“A huge problem”
The number of antisemitic attacks against Jewish citizens is on the rise in Germany, including in schools. Experts call for better teacher training.
By Claudia Isabel Rittel
One day in ethics class, Oscar Michalski happened to mention in passing that he was Jewish. What followed made the young man fear for his life and shook his parents’ faith in German society. Just a few days after his offhand announcement, fellow students began to bully the then 14-year-old from Berlin. They hit him, pretended to execute him, and finally choked him for so long that he briefly lost consciousness. This all took place in 2017 in a perfectly normal secondary school in Berlin where no one would expect this type of violence. The schoolmaster took weeks to respond to the parents’ pleas for assistance. Ultimately, they felt their only choice was to take their son, whose name has been changed, out of school and draw public attention to the case though the media.
Oscar’s ordeal is not an isolated case, and antisemitism experts see a fundamental problem in Germany’s secondary schools. According to Samuel Salzborn, a professor of political science and currently a guest professor at the Technical University of Berlin’s Center for Antisemitism Research, “Antisemitism has grown more visible, more threatening and more violent in recent years. It runs the gamut from verbal aggression to hands-on violence.”
Vladislava Zdesenko is a solicitor who counsels parents in similar situations. In her experience, the victims are usually forced to leave school. “The perpetrators get to stay and suffer no consequences for their actions,” she says. This is due in part to inaction from the schools – perhaps because it is easier to lose one student than an entire group, Zdesenko thinks. “But this sends a very disturbing message, especially for Jews,” she adds. “Young adults today are basically the first generation who no longer feels victimized by the Holocaust.”
Icy wind from two directions
An icy wind of antisemitism is blowing from two different directions: the far-right and an Islamic context. Antisemitic sentiments from the extreme right tend to take the form of revisionist history that denies any responsibility for the Holocaust or questions the legitimacy of the state of Israel. According to Salzborn, Islamic antisemitism is often based on anti-Jewish passages in the Koran, and is closely associated with the conflict in the Near East and an often one-sided over-identification with the Palestinians.
Politically, far-right antisemitism seems to have found a home in the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) party founded in 2013. No other party has as many anti-Semitic members. “55 percent of AfD supporters agree with antisemitic sentiments,” Salzborn says. This number is around 15 to 20 percent across the board in all other parties, which is the same figure empirical research has shown for the average population over the past 20 years. “Not all AfD supporters are antisemitic,” Uffa Jensen, a professor at the Center for Antisemitic Research at the Technical University of Berlin, emphasizes. But, he adds, they have displayed a “very high tolerance” for the antisemitic sentiments expressed by their party officials. The party is also closely networked with right-wing and radical right-wing groups.
Islamic antisemitism has a slightly different history. Concern has been expressed that Germany might be importing hate against Jews by taking in so many refugees from majority Muslim countries. Jensen rejects this idea, noting that antisemitism is hardly more widespread among refugees than among local groups. “The migrants who express antisemitism are usually young people from Arab or Palestinian families who were born in Germany and are second or third generation,” Jensen says. He adds that these young adults may be poorly integrated, or perhaps so well-integrated that they know exactly how to provoke a strong reaction. Jensen has noticed this phenomenon more frequently recently, and even Germans with Turkish roots are increasingly expressing antisemitic sentiments.
Textbook reform needed
“Antisemitism is wrong,” Salzborn emphasises, no matter which direction it comes from, “and we have to reject any expression of it.” Experts agree that this is currently not happening enough in German schools. Many teachers and principals feel overwhelmed and are unsure how to respond. “German educational policy has failed to address this issue for decades,” Salzborn says.
Politicians agree that Germany has a problem with rising antisemitism, and the German parliament created the post of Antisemitism Commissioner at the start of 2018. Felix Klein assumed the role in May. Klein sees parallels between the problem in schools and over development in Germany society, though the issue is more clearly perceptible in schools. He has called for more outreach and education. “Judaism has to be stripped of its mysterious significance and be understood simply as a normal part of life in Germany.” Klein adds that this has to begin in schools and in school textbooks. “Right now, Jews are only mentioned as victims of the Holocaust. But Judaism has been integral to Germany since time immemorial,” he says. This is the message we need to be sending.
All antisemitism experts point to school textbooks and teacher training as good places to start. Universities will have to prepare teachers to deal with discrimination better, whether against Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, women or anyone else, so they can respond confidently and decisively when students like Oscar are targeted.