Fighting Hate In Berlin’s Turkish Quarter


Berlin — On a December afternoon in 2006, in a predominantly Turkish section of this rapidly changing Berlin, a 14-year-old girl was walking home from the Lisa Morgenstern High School with her Muslim classmates, as they did most days. But the friendships ended when, one day, the girl casually mentioned that she was Jewish. In the next few weeks, those classmates and others hurled anti-Semitic insults at her and even attacked her physically, delivering blows to her back and head.

The incident, told by a neighborhood anti-discrimination activist, wasn’t an isolated one. Last year alone, there were 1,541 crimes against Jews reported in Germany, according to a Reuters faith blog. Yet while neo-Nazi-based anti-Semitism is well documented and remains a significant problem in Germany, the phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism is growing and only now coming into sharper view.

Turkish immigrants began to pour into West Berlin as “guest workers” with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. As the country’s Muslim population has soared — there are now more than two million Turkish Muslims in Germany, many of them working-class — so has the problem of hatred against Jews. The attacks of 9/11 and flare-ups in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have exacerbated the problem here, as they have throughout much of Europe, especially in France.

But a group of idealistic and ethnically mixed young Germans — some Jewish, most not — is working to combat the problem. And the group is taking its fight into the heart of Kreuzberg, the central Berlin neighborhood located just south of the fashionable Mitte district and east of the sprawling greenery of Tiergarten Park. The neighborhood is home to a huge Muslim population, consisting mostly of Turks, but also including Palestinian refugees and South Asian Muslims.

Armed only with play-acting techniques, memory games and the powerful stories of Kreuzberg Holocaust survivors, members of the group — officially dubbed the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism — go into Kreuzberg’s high school classrooms with a noble but excruciatingly difficult goal: trying to break down long-held stereotypes and bridge a gaping ethnic gulf.

“There are many programs that deal with radical right people like the Nazis,” said Karoline Georg, 28, one of the Kreuzberg Initiative fellows. “There are many programs against racism and anti-Semitism. It took a really long time before [the government funded] projects like ours.”

The government has taken note of the problem.

“In schools we often hear when [Muslim] classes go to visit concentration camps like Sachsenhausen [about 25 miles outside Berlin], students will say, ‘My father doesn’t want me to go there,’” said Barbara John, Germany’s former commissioner for integration. “We are speaking with them and we’re asking what is really behind the anti-Semitism.”

“You need all these little mosaic pieces [programs like the Kreuzberg Initiative] to come together … because when people meet and get together to know each other they lose the enemy picture,” continued John, who now serves as the German representative for the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. She added that while incidents of German-Muslim anti-Semitism tend to be less violent than those of neo-Nazi hate, the danger of ignoring growing bias in the Muslim community is very real. (Official statistics do not differentiate between neo-Nazi and Muslim incidents of anti-Semitism.)

The situation was driven home for Barbara Wittig, the director of the Jewish High School in the Mitte district, which borders the Kreuzberg neighborhood. The 14-year-old girl beaten in Kreuzberg along with another Jewish girl who was the victim of anti-Semitism recently transferred to Wittig’s school. Wittig told Der Spiegel in December 2006, “We offer those children protection who have to fear discrimination at other schools. I always thought Jews were integrated into German society.” The paper characterized the rise in anti-Semitism in the two years prior to 2006 as “dramatic.” Continued Wittig: “I would never have thought it possible for anti-Semitism to express itself as virulently as it has recently.”

Getting at the root of the problem is difficult, given the special circumstances of Muslim immigration to Germany and the group’s outsider status within German society.

“Of course you have [anti-Jewish] prejudices also among Germans,” Georg says. “But because of all the German history it’s not spoken of too often. The migrant kids haven’t incorporated this taboo as much as the Germans. The Germans’ parents belong to the perpetrator society.” Rather, their Muslim anti-Semitism, she said, stems largely from the history of Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Getting around those political and religious obstacles can be daunting, Georg suggested.

On a recent morning at the Eberhard-Klein-Oberschule public school in Kreuzberg, Karoline Georg and a colleague led a class of 10 boys and two girls, which included nine Turkish-Germans, two Arabs and one student with a Pakistani background.

After introducing herself to the students, Georg and her partner started the workshop with a memory game, in which students matched old and new photos of various locales in Kreuzberg, setting them on track for a lesson in history.

Following this introductory game, Georg set up a timeline at the front of the classroom and distributed some index cards to the students, each containing a different anti-Semitic law from the Holocaust.

Among those laws — which students pinned to the timeline — were those forbidding Jews from owning a radio, prohibitions against them using public transportation and mandates for Jews to leave public schools.

“That’s the point where the pupils feel empathy for the Jews,” Georg said. “The most disturbing law the pupils find is the one of the forced names ‘Sara’ and ‘Israel’ for Jews, and they repeatedly brought up how horrible this was.”

The workshop then focused on the biographies of a Kreuzberg brother and sister who survived the Holocaust by hiding in Berlin and then escaping to America. After working together in four groups and preparing texts about different chapters in the survivors’ lives, the students asked where they were now.

“When I told them that they might be in Berlin next year, [the students] wanted to invite them to their school,” Georg said, happy with how this workshop had gone overall.

