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How Germany's anti-Semitism commissioner plans to fight hatred

When he takes up his new position, Felix Klein wants to establish a national database of anti-Jewish incidents. He's also calling for harsher punishment of crimes with an anti-Semitic component and better prevention.

Photo Credit: Picture Alliance/dpa

Five days before he officially takes up his post as Germany's first-ever anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Stein is already on the job. Speaking to foreign journalists in Berlin on Friday in the wake of a highly publicized attack on an Israeli, the career diplomat is already calling for Germany to centralize the information it collects about anti-Semitic acts.

Thus far the government has had to rely on questionable police statistics. Klein says additional data will change Germany's understanding of the phenomenon.

"Police statistics say that more than 90 percent of anti-Semitic crimes come from extreme right-wing circles," Klein said. "But those affected, Jews who live here in Germany, tell a completely different story. They feel that Muslim anti-Semitism is much more dangerous than it appears to be in the statistics. I want to get to the bottom of this contradiction."

Anti-Semitism has dominated the headlines in Germany in recent days. Just this week nearly 3,000 Berliners wore the traditional Jewish skull cap, the kippa, to show solidarity against anti-Jewish hostility. Germany's leading music award, known as ECHO, was abolished after a prize went to a rap group that uses anti-Semitic lyrics.

"That showed that public pressure really can achieve things in this country," said Klein. "That gives me hope that we can do something about anti-Semitism."

Extremists approaching refugees

Klein envisions a system in which data will flow from local Jewish groups to police in Germany's 16 federal states and then to his office. That will take some organization, but the commissioner aims to achieve his first results straight away.

"I hope we can get the system up and running this year," Klein told journalists. "Next year, maybe we can have another chat, and you can judge me on whether it worked."

Once the data is available, Klein says, his office will work toward designing "tailor-made" solutions to combating various forms of anti-Semitism, including hostility towards Jews present among some Muslim migrants and young people in urban schools. Such strategies, he says, will focus above all on education.

But he's also calling for punishments to be increased for crimes, if they are motivated by anti-Semitism, and recognizes the need for state authorities to keep tabs on what's going on in Germany's refugee communities.

"I think that intelligence-service methods are necessary in fighting anti-Semitism," Klein said. "We've observed that Salafist and Islamist extremists seek to approach refugees in Germany and try to incite anti-Semitism and hatred. It's clearly the job of the intelligence services to take action against this.

A video of an Arabic-speaking man in Berlin attacking two Israelis with a belt caused outrage

Frank language is important

The potential susceptibility of a small minority of Muslims in Germany to anti-Semitism is a very sensitive issue that needs to be handled diplomatically. Having grown up in part in Italy and worked in various South American and European countries after receiving his training from the Foreign Ministry, Klein is well-suited to this part of the job.

At the same time, Klein is a specialist. He has been the ministry's expert on Jewish affairs since 2014, and the Central Council of Jews in Germany specifically requested that he be made commissioner. While many in Germany feel uncomfortable talking about "imported anti-Semitism" among migrants, Klein stresses the need to name the problem.

"It's a special form of imported anti-Semitism, to use a term that's been established in the press," Klein says. "If it helps us categorize things and clarify what we're talking about, that's not a bad thing."

The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has increasingly begun to thematize anti-Semitism among migrants as a way of attacking Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming stance towards the large number of refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016. Klein, who has no political affiliation, says he wants to keep his office above party squabbling and says the AfD is welcome to participate in the debate about how to combat anti-Semitism.

But he rejects the AfD's "instrumentalization" of the issue to support anti-immigrant posturing and points out that the Central Council has explicitly distanced itself from the populists.

Jewish groups say that anti-Semitic attacks among Muslims are on the rise

How much clout?

Klein officially starts work next Wednesday after the May 1 public holiday in Germany. But the scope of his office and the resources at his disposal have yet to be set in stone.

The commissioner will join Germany's newly expanded Interior and Homeland Ministry, but it is unclear what sort of a budget and staff will be at his disposal. In response to an inquiry by Left Party Member of Parliament Petra Pau, the government said that no decisions had been taken as to how much money Klein would be given or how many civil servants would be assigned to work under him. The Left Party estimates that Klein will need around 50 people and a budget of 3.5 million euros ($4.2 million) to be effective.

The government has indicated that Klein will be allowed to draw on Interior Ministry resources, but the ministry is itself waiting for the government to agree on its 2018 federal budget and is, to a certain degree, in limbo.

Budget negotiations are set to begin next week and could stretch on until the Bundestag takes its summer break in early July. Only when the money matters are decided will Klein have a better idea of whether he can achieve his ambitious goals.


(c) 2018 Deutsche Welle

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