Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany. But is Angela Merkel doing anything about it?

Germany’s Jewish Problem

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany. But is Angela Merkel doing anything about it?

BERLIN — With anti-Semitism on the march, Germany’s politicians and opinion makers are grappling with what went wrong with the country’s seven-decade-long struggle to come to terms with its past, or as they call it, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Since the Holocaust, Germany has measured its progress by how the country treats Jews. For example, the government provided generous funding to rebuild Jewish communities and allowed Jews from the former Soviet Union to relocate to Germany. But with a rising tide of anti-Semitism in recent months, there are now questions about how significant the culture of Holocaust remembrance has been in preventing hatred of Jews.

The wave of modern anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence inundating Germany in recent months jolted Chancellor Angela Merkel and religious and political leaders to participate in a “Stand-Up: Jew-Hatred-Never Again!” rally organized on Sept. 14 by the Central Council of Jews in Germany in the heart of Berlin’s government district, not far the country’s national Holocaust memorial.

The list of anti-Semitic incidents between July and early September is long. Protests against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza led seamlessly to Molotov cocktails tossed at a synagogue in Wuppertal, a city in western Germany, on July 29 — the first torching of a Wuppertal synagogue was during the Hitler era in 1938. Anti-Israel protesters attacked Jews for wearing kippot on the streets of Berlin in a couple of incidents in July. And that’s just a taste.

German authorities recorded 184 anti-Semitic incidents in June and July. According to a study by German human rights NGO Amadeu Antonio Foundation, there were 25 anti-Semitic incidents in August.

“These are the worst times since the Nazi era. On the streets, you hear things like ‘The Jews should be gassed,’ ‘The Jews should be burned,'” Dieter Graumann, the president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, lamented to the Guardian in August.

Merkel, whom Jewish organizations have honored with many awards for her work over the years to cultivate German-Jewish life and foster a robust relationship with Israel, delivered a tough speech at the rally. “It is our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism,” the chancellor declared in front of the Brandenburg Gate — a symbol of German unification and democracy.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Germany has had a complicated relationship German Jews — and with Israel. While it was scarcely reported, Merkel did reference the Jewish state at the rally, saying, “I do not accept any kind of anti-Semitic message or attacks at all, not least the ones that were recently seen at the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, disguised as alleged criticism of the policy of the state of Israel.”

But, so far, Merkel has done little to combat anti-Semitism in Germany beyond giving a speech. She has offered no policy prescriptions. And yet the chancellor’s anger at her fellow citizens who abuse Jews has long been viewed as sincere. Julius Schoeps, a prominent German Jewish professor and a descendant of the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, told me after Merkel’s speech, “I can count on her.” He added, however, that he could not rely on the other people, like Protestant and Catholic church leaders, who also spoke against anti-Semitism at the rally.

Organizations affiliated with the Protestant and Catholic churches have hosted events, along with German politicians, over the years that have strained relations between Jews and Germans.

In 2010, the Evangelical Academy, an educational center that seeks “to build bridges between people,” invited Bassem Naim, a Hamas minister, to a conference on “Partner for Peace: Talking with Hamas and Fatah.” Naim has argued for “resistance” against Israel, and stated that there is “exploitation of the Holocaust by the Zionists to justify their crimes and harness international acceptance of the campaign of ethnic cleansing and subjection they have been waging against us.” Naim’s visa to travel to Germany was ultimately denied due to the EU’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist entity.

Two years later, in 2012, Albrecht Schröter — the Social Democratic mayor of Jena, a town in eastern Germany — signed a petition called “Occupation Tastes Bitter,” organized by the German Catholic peace organization Pax Christi, which urged a boycott of Israeli products. Germany’s Catholic Church did not explicitly disavow the Pax Christi grassroots action; for some critics, the campaign recalled the Nazi-era slogan “Don’t buy from Jews.”

This year, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, and a Jerusalem-based watchdog organization, NGO Monitor, sharply criticized German groups for funding anti-Israel activity. NGO Monitor issued an exhaustive report on German government funds funneled to “organizations that contribute to the growing demonization of Israel and BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] campaigns, in direct contradiction to German foreign policy.” (Merkel opposes boycotts of Israel for its settlement policies.) In a joint letter, think tanks affiliated with all of the major German political parties — including Merkel’s — rejected NGO Monitor’s criticisms.

High-ranking diplomats from the Israeli embassy in Berlin say that Merkel is the most pro-Israel chancellor in German history. Next year, Israel and the Germany will mark 50 years of diplomatic relations. Grand celebrations are planned. And the chancellor has long matched her strong rhetorical support for Israel with concrete military assistance for the defense of the Jewish state. In a 2008 address to Israel’s Knesset, Merkel declared that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable” for her administration. Germany has provided Israel with four advanced second-strike Dolphin submarines since Merkel began her tenure as chancellor, and a fifth will arrive in six months; these provide a significant nuclear-armed deterrent. In addition, Germany’s intelligence agency BND frequently cooperates with the Mossad.

But even as Berlin has delivered vital military assistance to Israel, civil society and others in German political life have done little to curtail the outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment.

“There is a startling indifference in the German public to the current display of anti-Semitism,” said Samuel Salzborn, a leading expert on anti-Semitism at the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony, in early August. Merkel’s rally on Sept. 14 produced a mere 5,000 people, according to police. The Jewish community, which organized the event, said 8,000 people came. Given that the Central Council of Jews chartered buses from communities across the country, the turnout was lackluster at best.

In comparison, after a firebombing of a synagogue in Düsseldorf in 2000, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for a nationwide protest against racism and anti-Semitism. Some 200,000 people marched in a procession through Berlin, and tens of thousands protested in other cities across Germany.

The apathy of today has many people wondering what’s gone wrong. In a commentary for Deutschlandfunk radio, Kirsten Serup-Bilfeldt, a journalist and author who writes about German-Christian relations, went as far as to argue that the “confrontation with Germany’s National Socialist past has failed.” In