BERLIN — Bullied students. Crude rap lyrics. An ugly confrontation on an upmarket city street.
In another country — one less attuned to the horrors wrought by anti-Semitism — evidence that the scourge is once again growing might have been ignored.
But this is Germany, a nation that nearly annihilated an entire continent’s Jewish population. And after a series of high-profile incidents, the country isn’t waiting to sound the alarm on a pattern of rising hatred toward Jews.
In recent days, demonstrators have filled the streets, a first-ever national coordinator to combat anti-Semitism has taken up his post, and officials from Chancellor Angela Merkel on down have spoken out.
Germany is also doing something difficult for a country that sees itself as the open and tolerant antidote to the prejudice-driven murder machine it once was: acknowledging that the problem’s resurgence has been fueled not only by the far right, whose views have increasingly infiltrated the mainstream, but also in significant part by Muslims, including refugees.
“The nature of anti-Semitism in Germany is definitely changing,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a member of the assembly of the Jewish community in Berlin. “We’re having a lot more violent, everyday confrontations that come through incidents with immigrants.”
That’s not an easy admission in Germany, where Merkel led the push three years ago to open the country to more than a million asylum seekers — many of them Muslims fleeing conflict. At the time, the move was widely seen, at least in part, as a grand gesture of atonement for the worst crimes of German history.
Since then, Merkel has rallied the nation around the slogan “We can do it,” brushing away suggestions that Germany will suffer for its generosity.
But she’s also been forced to concede the link between the new arrivals and creeping anti-Semitism. This month, she told an Israeli broadcaster that Germany was confronting “a new phenomenon” as refugees “bring another form of anti-Semitism into the country.”
That’s something critics have warned of for years, given that many of those who arrived in Germany came from nations where anti-Semitism is widespread, including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But officials, analysts and Jewish and Muslim leaders all say that Germany has been slow to recognize the risks.
“The cultural dimension that is linked with the influx was always underestimated,” said Felix Klein, who started work this month as the federal government’s point person for combating anti-Semitism. “Now we have to deal with it.”
Berliners participate in a “wear a kippah” march against anti-Semitism on April 25, 2018. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
The first step, Klein said, is to understand the scale. But the data is surprisingly limited, and what is available has been called into question.
Police statistics, for instance, show that about 90 percent of the anti-Semitic cases nationwide are believed to have been carried out by followers of the far-right — traditionally the bastion of prejudice toward Jews in Germany.
But government officials and Jewish leaders doubt that figure, citing a default designation of far-right when the perpetrator isn’t known. The government also has no reliable means of tracking anti-Semitism that falls below the level of the criminal — something Klein said he’s determined to change.
A survey of victims of anti-Semitism commissioned last year by the German Parliament concluded that Muslims were most often identified as the perpetrators. A separate study found comparatively high levels of anti-Semitic thinking among refugees with a Middle Eastern or North African background.
The total number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in Germany has remained fairly steady over the past decade, at around 1,500 every year, although researchers think the actual numbers are much higher, said Uffa Jensen, a professor at the Technical University of Berlin. One recent survey found that 70 percent of Jews said they would not report an anti-Semitic incident because they feared the consequences.
Even if the overall numbers are relatively stable, the behavior behind the data has changed, said Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
“The incidents are more aggressive, more pronounced, and directly affect Jewish people with insults or attacks,” Schuster said.
German schoolchildren have reported the word “Jew” being thrown around as a taunt on the playground. Some have said they have been threatened with death.
“There are incidents that go so far that kids have to leave their schools because it’s no longer possible to stay. I can’t remember that happening in the past,” Schuster said.
Beyond the bullying, two high-profile instances of anti-Semitism have spawned outrage in recent weeks.
A German rap duo won the top honor at the country’s most prestigious music awards this month for an album that included lyrics boasting of bodies “more defined than those of Auschwitz inmates” and vowing to “make another Holocaust.” Amid a backlash, the awards program was terminated.
Meanwhile, cellphone video footage emerged of an assailant shouting anti-Semitic slurs and whipping a belt against a man wearing a kippa, or Jewish prayer cap. Police arrested a 19-year-old Syrian refugee in connection with the assault, which took place in the trendy Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg.
“When I watched the video, I looked into his eyes. I don’t understand how a young man can be so filled with hate,” said Sigmount Königsberg, anti-Semitism commissioner for the Jewish community of Berlin.
Königsberg deals with hundreds of incidents each year and said a substantial majority of the cases involve an alleged Muslim perpetrator.
Far-right assailants are less common, he said. But that makes sense, if only for geographic reasons: Germany’s Muslim and Jewish communities are both concentrated in big cities, such as Berlin. Far-right supporters are more likely to live in the countryside.
The German far-right has been emboldened lately, winning seats in Parliament last fall — the first time that’s happened since the 1950s. Authorities say elements of the far-right have grown more vocal in their anti-Semitism. But they have been even louder in denouncing Muslims, capitalizing on resentment toward Merkel’s decision to let in the refugees.
Ironically, far-right politicians have used concerns about anti-Semitism to make their case against the refugees — a logic that many Jewish leaders reject.
“The world doesn’t revolve around Jews. If people are dying in Syria, you can’t let them die because you may face more anti-Semitism in a couple years,” said Lagodinsky, the member of the Berlin Jewish assembly.
Rather than bar refugees, Lagodinsky said, the solution starts with being more honest in talking about the problem — something he said mainstream German society is often afraid to do for fear of targeting a Muslim minority population that already feels under siege.
Aiman Mazyek, for one, welcomes the conversation. The president of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany emphasized that it’s only a small minority of Muslims who are taking part in anti-Semitic acts. But he said there is no doubt that some newcomers — and some who have been here far longer — have failed to integrate into a society that has put “Never Again” at its core.
“If people come here and want to integrate, they need to understand the DNA of the country. And part of that DNA is the legacy of the Holocaust,” he said.
Mazyek said it would take effort to educate people who may have grown up in countries where anti-Semitic rhetoric is rampant, and others who may have been raised in Germany but who nonetheless feel drawn into “the unresolved conflicts of the Middle East.”
But he said there is also reason for optimism.
“Many of them came from countries where there was dictatorship, where they weren’t free. There’s the potential there for much more empathy when they visit a concentration camp,” he said.
Josh Spinner, an American-born, Berlin-based rabbi, said Germany also needs to keep its problems with anti-Semitism in perspective.
“There’s nowhere in Europe where there isn’t a sense of unease” among Jews, said Spinner, who is also chief executive of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, an education-focused philanthropic group.
German unease was reflected vividly this past week in a Berlin protest that drew about 2,000 people who came wearing kippas. They listened as speakers warned of a rising threat, and insisted that the country would not tolerate a return to its anti-Semitic past.
But Spinner said Germany still has it better than most places on the continent — in part because its past has taught it to be vigilant and aggressive in responding to signs of hatred.
Spinner said he has walked Berlin’s streets wearing a kippa for years without any serious problems, and will continue to do so. Warnings that Germany would become inhospitable for Jews after taking in so many refugees have, for the most part, not come to pass.
“Relative to the perceived threat, not much has happened,” Spinner said. “And that’s a relief.”