Daniel Alter, anti-Semitism officer of Berlin’s Jewish community, on concerns that refugees are bringing new hatred of Jews to Germany.
"We are not a society in a vacuum": Daniel Alter, here at a panel discussion two years ago. Photo: dpa
site: Mr. Alter, thousands of refugees from Arab countries arrive in Germany every week. The president of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, has expressed concern because these people bring anti-Semitic attitudes with them. Does that scare you, too?
Daniel Alter: Fear is a big word. But we certainly have reason to look consciously and consider what the consequences are. Beyond any scaremongering, we know that there is a relevant problem with hatred of Jews in Arab-Islamic societies. And the refugees who come are invariably from undemocratic, dictatorial backgrounds. According to estimates, around 20 percent are not literate – under these circumstances, people are more susceptible to polemics and manipulation. I could imagine that such fears exist not only among us Jews, but also in the gay and lesbian community, for example.
And what do you conclude from this?
For me, there is absolutely no question that we must offer asylum as best we can to all those who are threatened by persecution or war. But we shouldn’t do that naively. These are real problems that we have to deal with and can deal with. But we can’t sit down and say, let’s have a look. This welcoming culture, with people getting into their cars to bring refugees from Austria, is great. It just shouldn’t be the last step.
Born in 1959, studied law, Jewish studies and education. After training at Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Potsdam, he was ordained as a rabbi in 2006.
In the summer of 2012, he was attacked in Friedenau by youths who identified him as a Jew. That same year, he became the anti-Semitism officer of the Jewish Community of Berlin.
We must clearly convey to those who want to be accepted into our society that we have values, that we are not a society in a vacuum. These values include the right to free development of the personality, equal rights for men and women, freedom of religion, non-acceptance of any form of ideology of inequality. These values were not there from the beginning, we fought for them for many years. Now it is important to stand by these values. We should not even get to the point of having to demand them. Integration has to start now. Actually, we are already four months behind.
In any case, you are not calling for a limit on admissions.
Personally, I am very much in favor of accepting refugees. Yes, there are very, very many people coming, but I think it’s doable. Take the Jewish community, it had shrunk to about 25,000 members in the mid-eighties. Now we’re at 120,000. We’ve increased fivefold in 30 years, almost entirely through immigration from the former Soviet Union. That was a tremendous challenge, but fortunately we had a functioning infrastructure within which we organized integration when it was clear what was going to happen. That’s exactly what we need to do as a society.
After all, there are already many non-governmental organizations that offer integration services. We urgently need an inventory and coordination here. But the federal and state governments must also launch their own initiatives. For example, the Bundestag’s report on anti-Semitism recommended back in 2012 that dealing with anti-Semitism be included in teacher training. To my knowledge, no federal state has done so since then. We can’t afford to do something like that. After all, we want the refugees’ children to go to our schools, and our school system should teach them our basic democratic values. We can’t leave the teachers to do this on their own. A teacher can be a pedagogical ace, but if he stands in front of a class with 90 percent Muslim students and there are anti-Semitic outbursts – he is most likely out of his depth. He doesn’t have the pedagogical tools to counter this.
You have experience with students yourself.
I am involved in "meet2respect," a project that works mainly through religion. The basic idea: An imam and a rabbi go into school classes with predominantly Muslim students when there have been problems with hatred of Jews. But we also work in other constellations, for example, politicians and imam, when it comes to Islamophobia.
And then you discuss the Middle East conflict with the class?
That is often a trigger. For that, the imam and I argue in unison in front of the students that this is a political and military conflict that is tragic, that affects many innocent people, and that people can have different opinions about it. But that that is not a reason to be at each other’s throats, loosely speaking. Every time we say that, the issue is actually over.
What does that mean?
There’s no more question.
But what sticks?
Afterwards, students often come up to me and say things like: I come from Lebanon, my father used to live near Akko, and he always tells me that everyone used to be able to live peacefully side by side. When statements like that come, I know that we were able to bring someone along. That is incredibly important. We will certainly never reach everyone.
You don’t always have an imam and a rabbi at hand …
But there are many experts on how to deal with such problems, including from the Muslim community itself. Take Ahmad Mansour from the anti-violence project "Heroes," who is known beyond Berlin, initiatives like the Karame association, mosques like the sehitlik mosque. The initiatives exist, but we have to coordinate them in a meaningful way. By the way, it is not the community that is misogynistic, anti-Semitic or homophobic, it is individuals in the community. I see other problems here.