At the end of the lesson, some of the students asked “Why did such things happen to the Jews?” and wondered whether or not they had done something in particular to make the Nazis hate them so much. They also asked why more Jews didn’t go into hiding, why more civilians didn’t help and why most survivors left Germany after the war.

Two Berliners, Gunther Jikeli and Aycan Demirel, launched the Kreuzberg Initiative in 2003 following a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in the neighborhood. The group, which receives government funding, consists of what Malte Holler, 34, calls a “mixed team” of native and immigrant Germans from Kreuzberg. Some grew up as Muslims, others as Christians and one or two are Jewish, but none are religious, Holler and Georg explained. The two addressed a group of Jewish-American students and young Jewish communal professionals, who were visiting Germany several months ago through an American Jewish Committee program, in cooperation with Germany Close Up, an organization that brings young American Jews to Germany with German government funding.

Neither Holler nor Georg is Jewish, and they each came to the group because of personal and historical interests. And they seem to represent a new generation of Germans willing to ask tough questions about their country’s past. Georg’s grandfather, a communist, was thrown into a concentration camp during World War II, and many students in her own high school became neo-Nazis.

“I started to ask myself, why could that happen? I always wanted to find an answer,” she told The Jewish Week. Georg began to read about National Socialism and Jewish identity when she was 15 and now has an advanced degree in political science and history.

Holler’s interest in the Kreuzberg anti-discrimination work comes more from a historical perspective, as his father rarely talks about his experience as a German soldier in World War II. Holler said he looks to the Holocaust as a scar engraved in both Jewish and non-Jewish family histories, and he’d like to use that knowledge to prevent future anti-Semitic behavior and discrimination of foreigners nationwide. Like Georg, he remembers how so many Germans joined nationalist and racist movements as the Soviet bloc crumbled in the 1990s, but he noted that young people would not let such movements thrive.

“A lot of my generation started to organize themselves into anti-fascist groups and anti-racist groups,” he said.

Since the Kreuzberg Initiative’s inception five years ago, it has also received ongoing support from the AJC’s Berlin office. Leaders of the Berlin AJC say that they too have been working to improve Turkish-Jewish relations and have been holding roundtables between Turkish and American Jewish leaders since July 2001. In 2005, they organized a panel of Turkish and Jewish young professionals, and the following year, they sent a group of Turkish-speaking Germans to Israel; they returned with a more positive perception of the Jewish community, said Deidre Berger, the director of the AJC in Berlin.

Both the AJC and the Kreuzberg Initiative continue their efforts to bridge these ethnic gaps among Germans, who — like their French and English neighbors — are reluctant to welcome new migrant groups into their country. In fact, one of the biggest causes of the German-Muslim anti-Semitism may be that, in German society, immigrants tend not to be well integrated into the larger community, which leaves them isolated from both Jews and Germans, experts say.

Unlike their native German peers, whose families were in the country during World War II, these immigrants feel little of the German guilt involved with Holocaust discussions, Holler explained.

“They argue that [the Holocaust] is more a German problem,” he said. “Everybody feels guilty in this country, but it has nothing to do with me.”

Meanwhile, he added, the Muslim students rarely meet any Jews in person since the German-Jewish population is small, and most Jews avoid publicizing their identities.

“Many of the [Muslim] kids think that Jews and Muslims have been enemies forever, and they are really surprised when we tell them about the history of Jews in Muslim countries,” Georg said. Some of their sessions will include history lessons, about how, for example, Jews lived harmoniously with Arabs in their communities and often experienced much less discrimination than they did in Europe. “I wouldn’t say that every kid defines themselves as an enemy of the Jews, but they think that there must be a problem between those two religions,” she added.

The Turkish community’s religious leaders condemn anti-Semitic acts, but they haven’t necessarily taken proactive steps to prevent these problems, according to John. “When something happens, then they raise their voice very often, but it is difficult because they are not so well organized,” she said. “There are so many different Muslim communities, and, of course, they shy away from admitting that [anti-Semitism] is something in the Muslim belief [system].”

Though groups like the Kreuzberg Initiative attempt to rid German-Muslim students of any Jewish prejudices, the instructors realize that these children too face severe prejudices from native Germans, who tend not to be so tolerant of the migrant community.

“It took Germany a very long time to just accept that we’re a migrant country,” Georg said. “The migrant workers who came were called ‘guest workers’ because Germans always thought they were going back,” she added. She explained that these so-called temporary “guest workers” are now in their third or fourth generation in the country.

Many German citizens resent their migrant neighbors, because they are occupying jobs that native Germans otherwise might have, Georg continued. The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party has in fact called for a halt to immigration in an effort to win jobs back, according to John.

The immigrants’ problem is exacerbated by the fact that they are expected to understand German history while learning nothing about their own pasts and seeing only white faces in textbooks, both Holler and Berger stressed. Public schools allow them little opportunity to mix with children from outside their immigrant groups because children are not bussed between school districts. Many German parents fear having their children mix with the Turkish and Arab students, according to Holler.

The government, observers say, is not standing pat. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been making outreach efforts to the country’s Turkish immigrants, and policymakers are addressing immigrant education and employment opportunities, the AJC’s Deidre Berger said. But she warns that the impact of such change will be gradual.

“The attitudes toward ‘the other’ need to fundamentally change in Germany,” Berger said. “The process is starting — it’s under way, but there’s still a very long way to go.”