"We must fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia together"

Ein Migrant mit einer Wollmütze in den deutschen Nationalfarben Rot, Gold und Schwarz
A migrant wearing a woolly hat in the colours of Germany (image: dapd)

Germany has long been a role model for the way it deals with Holocaust remembrance. But now this is being used to marginalise minorities, says Turkish ethnologist Esra Ozyurek

By Claudia Mende

Ms. Ozyurek, Germany's President Steinmeier has asked for migrants of Arab ethnic origin to distance themselves from Hamas. Is this a shift in German policy towards migrants, or is it simply an overreaction due to heated public debate? 

Esra Ozyurek: This needs to be seen in conjunction with the assumption that Palestinians, Arabs, or even Muslims are different from other citizens of Germany: their values are different, they are not German. And one of the principal differences is anti-Semitism. For years now, we have been dealing with the idea of a new anti-Semitism, associated with people from the Middle East.

There is also the idea that migrants are sexist and homophobic. Since coming to terms with anti-Semitism is, however, such a major aspect of modern German identity – after all, it's what makes Germany Germany as we know it – the idea is that these people are fundamentally different. We have to keep working on their anti-Semitism.

The idea that their anti-Semitism is different from our anti-Semitism has been around since early 2000, yet in recent years I feel like it has taken on quite another dimension. I admit I would never have imagined President Steinmeier saying that all Arabs must distance themselves from Hamas. Equally worrying is the idea discussed in the German parliament that migrants who are anti-Semitic or have voiced sentiments against the State of Israel can have their citizenship revoked.

Eine Frau legt weiße Rosen nieder am Mahnmal Gleis 13 am Berliner Bahnhof Grunewald
"The question of anti-Semitism is central to German identity": a woman lays white roses at the platform 13 memorial, Grunewald railway station, Berlin (image IMAGO/IPON)

"It goes against our common values"

An MP for the Christian Democrats (CDU) called for citizenship only to be granted to those who explicitly agree with Israel's right to exist and a person holding dual citizenship should lose their German passport if they show signs of anti-Semitic behaviour.

Ozyurek: These are far-reaching demands that jeopardise the values we enshrined after the Second World War: namely, not labelling groups of people as essentially different and not taking people's citizenship away. After 1945, the consensus was that there could be no such thing in a democracy. I find it deeply concerning that such demands are being made, even if in the name of good intentions …

It is very unlikely that proposals such as revoking a person's citizenship for anti-Semitic remarks will ever become law. The legal hurdles are too high – and politicians know that. So what is the point of such demands?

Ozyurek: It creates a chilling effect. Migrants, many of whom do not know exactly how the legislative processes in parliament work, become scared. After all, they are well aware that such issues are being discussed publicly. The ultimate aim is to intimidate.

Even if they don't pass into law, such ideas continue to circulate in the political sphere – they have a function and an impact. Politicians frequently float ideas first to see what will happen and where the limits lie. Even if these proposals don't become legislation, they will do something to society.

Solidarität mit Palästinensern bei einer Demonstration in Düsseldorf
Solidarity with Palestinians at a demonstration in Dusseldorf: the space for those critical of Israeli policy is shrinking (image: Christoph Reichwein/dpa/picture alliance)

"There needs to be space to criticise Israel"

Where do you draw the line between legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and anti-Semitism?

Ozyurek: Sometimes it makes things easier if you talk about other countries. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has tried to argue that criticising India is anti-Indian and should be punishable by law. Erdogan now considers all criticism of Turkey Islamophobic

I'm against such interpretations. My view of what would make a good Turkey is different to that of any government and I want to be able to say it. I'm not an expert on India but a lot of people in India are saying that Modi's policies are leading the country in the wrong direction. Why should that be anti-Indian? Jews in Israel are highly critical of their government, while in Germany the same criticism is considered anti-Semitic, which is difficult. It should be possible to talk about such issues. We need this space.

But there is anti-Semitism among Muslim migrants. How can we combat it effectively?

