The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: German vs. American Responses

Anti-Semitism in Germany

Germany has a rocky history with anti-Semitism—to say the least. After WWII, reconciliation with Jewish populations became a large part of Germany’s foreign and domestic policy, and public education since the 1970s has emphasized the horrors of the Third Reich and Germany’s guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust. However, even this WWII-focused education has not rid German schools of anti-Semitic slurs and harassment. A study by the Institut für interdisziplinäre Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung at the University of Bielefeld shows an increased use of “Jew” as a popular insult in schools. Equally disturbing, a study by the Körber Foundation found that only 47 percent of secondary school students between ages 14 and 16 in Germany are aware that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a Nazi concentration camp.

It is not only school-age children that seem to hold anti-Semitic views. Many German Jews have expressed feelings of fear and intimidation, along with incidences of anti-Semitic harassment or assault, whether verbal or physical, according to the University of Bielefeld study. Most notably, over 60 percent of respondents have thought about emigrating in the last five years because they no longer feel safe as a Jewish person in Germany. The respondents of this study attribute this fear to the rise of the extreme right as well as the extreme left, and to the influx of Muslim migrants. These perceptions, however, do not exactly align with the data of documented anti-Semitic crimes. In the first half of 2017, a total of 681 anti-Semitic crimes were documented, 93 percent of which were committed by right-wing extremists. Only 23 cases assume a religious or foreign background and in only one case was a left-extremist motive assumed. Still, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag and anti-Semitic views found to be widespread among refugees from Syria and Iraq, extreme-right actors and the migrant influx are negatively impacting the sense of security among Germany’s Jewish population.

Many German Jews have expressed feelings of fear and intimidation, along with incidences of anti-Semitic harassment or assault, whether verbal or physical.

The German government recognizes this decreasing sense of security among its Jewish population and is debating ways to reduce crime and to increase understanding and tolerance of Jewish citizens through education. After the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pro-Palestinian protestors across Germany burned the Israeli flag. Though many protesters stressed their views were against Israel’s politics—not against Jews—much of the German population was outraged. These protests prompted German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel to advocate for a bill outlawing the act of burning the Israeli flag. He further stated, “It is Germany’s task to protect Israel. We are obliged to guarantee that Holocaust survivors have at least one place they can always go.” Chancellor Angela Merkel recently addressed this rise in anti-Semitism during her remarks on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, where she endorsed a proposal that calls for the establishment of an anti-Semitism commissioner. Merkel is not the only German politician aware of this issue. Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator whose parents were Palestinian refugees, proposed the idea to make visits to concentration camps a requirement for migrants as it is for secondary school students. The hopes of this proposal are to sensitize incoming migrants to the history of Nazi crimes and introduce them to German values of religious tolerance.

Anti-Semitism in the United States

Anti-Semitic actions receive greater attention in the German press and government than in the United States. In fact, there has been no formal recognition of rising anti-Semitism in the United States, despite an increase in reports of such crimes following the 2016 election and the inauguration of Donald Trump, including a series of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats against synagogues and Jewish community centers and schools. An audit report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) shows that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Similar to what the Jewish population in Germany is experiencing, anti-Semitic incidents have increased in schools and on college campuses—95 incidents were reported in January to March 2017 alone. ADL believes the explanation for anti-Semitism among children is because they internalize and bring anti-Semitic views expressed by their families and in the media to school campuses.

Like Germany, the United States is experiencing a resurgence of nationalism and white supremacist movements, which help fuel the rise in anti-Semitism. ADL also suggests that members of these movements feel emboldened and empowered by hateful rhetoric expressed by the president to spread their hatred on- and offline. President Trump’s hesitancy to acknowledge and condemn the threats to Jewish institutions, along with his reluctance to specifically mention anti-Semitism, put many members of the Jewish community on edge. Trump’s 2017 statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day was harshly criticized for omitting any mention of anti-Semitism, despite the wave of threats occurring in greater numbers since the election. When an Israeli reporter asked Trump at a joint press conference with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu about this link between the election and the rise in anti-Semitic crimes, Trump responded by talking about his Electoral College victory. At another press conference, a reporter pressed him on the issue, to which Trump responded by telling him to “sit down” and called the question “very insulting.” After days of pressure on the president, he finally delivered remarks, calling anti-Semitism “horrible.”

President Trump’s hesitancy to acknowledge and condemn the threats to Jewish institutions, along with his reluctance to specifically mention anti-Semitism, put many members of the Jewish community on edge.

