Protests over the weekend in major European cities to support the people of Gaza were fertile ground for a growing movement of anti-Semitism.
For my birthday, my parents gave me a chain with a Star of David pendant. I wear it often and sometimes people ask me about it. But it’s only a pendant, like those that many people wear. It’s not a sign of belief in or total adherence to anything, just a little piece of identity.
But now that rockets are flying in Israel again, for many I’ve suddenly become an Israeli. And I got a chance to find out what that means at demonstrations in Frankfurt, Bremen and Paris recently.
"You Jews are animals," one participant at the Frankfurt protest had written on a placard. In the interests of decency, he had then half-heartedly tried to cross the words out and had written something less incendiary on the other side. But he didn’t actually have the decency to leave the sign at home.
Also at that demonstration, the flags of international terror organizations were waved, and there were cries of "Israel, child murderers." Pretty par for the course, unfortunately.
What was remarkable was that there were only a few dozen policemen for 2,500 demonstrators. The police were thus powerless when some young Islamists flew into a frenzy. To deescalate the situation, they allowed the demonstrators to use a police bus — and soon "Israel, child murderers" was blasting out of the megaphone.
It's not about free speech
Things got heated in Bremen too. A passerby was knocked down and, as he was severely injured, had to be brought to hospital. A newspaper editor was threatened and attacked. That demonstration, which ended on an aggressive note, was accompanied by a single patrol car. The demonstrators didn’t need police protection — but all the other people present did.
It’s absolutely fine to support the people of Gaza. It’s also okay to lay massive criticism on Israel. Freedom of speech and opinion takes precedence over objectivity. But when criticism of Israel turns into anti-Semitic heckling, that’s stepping over the line.
For Jews in Germany, the danger has long come not only from the right. Most Jews have never seen a Nazi. But Jewish schoolchildren get threatening anti-Zionist letters when Israel reacts to Hamas rockets. The most vocal supporters of Palestine have lost all sense of measure and are blaming everyone wearing a kippah or Star of David. That’s racism.
In Germany, every demonstration organized by the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) is somehow a cause for celebration. Opponents of all ages and political persuasion gather for a merry New Germany tolerance fest. And every time the Neo-Nazis, heavily protected by the police, disperse, the fight against nationalism and anti-Semitism is symbolically won anew. And yet it goes virtually unnoticed when anti-Semitic slogans and violence are delivered on a routine basis as a pretext of support for Gaza.
In Essen, the police took action before a scheduled protest even got underway. Fourteen people were arrested ostensibly because they were planning to attack the Old Synagogue. That has nothing to do with Israel and Gaza. What do predominantly Russian Jews in Germany have to do with what the Israeli government does? But that’s a moot point for the men who were arrested. A Jew is a Jew, whether in Israel or Essen.
The Berlin demonstrators certainly saw things that way when they stood in front of a synagogue chanting "Jude, Jude, feiges Schwein, komm heraus und kämpf allein!" (Jew, Jew, cowardly swine, come outside and fight alone). That the demonstrators themselves constituted a mob and were thus certainly not alone made no difference. The police stood calmly by and tolerated the anti-Semitic chants without batting an eyelash.
What happened on July 13 in Paris took things to a new dimension. What started out as a peaceful demonstration in support of Gaza ended with a group of young demonstrators headed toward a synagogue as 200 people were praying inside. Jewish security forces, volunteers and the police had their work cut out for them trying to keep the angry throng from entering the synagogue. A number of those who held the demonstrators back were hurt and had to be brought to hospital.
Situations like that are no longer unusual in France — and they have consequences. Increasing numbers of French Jews are emigrating to Israel; in 2013 the number rose some 60%.
The French problem
The French have recognized that in the shadow of the Gaza protests, offenses are being committed that are being seen as freedoms of speech and demonstration — and are not being picked up for what they are by the media. When a hundred people decide to storm a synagogue, they are riding roughshod over the achievements of Western democracies.
Demonstrations in support of Gaza over the weekend had been forbidden by police because the risk of violent outbreaks was judged to be too high, and President François Hollande spoke of not wishing to import the Middle East conflict to France. Demonstrators showed up anyway, with the protest quickly degenerating into clashes and the looting of stores in a largely Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris.
What about Germany? Angela Merkel has declared that protecting Israel’s safety is part of Germany’s very being, and German President Joachim Gauck called it a determining factor for German policy. Be that as it may, Germany’s first priority is to its own citizens — including the Jewish ones.
But when Israel’s safety is discussed as essential to Germany, while the safety of Jews in Germany is left up to a single patrol car, something is amiss in this country that is so proud of having learned its lessons from history.
Let’s be honest, wearing a kippah or carrying an Israeli flag, you’ll never be able to attend a pro-Palestinian demonstration and not be a target, as was evident last weekend in Berlin when a Jewish couple was attacked. In Gelsenkirchen, when "Jews to the Gas Chambers" is chanted and the police do nothing more than look on, the only safety measure for Jews in Germany is their own caution. Anyone who’s heard that kind of chanting in public will in the future think twice about wearing a kippah in public.
When in 2009 the Duisburg police stormed into an apartment during a demonstration to remove an Israeli flag and thus avoid an escalation of the demonstration, that sent a powerful message. Instead of showing a violent mob where the limits were, they limited the freedom of opinion of the person with the flag.
The incident in Duisburg sparked nationwide reactions, but it’s everyday stuff to Jews. In schools, universities and public places, Jews cannot thoughtlessly let themselves be identified as such. Is my Star of David pendant enough to provoke anti-Semites? Germany is not an anti-Semitic country but it does allow Jews — and those who are pro-Israel — to be de facto banned from public life.
When undercover reporter Günter Wallraff blows open German prejudice against blacks, or when a student wears a headscarf for a month for a report on RTL II television, the question inevitably poses itself: Why doesn’t somebody wrapped in an Israeli flag walk the streets of Berlin? Is that just a tad too risky for courageous reporters? Or doesn’t it fit the pattern of seeing anti-Semitism only in conjunction with Neo-Nazis?
You think that anti-Semitism is a disease of the past, adequately dealt with in history class? That hostility to Jews is still very widespread and indeed even quite open in other countries but not in Germany? Then attend the next pro-Gaza demonstration and head for the people yelling "Jews to the Gas Chamber."