Ozyurek: For me, it makes sense to fight different forms of racism together, throughout society as a whole. I find it threatening when the fight against one form of racism – anti-Semitism – is used to marginalise other minorities and to pit different minorities against each other. There is anti-Semitism and there is Islamophobia. 

What has happened to Jews did not happen to Muslims, we know that, but you cannot fight anti-Semitism without also calling out Islamophobia. 

You cannot tell one group of people who are part of society, go away or deal with this among yourselves; or be constantly telling them, you are bad and different, are you even humans? 

I think it is unrealistic to expect people to integrate and embrace our shared values by excluding and punishing them. It is much more realistic to say: these are our values, everyone is respected, we value diversity, we are against discrimination and hate crimes on all sides. If you start punishing discrimination only in some cases, it doesn't work.

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

What about the attack in Hanau?

So you're saying that it's not helpful to keep singling out Muslim migrants as anti-Semites?

Ozyurek: What does it say when you demand, as Steinmeier has, that people of Arab origin distance themselves from Hamas? How far back do you go? Having an Arab or Turkish background never fades, no matter how many generations you have lived in Germany. What's more, Muslims are always expected to distance themselves [from terrorist attacks, editor's note], there's no end to it. Yet what about white Germans who are Islamophobic? Nobody asked white Germans to distance themselves from the right-wing extremist attack in Hanau.

In recent years, there have been many anti-Semitism prevention initiatives aimed specifically at young migrants. Have they achieved anything at all?

Ozyurek: I have definitely met young migrants on these programmes who have found a place in society through their many conversations and encounters. In that sense, the programmes have certainly made a difference. Young people have been given the opportunity to learn something about German society, they have visited Auschwitz and reflected on it.

But I find some of the content problematic. For example, a lot of attention is paid to the history of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Amir Husseini. He certainly played an unsavoury role, but the Grand Mufti was not Hitler, he didn't kill anyone personally, and not all Arabs were supporters of the Nazis, some indeed sided with the Allies. Yet the idea seems to be to create a suitable Holocaust narrative for people of Arab origin, who are then supposed to show remorse in order to prove themselves to be good citizens. But that's not how you integrate, that's how you marginalise.

Die türkische Soziologin Esra Özyürek
"I find it threatening when the fight against one form of racism – anti-Semitism – is used to marginalise other minorities and to pit different minorities against each other," says Turkish sociologist Esra Ozyurek (image: private)

German society has become much more diverse in recent decades, so how do you integrate this diversity into Holocaust remembrance?

Ozyurek: Traditionally, Holocaust education was very much about personal responsibility. The 68-generation talked about what their parents had done during the Nazi era. Now you have 25 percent of the German population whose ancestors were not even in Germany when the Holocaust happened – this form of Holocaust remembrance cannot do them justice.

But that does not necessarily mean that we need different forms of commemoration and remembrance for different groups in society. Ideally, the approach to the crime of the Holocaust should bring society together. After all, it is about the shared values that we have gained from coming to terms with the past and that apply to us all.

For a long time, Germany was a role model for liberals like me all over the world in terms of coming to terms with the past. Now it seems to me that this is falling apart. Coming to terms with the past is now being used to exclude an entire section of society. I find that deeply disappointing.

I'm not saying this because I necessarily want to criticise Germany, but because it has global repercussions. We can no longer approach our governments and tell them to lay things out in the open like Germany did, i.e. in Turkey, where the Armenian genocide has yet to be acknowledged. It doesn't make sense if the memory of the Holocaust is used against people you want to punish or get rid of.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2023

Esra Ozyurek holds the Sultan Qaboos Professorship of Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. Her published works include: "Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion and Conversion in the New Europe" (2014), and "Subcontractors of Guilt: Holocaust Memory and Muslim Belonging in Post-War Germany" (2023)


You may also like:

Anti-Semitism: Separating anti-Semitism from criticism of Israel

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe: The eternal Muslim

Resurgence in European populism: Itʹs an ill wind

Qantara dossier: Anti-Semitism

Qantara dossier: Islamophobia