Solomon Michalski at home in Berlin.CreditCreditJoakim Eskildsen/Institute, for The New York Times
By James Angelos
One of Wenzel Michalski’s early recollections of growing up in southern Germany in the 1970s was of his father, Franz, giving him some advice: “Don’t tell anyone that you’re Jewish.” Franz and his mother and his little brother had survived the Holocaust by traveling across swaths of Eastern and Central Europe to hide from the Gestapo, and after the war, his experiences back in Germany suggested that, though the Nazis had been defeated, the anti-Semitism that was intrinsic to their ideology had not. This became clear to Franz when his teachers in Berlin cast stealthily malicious glances at him when Jewish characters — such as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” — came up in literature. “Eh, Michalski, this exactly pertains to you,” he recalls one teacher telling him through a clenched smile. Many years later, when he worked as an animal-feed trader in Hamburg, he didn’t tell friends that he was Jewish and held his tongue when he heard them make anti-Semitic comments. And so Franz told his son Wenzel that things would go easier for him if he remained quiet about being Jewish. “The moment you say it, things will become very awkward.”
As a teenager, Wenzel defied his father’s advice and told a close friend. That friend quickly told his mother, and the next time Wenzel saw her, she reacted quite strongly, hugging him and kissing his face: “Wenzel! Oh, my Wenzel!” Now a stocky, bearded 56-year-old, Wenzel recalled the moment to me on a recent Saturday afternoon. He raised the pitch of his voice as he continued to mimic her: “You people! You are the most intelligent! The most sensitive! You are the best pianists in the world! And the best poets!” In his normal voice again, he added, “Then I understood what my father meant.”
Wenzel Michalski is now the director of Human Rights Watch for Germany. He and his wife, Gemma, an outgoing British expat, live in a cavernous apartment building in the west of Berlin. In their kitchen, Gemma told me that after arriving in Germany in 1989, she often got a strangely defensive reaction when she told people she was Jewish; they would tell her they didn’t feel responsible for the Holocaust or would defend their grandparents as not having perpetrated it. And so, to avoid conversations like these, she, too, stayed quiet about being Jewish
Recently, the Michalskis’ youngest son became the third generation of the family to learn that telling people he is Jewish could cause problems. The boy — whose parents asked that he be called by one of his middle names, Solomon, to protect his privacy — had attended a Jewish primary school in Berlin. But he didn’t want to stay in such a homogeneous school for good, so just before he turned 14, he transferred to a public school that was representative of Germany’s new diversity — a place, as Gemma described it, where he “could have friends with names like Hassan and Ahmed.”
“I’m Jewish,” Solomon said.
“Everyone was shocked, especially the teachers,” Solomon later told me about this moment. After class, a teacher told Solomon that he was “very brave.” Solomon was perplexed. As Gemma explained: “He didn’t know that you’re not meant to tell anyone.”
The following day, Solomon brought brownies to school for his birthday. He was giving them out during lunch when the boy he had hoped would be his best friend informed him that there were a lot of Muslim students at the school who used the word “Jew” as an insult. Solomon wondered whether his friend included himself in this category, and so after school, he asked for clarification. The boy put his arm around Solomon’s shoulders and told him that, though he was a “real babo” — Kurdish slang for “boss” — they couldn’t be friends, because Jews and Muslims could not be friends. The classmate then rattled off a series of anti-Semitic comments, according to Solomon: that Jews were murderers, only interested in money.
Over the next few months, Solomon was bullied in an increasingly aggressive fashion. One day, he returned home with a large bruise from a punch on the back. On another occasion, Solomon was walking home and stopped into a bakery. When he emerged, he found one of his tormentors pointing what looked like a handgun at him. Solomon’s heart raced. The boy pulled the trigger. Click. The gun turned out to be a fake. But it gave Solomon the scare of his life.
