Germany

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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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.

📚😷 COVID SCHOOL CHAOS AROUND THE WORLD


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World

🇰🇿  KAZAKHSTAN’S VICIOUS CIRCLE OF STRONGMEN


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another

🐟 DENMARK, A SMALL FISH IN THE SALMON INDUSTRY’S BIG POND


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics

💡  BRIGHT IDEA

French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.

#️⃣ TRENDING


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.

🤦‍♀️🛴🤦‍♂️ FACEPALM OF THE WEEK


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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