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Are refugees to blame for a rise in anti-Semitism… or are they being scapegoated?

Some say the arrival of over a million refugees has put the safety of Israeli immigrants at risk. Others argue that politicians and the media would rather blame Arabs for a problem that has existed in Germany for several hundred years.

Are refugees to blame for a rise in anti-Semitism… or are they being scapegoated?
Some Israelis say they are afraid of revealing their nationality in public. Photo: DPA

Liberated from the concentration camps, Jews who survived the Second World War saw Germany as a mere stopover on the way to Israel or America. Sitting on packed suitcases, they were ready to leave at any moment. But old-age and sickness, visa problems, and ties to Germany stopped some.

For decades the population, which had been decimated by the Nazis from over half a million to less than 40,000, continued to fall. Only in the 1990s did immigration by Jews from the former USSR put an end to the decline.

In recent years, this revival has been supported by Israeli immigrants. Still a no-go zone for some Israelis, Germany has become the home of choice for 20,000 others reassured by the pledge of “never again” and seeking higher education, work in a start-up, or simply reconciliation. Berlin is at the centre of this migration wave. In the capital, Israelis are making noticeable contributions to the city's cultural and culinary life.

Lately, however, an apparent rise in anti-Semitic crime has unsettled the Israeli community. Last year, 290 anti-Semitic crimes were reported to the Berlin police, almost double the number for 2013. While police blame most of these crimes on neo-Nazis, experts have their doubts.

Researcher Ann-Christin Wegener is skeptical about the police’s breakdown of crimes since departments tend to label them as “right-wing motivated” when they don’t know the perpetrator's motives.

While crime statistics don't tell us who is behind the rise in crime, several high-profile attacks committed by Arabic-speakers – especially the wide circulation of a video showing a Syrian refugee beating a young Israeli with a kippah in April – have opened up an old wound in the German-Jewish community.

It has also raised the touchy subject of whether Germany’s embrace of refugees from countries where anti-Semitism is commonplace and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are rife has worsened a problem the country has spent the last 50 years trying to atone for.

“Now, Jews are asking themselves, ‘where are the suitcases?’” the Anti-Semitism Commissioner of the Jewish Community Sigmount Königsberg told The Local.

“Bullied” out of German class

Sigmount Königsberg. Photo: DPA

Explaining this “new type of anti-Semitism,” which Chancellor Angela Merkel declared has taken root in Germany, Königsberg told The Local that anti-Semitism amongst Arabic-speakers tends to manifest itself in “verbal abuse, insults in Arabic, denial of the Shoah, and saying that what Israel does to Palestinians is what the Germans did to the Jews.”

Right-wing anti-Semites, he said, tend to paint swastikas on walls, write hate mail to Jewish organizations, and spread conspiracy theories.

He also argued that this new type of anti-Semitism often disguises itself as anti-Zionism, pointing to the burning of Israeli symbolism in Berlin last December after the US announced its decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“There are 193 countries in the United Nations, but not one has been questioned about its existence except Israel,” he said. “To burn the flag means to burn the people, to burn the Jews.”

Israeli Daniel* has lived in Germany for the past 15 years, but in the past couple of years has experienced hostility from refugees.

While attending German language classes at the Volkshochschule Göttingen, an adult education centre in Lower Saxony, Daniel said he was intimidated and threatened by Middle Eastern refugee students from Syria, Lebanon, and Iran after they discovered that he was Israeli.

“It was really bullying,” Daniel said. “Bullies don’t need to say anything – you can feel when somebody wants to kill you.”

He tried to take his case to the school management and then to the local police, but neither investigated the incident nor took further measures. “I was so livid, so annoyed that something like this could happen in Germany,” he said.

After the incident, Daniel left the language school and since then has been paying for a private German tutor for himself and his wife so that he can meet the language requirements for citizenship.

Before Germany decided to open its borders in 2015 and accept one million refugees, Daniel said he didn’t need to self-censor. But now he no longer feels comfortable revealing his Israeli nationality on the streets. “We are more careful now,” he said. “We don’t speak Hebrew when we hear people speaking Arabic.”

He has also removed his Mezuzah, a traditional Jewish symbol for welcoming people into the home, from his door.

The language school in Göttingen was not available for a response, but its partner school in Berlin Mitte told The Local that Jewish students have occasionally made complaints about hostility directed towards them and reported conflicts with Muslim students. The Volkshochschule in Munich, however, said that it has not received any reports of anti-Semitic incidents.

'It's not paranoia'

Since the increase in anti-Semitism and intense media coverage of a number of high-profile incidents, such as the assault of an Israeli professor in Bonn, Königsberg has noticed that the Israeli community is on higher alert.

Some are taking precautions such as hiding their religious identity and refraining from speaking Hebrew in public, like Daniel and his wife have, while others are taking their children out of German public schools and sending them to Jewish high schools.

“It’s not paranoia,” Königsberg said. “The risk of being attacked can happen anywhere, but this is a worrying development because it leads to segregation.”

From his experience dealing with cases of anti-Semitism in Berlin, most of the perpetrators are German Arabs rather than refugees. He also attributed the rise to the growing power of the far-right Alternative for Germany. “Since the AfD has become powerful, I see it every day, the hate and the detest.”

Königsberg advised Israelis to err on the side of caution: wear a baseball cap over your kippah, hide your Star of David necklace under your shirt, don’t walk the streets of Berlin alone.

Shifting the blame?