When Solomon first told his parents about the bullying, they resolved to turn it into a teaching moment. They arranged to have Wenzel’s father visit the school to share his story about escaping the Gestapo. But the bullying worsened, Gemma told me, and they felt the school did not do nearly enough to confront the problem. The Michalskis went public with their story in 2017, sharing it with media outlets in order to spark what they viewed as a much-needed discussion about anti-Semitism in German schools. Since then, dozens of cases of anti-Semitic bullying in schools have come to light, including one case last year at the German-American school where my own son attends first grade, in which, according to local news reports, students tormented a ninth grader, for months, chanting things like “Off to Auschwitz in a freight train.” Under criticism for its handling of the case, the administration released a statement saying it regretted the school’s initial response but was taking action and having “intensive talks” with the educational staff.
The principal of Solomon’s school, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, also said his school had made a concerted effort to resolve the problem. When the reporter asked him if the bullying illustrated the “unreflective behavior of pubescent youths” or “rooted anti-Semitism,” the principal paused to say this was a “very dangerous” question but then answered: “It’s very possible that anti-Semitism is the motive. But we can’t look inside the heads of these students.” (When asked for comment, a representative for the Berlin Senate Department for Education, Youth and Families, which oversees Berlin’s public schools, said it had put into place anti-discrimination measures such as training courses and workshops for students and faculty.)
For the Michalskis, all this was evidence that German society never truly reckoned with anti-Semitism after the war. Germany had restored synagogues and built memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, Wenzel said: “So for a lot of mainstream, middle-class people, that means: ‘We’ve done it. We dealt with anti-Semitism.’ But nobody really dealt with it within the families. The big, the hard, the painful questions were never asked.” In Wenzel’s view, the Muslim students who tormented his child were acting in an environment that was already suffused with native anti-Semitism. “A lot of conservative politicians now say, ‘Oh, the Muslims are importing their anti-Semitism to our wonderful, anti-anti-Semitic culture,’ ” he said. “That’s bull. They’re trying to politicize this.”
Jewish life in Germany was never fully extinguished. After the Nazi genocide of six million Jews, some 20,000 Jewish displaced persons from Eastern Europe ended up settling permanently in West Germany, joining an unknown number of the roughly 15,000 surviving German Jews who still remained in the country after the war. The new German political class rejected, in speeches and in the law, the rabid anti-Semitism that had been foundational to Nazism — measures considered not only to be morally imperative but necessary to re-establish German legitimacy on the international stage. This change, however, did not necessarily reflect an immediate conversion in longstanding anti-Semitic attitudes on the ground. In the decades that followed, a desire among many Germans to deflect or repress guilt for the Holocaust led to a new form of antipathy toward Jews — a phenomenon that came to be known as “secondary anti-Semitism,” in which Germans resent Jews for reminding them of their guilt, reversing the victim and perpetrator roles. “It seems the Germans will never forgive us Auschwitz,” Hilde Walter, a German-Jewish journalist, was quoted as saying in 1968.
Holocaust commemoration in West Germany increasingly became an affair of the state and civic groups, giving rise to a prevailingerinnerungskultur, or “culture of remembrance,” that today is most prominently illustrated by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a funereal 4.7-acre site near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, inaugurated in 2005. But even as Germany’s remembrance culture has been held up as an international model of how to confront the horrors of the past, it has not been universally supported at home. According to a 2015 Anti-Defamation League survey, 51 percent of Germans believe that it is “probably true” that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust”; 30 percent agreed with the statement “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.”
The reactionary, far-right Alternative for Germany, or A.f.D., entered the German Parliament for the first time in 2017 — becoming the third-largest party — with an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform, while politicians in the party also railed against Germany’s remembrance culture. A.f.D. politicians have often relativized Nazi crimes to counteract what some of them call a national “guilt cult.” In a speech last June, one of the party’s leaders, Alexander Gauland, referred to the Nazi period as “only a bird poop in over 1,000 years of successful German history.”
