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Is Anti-semitism Rising in Germany? That Depends on Which Poll You Trust

June 19, 2002
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Two new opinion polls offer conflicting views on the state of anti-Semitism in Germany — but both reveal persistent stereotypes about Jews.

According to the first poll of 1,000 Germans, published June 10 in the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, anti-Semitic attitudes have decreased in Germany during the last decade.

In the poll, some 20 percent of respondents said they would like having a Jewish neighbor, and 79 percent said they would not care. Only 1 percent said this situation would bother them, compared with 11 percent six years ago.

But when asked a more general question, older respondents revealed a darker side: Forty-four percent of those over age 60 felt that “Jews have too much influence in the world”; for those aged 18 to 29, only 16 percent agreed.

“We concluded that anti-Semitic attitudes in Germany are decreasing,” said Der Spiegel Editor Karen Andresen. “On the one hand, the direct question is a problem because many people don’t answer. But on the other hand, if you ask people to say what they think about others, it is also a problem.”

The study also showed that a quarter of Germans compare Israel’s actions in the Mideast to the Nazi genocide against the Jews.

The second survey, published Saturday in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, shows the opposite: an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes since 1999. In that survey, 1,001 eastern Germans and 1,050 western Germans were asked if they could “understand why some Germans find Jews unpleasant.”

The indirect question apparently revealed an increase in anti-Semitic views: 36 percent agreed with the statement “I can understand that some people find Jews unpleasant.” In 1999, only 20 percent agreed.

The differences apparently reflect the challenges in measuring taboo attitudes.

“If you ask the way we asked, indirectly, then they betray their own anti-Jewish feeling,” said Horst-Eberhard Richter, director of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt, who designed the Frankfurter Rundschau poll with Elmar Brahler, head of medical psychology at the University of Leipzig.

“Theirs is a ‘projection question,’ and I think that is a big problem,” said Werner Bergmann, a sociologist with the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism in Berlin, with whom Der Spiegel consulted.

“In psychology, one thinks naturally that people would rather speak about others than about themselves. But that does not necessarily mean that the statement applies to them,” Bergmann told JTA.

Despite the contradictions, the surveys show that drastic change is needed in the German educational system, said Richter, a 79-year-old pioneer in modern psychology.

The polls’ responses revealed that “people who graduated from high school have far less anti-Jewish leanings than those with poor education,” Richter told JTA.

“It is a dangerous situation,” he said, “because young people who don’t feel self-confident may resort to primitive processes of defense: looking for others to blame for their own lack of success. And Jewish people, or foreigners, are the others.”

Opinions differed as to why so many respondents found it understandable that people would have negative images of Jews.

People on the political left might guess that many Germans find Jews unpleasant because, they believe, Nazism is still pervasive.

“A lot of people distrust others and are not sure how much things have changed in Germany,” Andresen told JTA.

Richter, however, believes anti-Semitism has risen significantly. He attributed this in part to the public discussion first sparked when author Martin Walser said in a 1998 speech that Auschwitz was being used as a “moral cudgel” against Germany.

Bergmann said it is not surprising to see an increase in some anti-Semitic expression during times of crisis. In particular, he said, high emotions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads “latent anti-Semitism to become manifest.”

One manifestation is the Israel-Nazi comparison examined in the Der Spiegel poll.

While 25 percent of the general population agreed that Israel’s actions in the Mideast “are principally no different from what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich,” the numbers were higher among those aged 18 to 29. In fact, 35 percent of this population found the comparison apt.

Such comparisons commonly were made by those on the extreme left in Germany during the 1960s and 1970s. Today they are shared by both extremes of the German political spectrum.

But there is evidence outside of the poll that this sentiment is becoming mainstream. For example, last December, the publisher of Der Spiegel, Rudolf Augstein, compared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Hitler.

The Nazi comparison is “the dirtiest thing that goes on today in political life in Germany,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Yossi Levy told JTA.

“The politics of Israel and Palestine surely have an effect on anti-Semitism,” Richter said. “People don’t think that in Israel there are also people who are for a Palestinian state, and who do not agree with the politics of Sharon.”

But this does not necessarily mean that Germans sympathize with Arabs. In fact, the Frankfurter Rundschau poll showed a much greater dislike for Arabs than for Jews: 49 percent said they “could understand how some people might find Arabs unpleasant,” while 23 percent disagreed.

Other results of the Der Spiegel poll included:

Nearly 50 percent of respondents believe Germany still bears a special responsibility to Jews because of the Nazi genocide, up 16 percent from 11 years ago.

When asked whether Jews are at fault when they are hated, 39 percent of those older than 60 said yes. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, however, only 16 percent blamed Jews for anti-Semitism, while 78 considered the idea absurd.

When asked whether they felt they could express their “true opinions about Jews,” 71 percent said they did not feel confident. Eleven years ago, 64 percent expressed this concern.

The idea that Jews have unreasonable power is more popular among older Germans. Among those over 60, 44 percent agreed that “Jews have too much influence in the world.” For those aged 18 to 29, only 16 percent agreed. Thirty-three percent of those in western Germany agreed with the statement, as opposed to 17 percent of those living in the former East Germany.

The margin of error for both studies was about 3 percent.

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