Dani Kranz, who has lived between Germany and Israel, is an anthropologist and director of the research project “Israeli Migration to Germany since 1900” at the University of Wuppertal, acknowledges that Germany has a problem with imported anti-Semitism.

She points out that anyone who comes from the Middle East and can read standard Arabic has probably been fed anti-Semitic propaganda, including, as it turns out, anti-Semitic books imported from the West such as Mein Kampf and the Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

While there are, of course, many refugees who find this racism completely disagreeable, Kranz said that there isn’t a stigma attached to anti-Semitism in the Middle East in the way there is in Germany.

“So, if I have been a hard-core racist in Israel and a hard-core racist in Palestine, I will take my attitudes with me,” she said.

At the same time, she also says that there is an element of paranoia in the minds of Israelis.

“Israelis of course perceive Arabs through a very specific filter. Typically they fear Arabic and become all ears. They become tense and anxious. It's what I would call an Israeli state of mind,” she said.

During her fieldwork, some of Kranz’s Israeli research participants “complained of ruffled noses,” but none of them reported violent anti-Semitism at the hands of Middle Eastern migrants.

“Personally, I have never experienced anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism from Arabs. They were critical of Israel and they complained, but none of them went so far as to say that Israel should not exist. The people I experienced the most hostility from were native Germans,” she said.

Kranz also cited research published in 2017 by Sina Arnold and Jana König from Humboldt University that suggests refugees are no more anti-Semitic than Germans.

The academic also points to a double standard in how the media reports anti-Semitism, claiming that they find it more convenient to target newcomers than address anti-Semitism from native Germans.

“Why did no one care about all of the anti-Semitism that goes around here traditionally?” she asked.

Likewise, Königsberg also suspects that German media and politicians are scapegoating Arabs to create “a diversion from and denial of [their] own problem.”

He said he sees prejudice from both sides, adding “what we shouldn’t do is fight anti-Semitism with Islamophobia.”

Intercultural initiatives

Raed Saleh. Photo: DPA

Raed Saleh, the Social Democratic Party Chairman in the Berlin House of Representatives said he takes a “zero tolerance for intolerance” approach.

“I meet some refugees who have assimilated well and I am proud of them and have a lot of respect,” the Palestinian-born Saleh said. “With others I have the feeling that they have not understood that anti-Semitism, sexism, intolerance is unacceptable in this country.”

“In my experience refugees have been indoctrinated with an education partly presenting Israel as an enemy and along with that the people of Jewish faith,” he said, before adding that many Syrians he met believed one should as a Muslim be tolerant to all religions.

However, he expressed his frustration at the “hypocrisy” of AfD politicians who say they are standing in solidarity with Jews by calling for restrictions on Islam in Germany.

“Today’s Islamophobia is the anti-Semitism of tomorrow,” he said.

To support the renaissance of Jewish life in the capital, Berlin’s government has teamed up with the Jewish community to build a Jewish secondary school and rebuild a synagogue in Kreuzberg to accommodate a younger congregation of reform Jews from Israel.

The symbolism of constructing two Jewish buildings in an area of Berlin known for its Turkish and Muslim population is undeniable, and reflects government attempts to counteract increasing anti-Semitism.

“[Kreuzberg is] an exciting place where many cultures, traditions, and religions collide,” Saleh, one of the project’s leaders, said. “The message is clear: Judaism has always been a part of our country’s identity and belongs to us. I also want to offset hostility in the city so that no one wearing a headscarf or a kippah is at risk of attack.”

Along with taking an educational approach, Saleh also thinks the solution lies with truly embracing refugees into Germany and affording them equal rights, rather than constantly treating them as outsiders.

“When we stop saying that refugees and migrants are just temporary guests, they will be more receptive to bearing the burden of the Nazi era as a part of their own history,” he said. “Otherwise, they will just say [the Holocaust] has nothing to do with me. My grandparents come from Aleppo or Damascus.”


Germany’s welcoming policy to refugees showed the world how far it has progressed from its dark past.

Germany currently teaches refugees about its Constitution and law, which states the strict ban on Holocaust denial, but there are calls to make education about the Holocaust a more central part of the integration process.

The proposal made by Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator with Palestinian roots, to take refugees on visits to the sites of former concentration camps received wide consensus.

But three years on, anti-Semitism seems to have reared its ugly head once again.

Some say that Germany must get its priorities right. Although Daniel sympathizes with the plight of recent refugees — recognizing that they share with Jews an experience of persecution, exile, and asylum seeking — he believes that Germany’s refugee policy has jeopardized the safety of Jews.

If its commitment to protecting Jewish people really is at odds with its refugee policy, the country faces an unenviable predicament.

“The decision from Angela Merkel impacted the people who have suffered the most in German history, and that is the Jewish people,” Daniel said.

Others, though, argue the problem has always existed in Germany and only attracted more attention now that the perpetrators hurl their abuse in Arabic.

“The biggest type anti-Semitism in Berlin is not the anti-Semitism of refugees or migrants but the common German, and that’s existed for the last hundred years,” Saleh said.

*Not his real name

Member comments

  1. Is this a joke. I´ve been living here for over 20 years and EVERY SINGLE GERMAN I know reacts completely negatively to ANY criticism of Jews (to a fault) – its like a Pavlovian response. The Jews have been using their tragic past as a shield against criticism since 1945 – at the expense of the Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqies, etc. and this article is only helping them to avoid dealing with their own atrocities.

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