Now some 200,000 Jews live in Germany, a nation of 82 million people, and many are increasingly fearful. In a 2018 European Union survey of European Jews, 85 percent of respondents in Germany characterized anti-Semitism as a “very big” or “fairly big” problem; 89 percent said the problem has become worse in the last five years. Overall reported anti-Semitic crimes in Germany increased by nearly 20 percent last year to 1,799, while violent anti-Semitic crimes rose by about 86 percent, to 69. Police statistics attribute 89 percent of all anti-Semitic crimes to right-wing extremists, but Jewish community leaders dispute that statistic, and many German Jews perceive the nature of the threat to be far more varied. Slightly more than half of Germany’s Jewish respondents to the E.U. survey said they have directly experienced anti-Semitic harassment within the last five years, and of those, the plurality, 41 percent, perceived the perpetrator of the most serious incident to be “someone with a Muslim extremist view.”
The exact nature of the anti-Semitic threat — and indeed, whether it rises to the level of an existential threat at all — is intensely debated within Germany’s Jewish community. Many see the greatest peril as coming from an emboldened extreme right that is hostile to both Muslims and Jews, as the recent shootings by white supremacists in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., and mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, horrifically illustrated. Multiple surveys suggest that anti-Muslim attitudes in Germany and other European countries are more widespread than anti-Semitism. At the same time, a number of surveys show that Muslims in Germany and other European countries are more likely to hold anti-Semitic views than the overall population. The 2015 Anti-Defamation League survey, for instance, found that 56 percent of Muslims in Germany harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, compared with 16 percent for the overall population. Conservative Jews see the political left as unwilling to name this problem out of reluctance to further marginalize an already marginalized group or because of leftist anti-Zionism. The far right, anti-Islam A.f.D. — the very political party that, for its relativizing of Nazi crimes, many Jews find most noxious — has sought to exploit these divisions and now portrays itself as a defender of Germany’s Jews against what it depicts as the Muslim threat.
An incident that garnered considerable attention and highlights some of the complexities of this new dynamic occurred on a Berlin street in April 2018, when a 19-year-old Syrian of Palestinian descent took off his belt and flogged a young Israeli man named Adam Armoush, who was wearing a yarmulke. The attacker yelled “Yehudi!” — Arabic for “Jew.” Armoush recorded the attack with his phone for “the world to see how terrible it is these days as a Jew to go through Berlin streets,” as he later put it in a television interview. Schuster advised Jews in cities against openly wearing yarmulkes outside. Almost lost in the uproar was Armoush’s bizarre admission that he was not Jewish but rather an Israeli Arab. He said he received the yarmulke from a friend along with a caveat that it was not safe to wear outside. Armoush said he initially debated this. “I was saying that it’s really safe,” he said. “I wanted to prove it. But it ended like that.”
Many Muslims criticize the notion of “Muslim anti-Semitism” as wrongly suggesting that hatred of Jews is intrinsic to their faith. Muhammad Sameer Murtaza, a German scholar of Islam who has written extensively on anti-Semitism, argues that European anti-Semitism was exported to the Middle East in the 19th century and was only “Islamized” starting in the late 1930s, a process later catalyzed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anti-Semitism is indeed a mainly European invention with a proven capacity to mutate. Often intertwined with economic and social resentments, demonization of Jews was long part of Christian tradition, and, with the growth of European nationalism in the 19th century, it took on delusive notions of race. Now as a worldwide resurgence of racist tribalism fuels a rebellion against the liberal democratic order, Germany’s renewed confrontation with anti-Semitism will say much not just about the fate of its unnerved Jewish communities but also about the endurance of any nation’s capacity to build a tolerant, pluralistic society resistant to the temptations of ethnonationalism.