Unlike in Germany, there has been no legislation that directly addresses anti-Semitism in the United States. A few bills targeting anti-Semitism have been introduced, although most focus on reducing anti-Semitism abroad rather than within the United States. Following the violence in Charlottesville, Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced a resolution (H.Con.Res.77) to denounce “the increase in fear-mongering, racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and violence by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other hate groups.” It also called upon the president, whose remarks on blaming both sides was met with great criticism, to disavow any support from hate groups, terminate any officials who have supported white supremacists, and address the growing prevalence of domestic hate groups. This resolution was not passed, although an amended version (S.J.Res-49) that left out the requirement for the president to fire staff with ties to white supremacists became law.

Why the Difference?

Despite the recent increase in hate crimes, anti-Semitism is still socially unacceptable in Germany due to its past. In the United States, however, campaign rhetoric fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and allowed white supremacists and anti-Semites to feel empowered to express their views publicly—and to translate those views into actions that target the Jewish population and other minority groups. Without the guilt of the Holocaust woven into U.S. culture, it is more likely for bigotry against the Jewish community to be expressed without as much condemnation as is seen in Germany.

If the reason the United States is experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism is because of its lack of guilt for the Holocaust, then how do we explain the same occurrence in Germany?

If the reason the United States is experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism is because of its lack of guilt for the Holocaust, then how do we explain the same occurrence in Germany? The generation that lived during WWII is dwindling and soon there will be no survivors from that period, which calls into question Germany’s culture of remembrance. With the rise of resentment, Germany’s guilt has been felt by less of its population than previously. In a recent study, only one in ten respondents felt personal guilt for the Holocaust and the extermination of Jews. Leaders from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have also expressed views against German guilt for the Holocaust. The AfD’s increasing poll numbers and attendance at rallies indicate that others feel similarly about guilt associated with the Third Reich.

Another factor contributing to the issue is the response to the number of Muslim migrants entering Germany. Some politicians, such as Bavarian parliamentarian Klaus Steiner (CSU), believe migrant students from the Middle East will need time before they can identify with Germany’s past. Mr. Steiner called for special preparation for migrant students before visiting Holocaust memorials or concentration camps, and believes some will have to be exempted. By preventing or limiting the exposure of migrant students from Muslim families to what has been used to sensitize the population to Germany’s guilt, it deemphasizes the impact WWII has upon the country’s culture today and makes it more likely for Germany’s culture of remembrance to eventually be forgotten.

Finally, the divide between former East and West Germany still influences mentalities today. Many former East Germans feel a sense of cultural colonialism, in which the West still has dominance over the East and has erased its history. The growing resentment from former East German states that experience more economic issues than in western states has fueled the rise of nationalism in the east. Although eastern German states have far fewer immigrants than in the west, anti-immigrant sentiment is much stronger in the east, and PEGIDA and the AfD have a strong prevalence there. The resentment, nationalism, and anti-immigrant views create a strong, yet narrow identity in the east, which outcasts remaining groups. This includes Jews, perhaps most prominently because of Germany’s ties to the Jewish population due to its war history.

What Do We Need to Do?

The issue of anti-Semitism is complex and there is no panacea that can eliminate it. However, there are steps that can be taken in Germany, which includes fostering the culture of remembrance through equal education that involves students in all high school levels and migrant students; efficient integration policies that sensitize migrants to Germany’s history; and addressing the East/West divide. In short, follow the advice of the Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism (KIGA): “Don’t point fingers. Try to teach people to embrace multicultural values instead of teaching them not to embrace anti-Semitism.

In the United States, greater emphasis should be placed on domestic issues of anti-Semitism rather than strictly on issues related to Israel and anti-Semitism abroad; the highest levels of the government should address the documented rise in anti-Semitic crimes in the country and condemn acts of bigotry; the values of equality should be emphasized in educational settings; and Jewish culture should be protected. In both countries, white supremacy and extreme nationalism should be disavowed and dialogue between different religious groups should be encouraged.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Mikayla Appell

Mikayla Appell is a research intern at AICGS for the spring of 2018. She writes for the AICGS Notizen Blog, conducts research for current projects and resident fellows, manages databases, operates the front desk, and helps organize and document events.

Currently, Ms. Appell is pursuing a master’s degree in International Affairs at American University’s School of International Service, with a regional focus on Europe and Eurasia. In her program, she concentrates on issues of foreign policy and security, and has particular research interests in European defense and international security cooperation.

Ms. Appell holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Strategic Communication and German from Temple University, where she also minored in Political Science. During her tenure at Temple, she spent a semester studying German language and literature at the University of Hamburg.