The need to bridge societal rifts

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stands next to a German flag and addresses representatives of Jewish and Muslim organisations
Round table on the situation in the Middle East at Bellevue Palace: Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier receives representatives from Germany's Jewish and Muslim communities (image: ODD ANDERSEN/AF)

Reporting deep rifts in German society, representatives of the country's Jewish and Muslim communities attended a round-table meeting called by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to discuss the consequences of the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel

By Hans Pfeifer

Before opening the floor to his guests in Bellevue Palace, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made Germany's position very clear. Addressing the "Jewish community in Germany", he said: "I … want to assure you that this country will not rest while you have to fear for your safety and the safety of your children. We will not tolerate anti-Semitism in our country."

Then he addressed the "Palestinian and Arab community in our country" and told them: "Nor will we allow anti-Muslim racism or a blanket veil of suspicion against Muslims." Later, he added:  "Don't let yourselves be instrumentalised by Hamas! Speak up for yourselves! Say no to terror!"

People wearing Israeli flags rally to show solidarity with Israel in Berlin
Against terror and anti-Semitism – rally in solidarity with Israel on 22 October 2023 in Berlin

Alarming rise in anti-Semitic violence

Germany is currently experiencing heated debates about the war in the Middle East. Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel's subsequent operations in Gaza, there has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitic violence in Germany, according to experts.

There have been several pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the country, some of which have featured anti-Semitic signs and chants, and all of which have been accompanied by a significant police presence. Many Jews have said they do not dare leave the house and fear for the safety of their children. At the same time, many Muslim associations say there is a general suspicion of migrants and increasing ostracisation.

Steinmeier invited 12 people to Bellevue Palace, the president's official residence, for a round-table discussion on "War in the Middle East – preserving peaceful coexistence in Germany!" Half of the group was Jewish, the other half Muslim, but all represented groups working on Jewish-Muslim cooperation.

What they reported was depressing. They said there was a deep rift in society and that, although not new, it had worsened since 7 October. They said emotions were running high.

Michael Fuerst, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in Lower Saxony, who has been advocating for dialogue between Jews and Palestinians for years, said that many of the members of the community had told him this project was "for show". He said that the Hamas attack on Israel had been "a watershed – the biggest murder of Jews since the Holocaust" and that many Jews had since withdrawn into their community. Though dialogue was important, he added, it was becoming more difficult. 

Headshot of Dervis Hizarci, chairman of the Berlin-based Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism
Dervis Hizarci, chairman of the Berlin-based Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism. The association works to combat hatred and prejudice among the German capital's migrant Muslim community (image: DW/Hans Pfeifer)

Muslims and immigrants face blanket suspicion

Dervis Hizarci, the son of Turkish immigrants and chairman of the board of the Berlin-based Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism, talked of similar experiences. His project tries to raise awareness and counter prejudice and hatred.

"In recent weeks, we have received 500 appeals from teachers who want to know how to talk to their students about the conflict," he told Steinmeier. He said that in many schools, the atmosphere was heated and that the children of Muslim migrants felt blanket suspicion directed at them by the majority of German society. He said that schools were unable to deal with the topic of anti-Semitism, warning, "If we stigmatise these children and young people, if we do not manage to involve them, they will break with Germany." 

Steinmeier refrained from taking part in the discussion except to pose questions. He asked Margot Friedlaender, a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor, what she would say to those Jewish people who are currently asking whether it is possible to live in Germany today. He asked other participants how their projects were currently faring. At times, he called for empathy and praised the initiatives for their work and courage. 

He repeatedly tried to reassure all the participants and their communities that they were part of the country, encouraging them and providing moral support. "Today's Germany is an open, diverse country," he insisted. "We are a country with a migration background in which people with very different roots, with differing experiences and religions, live." The guests seemed to appreciate his words, but it was clear to all that the current reality was devastating.

Recently, several German associations and academics painted a bleak picture of anti-Semitism in Germany. At a joint press conference held by Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein and the director of the House of the Wannsee Conference, Nikolas Lelle from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, presented the findings from the anti-racism NGO's latest report on anti-Semitism in Germany.

The social psychologist Beate Kuepper warned against putting the focus on people with Muslim origins, with regard to the current situation in the Middle East. "This [calling out Muslims] is right and important," she said, "but it should not distract from the fact that anti-Semitism is largely found on the right of the political centre." She pointed out that the Alternative for Germany was a far-right party that was responsible for the cracks in Germany's culture of remembrance.

Polizeiabsperrung am 18. Oktober nach einem Angriff mit Molotow-Cocktails auf eine Synagoge in Berlin.
Police cordon outside a Berlin synagogue on 18 October 2023, following a Molotov cocktail attack (image: FABRIZIO BENSCH/REUTERS)

"Invest 100 billion euros in hate prevention!"

What can be done to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? Though many different suggestions were voiced at the president's round-table discussion, there was consensus on one point in particular: the fact that there can be no progress without education. But the participants had a clear message for Germany's politicians, saying that the issues had not been taken seriously enough for years.

"If we do not take €100 billion now and invest immediately in education, then we will not be able to contain all of this," warned Dervis Hizarci. "These cracks in society are as existential as the climate crisis!"

"Mr. Steinmeier," he said in an appeal at the end of the debate. "Let's call for a 'March of Silence'. Let us go out onto the streets and express our pain together." The president thanked him, but did not say yes to the idea.

Hans Pfeifer

© Deutsche Welle 2023