Orange Magazine

Jews and Muslims: Looking for common grounds in Berlin

By Kathrin Faltermeier and Emmanuel Haddad

“The new anti-Semitism does not originate solely with the typical white-supremacist neo-Nazi,” warns Jochen Bittner, political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. “The ugly truth that many in Europe don’t want to confront is that much of the anti-Jewish animus originates with European people of Muslim background,” he writes Tuesday September 16 in the New-York Times.

Two days before, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and President Joachim Gauck with representatives from all German political parties rallied the Central Council of Jews to shout “Stand-up! Never again anti-Semitism!” in the streets of Berlin. They denounced what the Central Council’s president Dieter Graumann considers the “worst period for Jews since Nazism,” referring to “the outrageous and shocking words of hate on Germany’s streets, the attacks on Jewish citizens and synagogues.” Anti-Semitic slogans have been heard in many pro-Palestinian’s demonstrations across Europe, after the military operation Protective Edge launched July 8 by Israel in Gaza, in which 2,104 Palestinian (1,473 civilians) died according to the United Nations, against five civilians and 66 soldiers on the side of Israel.

A facet of Islam’s radicalization

But in Germany, the political denunciation of these incidents has proven faster and louder than anywhere else. Sipping a cup of coffee in the sober office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Deidre Berger, director of the organization created in 1998, reminds the permanent efforts made by Germany to attract Jews, after the trauma of the Shoah. “After the fall of Berlin’s wall, Helmut Kohl launched a program to facilitate the installation of Jews who left Russia to live in Germany. Every year, 15,000 to 20,000 Jews were moving to Germany!” Today, Germany’s Jewish community is the third largest of Europe.

“This is why AJC raised a voice of concern in the name of the Jewish community to the German authorities. We don’t talk of a new wave of anti-Semitism, because such events have been occurring since the second Intifada in 2000. But this summer, we saw unexpected levels of aggressiveness. This new anti-Semitism is one of the facets of Islam’s radicalization,” she claims.

There is no Muslim anti-Semitism

“A new anti-Semitism? We can more talk about the same old prejudices, used in a new context,” nuances Anne Goldenbogen, member of the Kreuzberg Initiative against anti-Semitism (KIGA). Co-founded in 2003 by Aycan Demirel, a Berliner with Turkish origins. Anne, who does not go to the Synagogue, stresses that, “there is no Muslim anti-Semitism. We don’t want to deny the recent acts of violence against Jews. But pointing out Muslims as the supporters of a new anti-Semitism is dangerous for two reasons. First, it would pretend that the “old wave of anti-Semitism” disappeared. Second, it could deepen the feeling of Islamophobia.”

A bridge between Jews and Muslims

Friday September 19, the traffic noise of Kreuzberg is muffled by the melancholic voice of the muezzin. Derviş Hizarci, an activist against anti-Semitism from Turkish origins who collaborates among others with AJC, is attending a singular prayer below the bridge of Berlin’s subway, in Kottbusser Tor’s square. Since a part of Mevlana mosque was burnt on August 11, no renovation has begun. The believers decided to pray in the street to denounce it, but also to stand up against the rise of the Islamic State. “We want to make clear that terrorists do not speak in the name of Islam,” said earlier the chairperson of the Central Muslim Council, Aiman Mazyek, who underlined that “Germany doesn’t exactly have a great relationship when it comes to Muslims.”

Derviş Hizarciis satisfied by the message spread: “The event was a success. There was a representative of the Protestant church, Jews and Muslims altogether to denounce extremism and call to dialogue.” For this 31-year-old teacher who considers himself a “bridge between the Jewish and the Muslim community” in Berlin, dialogue is the key word. This is how it all began for him, nine years ago, when he got to know a Jewish woman who became his friend. While he reminds standing “firmly against constructing parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” he fights against prejudices in both communities.

Anne Goldenbaum regrets that there was no common event organized by the Jewish and the Muslim councils in Germany. But Derviş, who rubs shoulders with both communities, thinks time has not come… yet. “At the moment, we can’t really realize any initiatives together because we would not [support them],” he says, pointing out the heart of Kreuzberg, the area residents call affectionately Kotti. “Israeli flags? We don’t raise them here in Kreuzberg. Not yet.” But, Derviş remains optimistic. For him, it’s about a step-to-step process of coming together and standing with each other, to becoming–in the ideal case–friends. “Eating together and sharing other simple experiences is important. It makes it much more difficult to backslide into old patterns of thinking,” he smiles.

Jew denouncing Islamophobia…

In Israel, Uri Jacobi Keller spent four months in prison for denial of his military service. Today, he posts posters against Islamophobia around Berlin. For one year, Uri has volunteered with the Salaam-Schalom initiative founded by a group of Muslim, Jewish and other of activists in the neighborhood of Neukölln. It was established late 2013 as a reaction to public statements made by the Berliner Rabbi Daniel Alter. Victim of a hate-related attack, Rabbi Daniel Alter wanted to mark Neukölln as a “no-go area” for Jews, due to the high rate of Muslim population in the area. Salaam-Schalom would rather promote Neukölln as a no-go area for racism and ethnic hatred.

“Neukölln is an area where immigrants moved to because it was cheap. Nobody came here to live in an Utopia side-by-side,” stresses Uri Jacobi Keller, one of these young activists struggling for solidarity and a peaceful coexistence. Nevertheless, “there are prejudices between communities, but no hostility,” he adds. We are not a peace-making organization because we don’t need to bring the different communities together. There is no reason for Israelis and Palestinians to be hostile.” The 30-year-old Israeli hasn’t felt aggression here since leaving Jerusalem two years ago: “I was going around [speaking] Hebrew–nothing happened!”

… and Muslims against anti-Semitism

Among the estimated 15,000 Israelis living in Berlin, a major part chose to live in Kreuzberg or Neukölln, like any young people attracted to the hipster side of the German capital. Most of them do not wear the Kippah. But for Derviş, external signs do matter. “Would they be as tranquil strolling around in Kreuzberg with side locks and a Kippah?” he wonders. Uri doesn’t even identify as a Jew, he says, pointing out that, “if someone was going with an Israeli flag, people would get annoyed; I would get annoyed. I am not Zionist.”

For Derviş, both members of the Jewish and the Muslim communities are victims of generalizations: “Jews are identified with the politics of Israel and Muslims are mixed up with extremists from the Islamic State. Thus, they should defend each other against these prejudices,” he says. Still, he is annoyed when he hears paroles like, “We are the new Jews!” pronounced by some members of the Muslim community. “Anti-Semitism is unique in its abomination and its inhumanity,” he says after five years working in Berlin’s Jewish Museum as a guide who presented the common roots between Judaism and Islam.

“In the end,” he concludes, “as a member of the Muslim community, it is very selfish not to protest against anti-Semitism.”

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About This Edition

Rethinking Journalism 2014
Berlin, Germany
Sep. 2014