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‘High Time’ to Deal With Germany’s ‘Massive’ Antisemitism Problem, Jewish Community President Declares

avatar by Ben Cohen


Visitors walk inside the glass dome of Germany’s parliament building. Photo: Reuters / Hannibal Hanschke.

Antisemitism continues to be a “massive problem” in Germany and extra measures are urgently needed to combat its influence, the head of the country’s Jewish community said on Thursday.

“The very first step is the simple, though painful, acknowledgment that Germany, in the year 2018, is still facing a massive problem with hatred toward Jews,” Josef Schuster — president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany — told The Algemeiner in an extensive interview.

Citing public opinion surveys that have consistently displayed antisemitic attitudes among 20-25 percent of Germans, Schuster stressed that it was “high time to combat this irrational hatred.”

Germany has been engaged in an increasingly fraught debate about its response to antisemitism in the wake of a spate of angry protests against US President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. As well as the burning of Israeli flags, antisemitic chants such as “Death to the Jews” and “Down with Israel” were heard at rallies organized by Muslim protestors, including at one gathering at Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate.

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On Jan. 18, Germany’s parliament approved a new raft of legislation aimed at combating antisemitism among Muslims in the country, as well as from the far right. Key here was the announcement of a federal commissioner to combat antisemitism, an office that German Jews had long urged their government to create, Schuster said.

“In light of recent developments, we as the Jewish community see the need of installing a responsible authority that deals specifically with antisemitism and its complexity,” Schuster explained. He argued that the commissioner should “be installed at the Chancellor’s office in order to coordinate the work across different ministries.”

“We expect the commissioner to be the contact person for the Jewish community and for civil society in general,” Schuster said.

While no candidates for the new commissioner’s role have yet been named, Schuster said he trusted the German government and parliament “to choose an appropriate person for this key position.”

“It’s important not only to consider a person for the sake of their symbolic effect, but rather for their practical effect,” he added. “Germany has an everlasting responsibility to fight antisemitism in every possible manner and since this should be a priority, I regard the commissioner’s office as a permanent post.”

As with Jewish communities in other European countries, German Jews face hostility from what Schuster described as a “multi-layered antisemitism that comes from different sides and parts of our society.”

Schuster said that antisemitism in Germany runs from “the extreme right and the general rise of the populist parties, through to the antisemitism of the center, across to antisemitism in the Muslim community.”

“Nor can we forget the antisemitic hate speech in the internet and on social media,” Schuster — a vocal supporter of the recently-passed Network Enforcement Act, which subjects social media platforms to hefty fines for hate speech — continued. Nor does he shrink from endorsing similar legal measures in the real world. “We cannot accept the abuse of the right of assembly when it comes to calling for the death of Jews or the burning of the Israeli flag,” he said. “We need stricter laws to avoid these kinds of demonstrations in the first place.”

Schuster observed that Germany’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “Working Definition of Antisemitism” had sharpened the country’s understanding of how the Jewish community experiences the persistence of antisemitic attitudes. “This definition for the first time defines antisemitism in its different forms,” Schuster said. “Nowadays, criticism of the State of Israel can go beyond rational criticism of its policies into antisemitism, so this definition presents a useful tool also for law enforcement authorities.” According to the definition, antisemitism can “include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

As well as worrying about the antisemitism incubated in Germany’s cities and towns, the Jewish community increasingly regards Iran as a genuine threat. Mindful of Iran’s long record of terrorist attacks against both Western and specifically Jewish targets in Lebanon, Argentina, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and other countries, Schuster pointed to last week’s raids by German police against suspected Iranian terror operatives which revealed that a number of Jewish communal assets, including a kindergarten, had been surveilled as potential terror targets.

“It is unacceptable that Iranian intelligence agents, that by the way are held responsible for several deadly terror attacks, can spy upon Jewish and Israeli targets,” Schuster declared. “One does not have to be an expert on terrorism to understand the implications of it.”

Accusing Iran of “trying to put its antisemitic motivations into worldwide actions,” Schuster suggested that Berlin should cut diplomatic ties with the Tehran regime.

“The German government should reconsider its diplomatic relations with Iran,” he said. “A regime that denies the Holocaust, calls for the destruction of Israel and is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism cannot be a partner for our country.”

In a reference to Germany’s burgeoning commercial relationship with Iran, valued at $3.2 billion in trade between the two countries in 2017, Schuster warned that “economic interest must not outweigh moral values.”

Born to Holocaust survivor parents in Haifa, Israel in 1954, Schuster grew up in Germany, where he practiced and taught medicine before being elected as president of the Central Council in November 2014. An outspoken critic of the far right — especially the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party which won over 90 seats in the 2017 federal elections — Schuster said he was “intensifying” outreach to Muslim leaders.

“But we also have to point out what we regard as problematic,” he stressed. “So we have been urging the Muslim representatives for years to do more against antisemitism within their community. It is important to work side by side against any kind of intolerance.”

Schuster emphasized that the Central Council had “always stood up for the Muslim community and other minorities against racism and discrimination.”

“We want to stress out what we have in common and to encourage interfaith encounters,” he said. “Only by talking to each other instead of talking about each other, we can break down prejudices and build friendships.”

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