Playing the Jewish card in Germany

Can a German criticize Israel and not be anti-Semitic? Miriam Widman comments on the latest chapter of Germany’s complicated and often troubled relationship with the Jewish people.

Playing the Jewish card in Germany
Photo: DPA

German journalist and publisher Jakob Augstein was recently listed as one of the top ten worst anti-Semites in the world by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The US Jewish human rights organization said it based its decision on German-Jewish pundit Henryk M. Broder’s description of Augstein as a “perfect anti-Semite.”

For me – an American-Jewish journalist – the story is not so much about whether Augstein is an anti-Semite, which I don’t think he is, but why Henryk Broder’s opinion seems to matter so much.

The controversy started when reports revealed that Broder, a popular polemist long known for bashing critics of Israel, influenced the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s decision-making.

The group listed Augstein, a respected left-wing columnist and adopted son of Der Spiegel magazine founder Rudolf Augstein, in the number nine spot of world’s top ten worst anti-Semites – ahead of well-known US Jew-basher Louis Farrakhan.

I’ve followed Broder over the years. What fascinates me most about him is not his background – he was born to Holocaust survivors – or his prolific capacity to write – he has published numerous books, and recently switched to the right-wing daily Die Welt after working for left-wing Der Spiegel for years – but that one man seems to have so much sway over German public opinion.

Someone in his position in the United States would not spark such heated debates as he does in Germany. There have been many people called anti-Semites by prominent Jewish Americans – most recently US President Barack Obama’s choice for Defense Secretary – Chuck Hagel.

But while the remarks get reported on and commented upon, that’s about where it all ends. There are no ongoing debates in the media fixated about whether Hagel is an anti-Semite or not.

Okay – one could argue that getting on the Simon Wiesenthal list ahead of Louis Farrakhan for anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel slurs might be a bigger story in Germany than allegations that Hagel is an anti-Semite would be in the United States. Not so, I would say. After all Hagel is being nominated for a very important cabinet post.

No, the difference has to do with Germany’s history and with the fact, at least in my view, that it is the only country in the world where one can be a “professional” Jew. That basically happens when a key part of your working life is based on being Jewish, which is true of Broder. He’s a good writer, but he would have no where near the clout he has if he were Catholic.

This is understandable, given Germany’s past. It is hard to exterminate six million people, apologize after the fact, provide reparations to survivors and their families and expect everything to be okay. That just doesn’t work.

If the US experience between African-Americans and white Americans is any barometer, normalizing the relationship between Germans who are Jews and those who are not will take a very long time, if it happens at all. After all it’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves – at least legally. And yet, there’s still plenty of racism in the United States.

But if relations between Germans who are Christian and those who are Jewish are to normalize not only do Christian Germans have to stop emphasizing the special German-Jewish relationship, but Jewish Germans have to too.

You can’t complain about feeling not part of the society if you constantly throw the Jewish or anti-Semitic card onto the table during every discussion, which Broder seems to do his fair share of.

It has, however, only been some 70 years since the horrors of the Holocaust – a short time in the arc of history. So don’t expect things to change – at least not for a very long time.

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Black people in Germany face ‘widespread’ racism, survey finds

In the Afrocensus, a first-of-its-kind survey charting the lived experiences of black people in Germany, the vast majority revealed they experienced 'extensive' discrimination in almost all aspects of public life.

Dr Karamba Diaby
Dr Karamba Diaby, an SPD politician and anti-racism advocate, carries out voluntary work in his constituency of Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

“The results of the Afrocensus indicate that anti-Black racism is widespread in Germany and anchored in institutions,” the authors of the new report said in a press release on Tuesday. “There is no area of life in which discrimination and racism are not extensive problems.”

Though the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had experienced discrimination at least ‘sometimes’ in almost all areas of life, housing was the area where they said they were discriminated against most often.

Just two percent of respondents to the Afrocensus said they had ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ experienced racism in the housing market, compared to more than 90 percent who said they had experienced it ‘often’ or ‘very often’.

READ ALSO: ‘Black lives need to matter in Germany’ New project to uncover racism in everyday life

Experiences with police and security personnel also counted among areas of life where racism was particularly prevalent: 88 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination from security staff ‘often’ or ‘very often’, while around 85 percent had had the same experience with police.

More than 85 percent had also experienced racism in their education or in the workplace ‘often’ or ‘very often’ in Germany. One in seven had lost their job during the Covid crisis. 

According to the report, 90 percent of respondents had also experienced having their hair grabbed, while more than half (56 percent) had been stopped by the police or asked for drugs by strangers.

Meanwhile, 80 percent said people had made comments about the colour of their skin or sexualised comments about their race on dating apps. A vast majority – 90 percent – also revealed they hadn’t been believed when they’d spoken out about racism in the past, or that people had said they were “too sensitive”. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: My experiences of everyday racism in Germany

In spite of widespread discrimination, almost half (47 percent) of the respondents were engaged and active in their community – mostly carrying out some form of social or voluntary work.

First of its kind

Based on wide-ranging data, the findings paint a vivid and concerning picture of what life is like for the one million or so black people living in Germany today.

To produce the report, researchers from Berlin-based Black community group Each One Teach One and Citizens for Europe conducted an extended survey of 6,000 black people from the Africans and Afrodiasporic community to try and discover more about on the everyday lives and experiences of this group. The survey was carried out between July and September 2020. 

It represents one of the first attempts to gather a wealth of quantitative data on this subject, and as such offers some of the first truly scientific insights into anti-Black racism in modern Germany.

“With the Afrocensus, we have succeeded in doing exactly what has long been demanded within the black community for a long time: making the realities of our lives visible within the framework of qualitative, but above all quantitative research,” Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana und Dr. Karamba Diaby wrote in a foreword to the report. 

Diaby, a high-profile politician within the centre-left SPD party, was one of only two Afro-German politicians in parliament when he first took his seat in 2013. He has since become known for promoting political engagement and empowerment within the migrant and black community. 

In January 2020, an unknown gunman fired shots through the window of his constituency office in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in a suspected racially motivated attack. 

READ ALSO: How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

Since the Second World War, Germany has avoided gathering data that allows people to be traced by ethnicity as a means of protecting persecuted groups.

However, critics say this approach only works to make the issues faced by these groups invisible. 

Writing on Twitter, Daniel Gyamerah, Division Lead at Citizens For Europe, called for an “action plan for tackling anti-Black racism and for empowering black, African and Afrodiasporic people” and the establishment of advice centres for people facing racism and discrimination.

More research into the intersectional experience of black people in Germany is needed, he added.