All these organizations depend on public funding, and that is being cut year after year. Some independent organizations are struggling to survive. It’s simply not acceptable for these initiatives to become competitive because there’s too little money overall.
Is there actually a religious core of anti-Semitism among Muslims?
There is this problem, yes. There are Koranic texts and hadiths that are hostile to Jews, and if we look at Islamic history, we find examples of discrimination and stigmatization again and again: The yellow star was not an invention of the Nazis. Since the 8th century, Jews in various Islamic domains were forced to wear external signs, one of the most prominent being a yellow dot on their clothing. If you talk to older Jewish migrants from Islamic countries, you will find massive signs of very problematic relations. Nevertheless, the question is of course: How do you deal with it?
Can bridges be built?
Of course. It just requires energy and perseverance. In terms of religious philosophy, Judaism and Islam are closer than Judaism and Christianity or Islam and Christianity. That’s always an important insight for young Muslims: they don’t eat pork either, they have a similar understanding of God as we do, there are similar ritual concepts. The concept of ritual purity is called "Tahara" in Islam, and we have exactly the same word for it in Judaism.
A study by the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University of Berlin suggests that anti-Semitism in the Muslim community is also a reaction to discrimination by the German majority society.
I honestly can’t understand that. If that were the case, there would be much less anti-Semitism in Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example, than here. I don’t think that’s the case.
Now we’ve talked a lot about the Muslim community. And the majority society? Is it possible that they delegate their anti-Semitism to the Muslims?
There is a danger that we will become blind on the other eye by dealing with Jew-hatred in the Muslim community. According to the Bundestag report I mentioned earlier, about 25 percent of the core society has latent anti-Semitism. So no "I hate all Jews," but thought patterns like "I have nothing against Jews, but they already have too much influence on politics." Add to that a few percent of open, "honest" anti-Semites. That’s quite a lot.
What forms of anti-Semitism do you encounter in your work?
We keep getting letters motivated by hatred of Jews, especially when there is a new escalation in the Middle East conflict. My impression is that they increasingly come from educated people, including intellectuals. These are people who are really skilled at expressing themselves. More and more often, we have to deal with statements that are dripping with hatred but do not constitute a criminal offense. For example, "If you continue to behave in Gaza like the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, you shouldn’t be surprised if something happens." This is also no longer sent anonymously, but often with name and address.
And in everyday life?
You may have heard that the Jewish soccer club Maccabi has had nasty problems with insults and threats on the pitch in recent times. That brings up very unpleasant associations. Because if this continues, Jews will no longer be able to play soccer in Germany. I myself stopped going to Bundesliga games at some point when fans started chanting "Jew, Jew" when the referee blew the whistle against the home team. Another burning issue for me is that in the vast majority of Berlin schoolyards, the word "Jew" is used as a swear word on a daily basis.
You yourself were physically attacked three years ago because you were identified as a Jew. The question of whether it is recognizably safe to walk through Neukolln as a Jew is almost proverbial.
Neukolln’s former mayor Heinz Buschkowski once said that I needn’t worry about that – later he admitted that at half past three in the morning it might not be advisable to walk through the district wearing a kippah. Think about what that means. If I better hide the kippah at half past three, I’d better not show it at half past three and half past five either. And at half past five? Unfortunately, I can never do it safely. If you are identified as a Jew, you can get into big trouble, not only in Neukolln. That’s why we tried to create an alternative reporting system, because we don’t really think the statistics are close to reality.
Why is that?
First, there is a certain reporting fatigue. Let’s say I see a graffiti. That happened to me myself a few years ago with my daughter at the playground. "Jews Died," it said. I can go to the police with it, but then I spend two hours on a report against unknown persons that simply can’t succeed. There’s a certain frustration that arises. Secondly, there are cases where the offense is not identified as a hate crime but, for example, mistakenly as damage to property. For example, if someone has smeared something on a mailbox.
Let’s look to the future. Will the statement "You Jew" eventually cease to be an insult?
That would be wonderful. When it will happen, I don’t know. I have to think about Ajax Amsterdam, the Dutch soccer club. At some point, opposing fans started calling Ajax fans "you Jews." What was the reaction of the Ajax fans? They stood up and chanted "We are Jews, we are Jews!". When something like that happens, we’re on a good path. It has to come from the middle of society. And we need the understanding that fighting anti-Semitism is not a fight for the Jews, but for the preservation of democratic civil society.
Are you an optimist?
I am a religious person! (laughs)