paul has two older sisters, but they never experienced anything like what happened to him. The British Jewish Chronicle wrote about his ordeal after Paul's parents turned to them. Then, the local Berlin press jumped on the story illustrating their articles with a photo of an orthodox Jew wearing a kippa, even though the Budinskys aren't particularly religious. Politicians and education experts asked out loud how a student could be bullied for months in full view of teachers and administrators.

Some parents from Paul's school, however, were mostly worried about the school's reputation. In an open letter, they charged that the media's coverage of Paul's story was "shockingly unreflective" and damaging to the school's reputation. It's clear that a never-ending conflict in the Middle East exists. Berlin cannot spare itself from the excesses of international conflicts. But what does Paul have to do with a conflict thousands of miles away? Nothing. He was born in London and grew up in Berlin. He has never been to Israel.

Uwe Runkel, 51, has been headmaster at the Friedenau Community School for nine years. When first contacted by Suddeutsche Zeitung, he didn't want to discuss Paul's case. In the preceding weeks, he'd received a steady flow of hate mail, and said both he and his other school colleagues "really want to look toward the future and don't want to recount what happened."

Eventually, he agreed to talk. Runkel responded to questions for nearly two hours in his office, struggling to answer some. That a student was bullied over several months "is unproven," he insists. He taught Paul math six hours a week and he "didn't notice anything."

More than 60% of his students don't have German heritage. Most come from Arab or Turkish families. Antisemitism? Hatred for Israel? "That is a new issue here at our school," he said. But after two hours he concedes that "in retrospect, I have to say that I would have been obliged to step in earlier."

A few days after our conversation, Berlin's school board reported a sad statistic. In the first half of the year alone, 2,069 incidents were reported, including 1,065 incidents of abusive language, 431 acts of violence resulting in bodily harm, 228 cases of threats, 50 attacks. The reason for the violence: racism, hate, homophobia, anti-Semitism.

A request to discuss Paul's case with Berlin city school board member Sandra Scheeres is met with a long, pre-formulated letter from her press department containing a list of dozens of programs on racism and anti-Semitism. At the school in Friedenau, there is also a week-long program that deals with the community's history, called "In the footsteps of Friedenau's Jews." During the week, Eren, Paul's friend, had even made a presentation about local Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. But the headmaster questions whether something like this has a lasting impact. "We have had programs that have dealt with this issue, but I ask myself "how do we make it stick?""

For nearly four months, Paul was bullied, kicked, and once punched so hard that he became dizzy and thought he might throw up. During this period, Runkel had written two short emails to Paul's parents. After four months, he finally sat down with them for the first time. The atmosphere was tense. Paul's parents implored Runkel to immediately speak to all students about racism and anti-Semitism. The principal replied that there had to be "thorough preparation and follow-up. Everything had to be imbedded in an educational context for it to have a lasting effect." Then he said a sentence that brought their discussion to its end and forced Paul's parents to reach out to the Jewish Chronicle. "Your pushing the issue isn't getting us anywhere."

In late April, the expert commission on anti-Semitism in the German parliament published a new report. Across 300 pages, the nine scholars depict how anti-Semitic attitudes have shifted in Germany. One number is particularly alarming: As "classical" anti-Semitism recedes, "Israel-based" anti-Semitism has found acceptance with 40% of the population. And one other particularly disturbing finding: More and more Jews in Germany are hiding their identity out of fear.

Berlin's New Synagogue — Photo: Mark Nakasone

Anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents are not a rare occurrence in Berlin. There were 470 reported cases alone last year according to city officials. Some Jews don't venture into neighborhoods like Neukölln and Wedding anymore, where there are sizable Muslim populations. But there are also middle-class neighborhoods, like Schöneberg, where a Jewish person is increasingly unsure of his or her safety, too. Among recent incidents: Not far from the Friedenau Community School, four Arab teenagers beat a rabbi, breaking his cheekbone. A waiter in a fast-food restaurant on Alexanderplatz told an Israeli tourist that he doesn't serve Jews. A Jew was attacked in Treptower Park. In Neukölln, an Israeli, who was wearing a kippa, was spat upon. In all cases, the perpetrator had Arab or Turkish roots.

Aycan Demirel works for the "Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism." Not far from here is a synagogue that has been attacked several times with Molotov cocktails. Demirel drafted the expert study on anti-Semitism delivered to the German parliament. He knows Muslim boys like Paul's classmates, and says that they feel a sense of victimhood and wind up looking for role models who promise to fight in the name of Islam. "Their lesson: When one does harm to Jews, one proves his particular strengths."

Little help against ideologies and conspiracy theories

In the past, Demirel says, Turkish youths rarely ever got swept up in anti-Semitism. "They didn't concern themselves with that." But since relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated, this has certainly changed. "A lot of it comes from home."

Demirel criticizes the way German schools try to combat anti-Semitism. "Many believe that when you study German history, you have inoculated students in a way. Certainly, it is always good to visit synagogues and memorials. But those help very little against ideologies and conspiracy theories." But what else can be done? Teachers must be trained, speak with young people, and be deeply involved with Muslim societies. "There must be a widespread, public condemnation of anti-Semitism," he argued. "It is incumbent on all of us."

In her living room in Charlottenburg, Emma Budinsky pulls out a thick file. It contains the family's correspondences with Paul's school, letters to the administration, teachers, social workers. In the correspondences, she urgently appealed for help and makes recommendations on how the school could take action against "rampant racism."

At a certain point, Paul's own grandparents volunteered to speak to the students. Paul's grandfather survived the Holocaust in a hideout in Berlin. He told his story to Paul's class, explaining to them how he continued to suffer after the war in a Berlin Jesuit high school, where students verbally abused him for being Jewish. After a time, he couldn't brave the bullying any longer and tried to take his life by swallowing pills. He was 14 at the time, the same age as Paul is today.

Emma Budinsky said that for weeks she "had hoped that it would stop," but ultimately felt that the school had deserted her. Admittedly, she had spoken with a teacher on multiple occasions and had met with a social worker, but in reality no one took the fact that Paul was a victim seriously. She then recounted the day in March when Paul came home traumatized. He had been on his way to the gym when a boy at the bus stop called him over, and quickly put him in a headlock and began to choke him. Then he pulled out a deceptively real-looking toy gun and said he was ready to shoot Paul. From that moment on, said Paul's mother, "I knew my son was no longer safe at this school."

Principal Runkel filed an official complaint against the student, establishing a suspicion to do bodily harm and anti-Semitism. A boy who had punched Paul is back in school. Paul's teachers attended a three-day anti-discrimination training. His former classmates took part in workshops where they shared their own experiences with discrimination. Paul's parents spoke with the Justice Minister and members of the federal government. Berlin-based imams spoke out against anti-Semitism in an open letter.

"At least some good has come," said Emma Budinsky, that anti-Semitism is being openly discussed. Letters from classmates and teachers who write Paul also do good. They miss Paul and would be glad if he returned.

But Paul is not going back to the Friedenau school. He now goes to an international school where there are four Jewish students in his class. His karate lessons look to be paying off. He says he feels "more secure and more confident." Paul is sure "that" would not happen to him ever again. Where does his certainty come from? "In the future," he says. "I won't be so quick to say that I'm a Jew."

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