Anti-Semitism Is Alive and Well in Berlin
The German Federal Ministry of the Interior counted more than 600 attacks on Jews and Jewish public spaces across the country last year, and fears are rising.
BERLIN—Anti-Semitism is haunting this city once again. Human rights defenders, entrepreneurs, journalists, and victims of anti-Semitism tell The Daily Beast they feel lost and shocked and under attack from many different directions—from Muslim migrants who despise Israel, and from far-right and far-left figures in German politics. Last year, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior reported more than 600 incidents of attacks on Jews and Jewish public spaces across the country.
The Israeli-born ballet dancer Yorai Feinberg moved to Berlin six years ago and opened a stylish Jewish restaurant in Schoneberg, a beautiful area in western Berlin that is home to three synagogues and a vibrant Jewish community.
A few months ago, police arrested an otherwise seemingly normal middle-class German who threatened to incinerate the Jews working in the restaurant. But the attacks did not stop. Somebody recently threw firecrackers at the restaurant’s windows. Almost every day, Feinberg says he receives threatening phone calls and text messages. “We live under a constant bombardment of promises to kill us or burn us in gas chambers,” Feinberg told The Daily Beast as we met in his restaurant, which is decorated with modern art featuring the Star of David, the word “Israel” and Israeli flags.
“Berlin seemed much friendlier a few years ago,” said Feinberg. The low-key restaurateur looked out of the window at a police car passing by for the second time during an hour-long interview. “Thankfully, authorities are keeping an eye on our place, and they investigate and prosecute our abusers,” said Feinberg. “But there is too much hate, I have no doubt that one day I will experience violence again, get beaten or worse.”
Feinberg said threats to burn them alive are especially terrifying for the restaurant’s staff, after an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was partially burned and stabbed to death in her Paris apartment last month.
There is a spike of anti-Semitism all across Europe. According to social surveys by the Pew Research Center, one-in-five or more adults in Eastern and Central Europe say they would not accept Jews as fellow citizens. But Germany’s case, of course, is special.
Before the Nazi regime took power in the early 1930s, Germany’s Jewish population was about 522,000 people, more than half of whom fled, while another 160,000 to 180,000 were killed. In 1990, Germany opened its doors to Jewish immigrants from the USSR and Eastern European countries. Out of about 220,000 Jews living in Germany today, more than 80 percent are from former Soviet countries. And in a twist, many watch the Kremlin- controlled Russian-language TV channels and tend to embrace President Vladimir Putin’s populist lines, which encourage them to vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party.
“Many things are wrong about AfD—except for their position on Muslim immigrants,” says 35-year-old journalist Vadim Mertvoi, who came from Ukraine in 2002. “They are the only party telling the truth.”
A few months ago, German Jews were shaken by a brutal protest of Palestinians and Arabs against Israel near the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin. The protesters burned an Israeli flag and called for violence against “dirty Jew pigs” after U.S. President Donald Trump promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there.
On Thursday, showing The Daily Beast the video footage of the angry anti-Semitic protest, the chief editor of RTVD OstWest, Maria Makeyeva was shaking her head in astonishment. Most of the employees of RTVD, the only Russian language channel in Germany, were Jewish.
“See, everybody feels upset, gets beaten down. Both Muslims and Jews suffer in Germany,” Makeyeva told The Daily Beast. “Every time, before covering one more case of anti-Semitism, I have a dilemma. I struggle to figure out how not to inspire more Islamophobia, and at the same time tell the truth about increasing anti-Semitism.”
German authorities are aware of the growing issue of anti-Semitism. Justice Minister Heiko Maas condemned the first attack on Feinberg’s restaurant in December last year as “outrageous and inexcusable.” A middle-aged German had come to the restaurant and screamed at the staff: “You have been fighting Palestine for 70 years! … Get out of our country! … You don’t have any motherland! All you Jews have on your mind is money.” In a Twitter post Minister Heiko said: “We must all oppose anti-Semitic rabble-rousing in a dedicated and courageous manner.” But the attacks on Jews did not stop.
“I always wondered why a country as strong as Germany did not play a more significant role on the international scene,” Makeyeva, editor in chief of RTVD told The Daily Beast. “Now I realize how split Germany is, and not just between left and right. The disagreements are much more complex.”
When Sergey Lagodinsky and his family arrived in Berlin from the Russian town of Astrakhan in 1993, he was one of the first Jewish students in his school. “Kids came to see me. They wanted to touch ‘a real Jew,’ and they asked me about my Jewish soul,” says Lagodinsky, a lawyer, historian, politician and the author of Contexts of anti-Semitism: Legal and social aspects of freedom of expression and its limitations.
Analyzing the fear of Muslim immigrants, Lagodinsy said that AfD electorate is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. “Kremlin-backed, anti-European-unity propaganda take this fear, this paranoia and serves it on a plate to Germans, while authorities fail to communicate the issues properly.”
In comments that jibe perfectly with the AfD’s message, President Putin said recently that the continuing sense of guilt for Hitler’s crime was “imposed on Germans,” that Germany should be allowed to wash off the stigma. In Putin’s view, modern Germany is “a completely different country.”
The Human Rights Watch director in Berlin, Wenzel Michanski, argues that German anti-Semitism is a much more complex and diverse issue than elsewhere in Europe. Michanski and his wife are strong defenders of justice for refugees. Their home has long been a shelter for a badly tortured refugees from Syria.
Last year, to their shock and horror, their own 14-year-old son, the only Jewish boy in a multi-ethnic school of liberal views, became a victim of anti-Semitic violence.
In vain the Michanskis tried to engage the school’s management about the constant cases of their son being kicked and humiliated. “All our efforts to help the school deal with overwhelming anti-Semitism directed at the only Jewish student at school were ignored until one day two boys choked our son until he passed out; then one of the boys shot a BB gun at my son and everybody was laughing,” Michanski told The Daily Beast.
On seeing no willingness from the school to stop the hate incidents, the Michanskis had to take their son out. “My son’s attackers were not refugees, they were German,” Michanski told The Daily Beast. “The problem is that anti-Semitism never disappeared from Germany after the end of Nazi regime. If I had a chance to speak with Putin or anybody aspiring to put an end to Nazi guilt, I would say: be careful, you are playing with fire.”