The early signs are mixed. Sigmount Königsberg is the anti-Semitism commissioner for Berlin’s Jewish Community, the organization that oversees synagogues and other aspects of local Jewish life. At a cafe next to the domed New Synagogue, which was spared destruction during the pogroms of November 1938, Königsberg, an affable 58-year-old, told me his mother had been liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and had intended to move to Paris. Instead, she became stranded in the German border town of Saarbrücken, and she soon met Königsberg’s father, also a Holocaust survivor. Like other Jewish families, they were ambivalent about remaining in Germany. Königsberg employed an often-used metaphor to describe this unsettledness: Until the 1980s, he said, German Jews “sat on a packed suitcase.” After East and West Germany reunified, many Jews feared a nationalist revival. Despite a wave of racist attacks on immigrants, that revival did not seem to materialize. In fact, the European Union, which was created to temper those impulses, was ascendant. Jews felt more secure, Königsberg told me: “We unpacked the suitcase and stored it in the cellar.”
Now, he believed, that sense of security has eroded. People aren’t heading for the exits yet, he said, but they are starting to think, Where did I put that suitcase?
On a cool, overcast day in late 2017, Yorai Feinberg, an Israeli citizen, then 36, was standing in front of the Israeli restaurant he owns in central Berlin, bundled up in a down coat and smoking a cigarette, when a middle-aged German man stopped on the sidewalk and declared, “You people are crazy.”
“Why?” Feinberg asked, as a friend filmed the encounter on a mobile phone.
“Very simple,” said the man. “Because you’ve warred against the Palestinians for 70 years.”
“Oh, so this is a left-wing story,” Feinberg said.
“I’m not a leftist,” the man said, leaning in toward Feinberg. “You’re leading a war. And you want to install yourselves here.” The man became increasingly belligerent. “Get out of here!” he went on. “This is my homeland. And you have no homeland.”
Feinberg asked him to back off.
“You’ll get your reckoning in 10 years. In 10 years you won’t be living,” the man said. He then added: “What do you want here after ’45?”
It seemed like a rhetorical question, but Feinberg, taking a drag of his cigarette, ventured an answer. “With so many people like you, that’s a very good question.”
Feinberg spotted a passing police car and ran to get help. “No one will protect you,” the man taunted. Then, looking directly at the camera as if addressing Jews everywhere, he added: “All of you go back to your stupid gas chambers. Nobody wants you.” The man had no known connections to any extremist groups, Feinberg later told me. People had considered him to be a regular guy.
A video of the affair went viral on social media. “This heinous attack demonstrates once again that anti-Semitism has arrived in the middle of society and is now articulated openly and bluntly,” Schuster said. In December, a year after the incident, the Anti-Semitism Research and Information Center, or RIAS, a German organization that has been documenting anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin since it was founded in 2015, chose Feinberg’s restaurant to announce an initiative to more actively gather information from other parts of the country.
On the day of the event, Feinberg sat underneath a series of paintings of the Star of David before a score of reporters. “It has not been the easiest year of my life,” he said. Since the incident, he had received a torrent of anti-Semitic messages. One person using the name Greta texted him a poem called “Emancipation,” written in the 19th century by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who also wrote the words used today in the German national anthem. Addressed “To Israel,” the lesser-known work reads, “You rob from underneath our feet, our German fatherland.” On Facebook, someone named Mahmoud commented, “The reckoning will come, just like the German in the video said.”
After Feinberg spoke, the head of RIAS, Benjamin Steinitz, said that the organization had documented well over 3,000 anti-Semitic incidents since it was founded. One reporter asked Steinitz who was perpetrating the physical attacks: “Are they totally normal citizens? Or are they right- wing extremists?” Steinitz said that from descriptions provided by victims, there appeared to be a difference between big cities and rural areas. In metropolises, perpetrators often came from an “Islamist milieu or a milieu that is based on a left-wing, anti-Israel ideology.” In rural areas and small cities, he added, “it is clearly different.”
A RIAS report released in April illustrated the complexity of the problem. When researchers looked at all reported anti-Semitic incidents — including threats, harassment and targeted vandalism — in Berlin in 2018, they were unable to determine the ideological motivation in nearly half the cases. They could attribute 18 percent of the incidents to right-wing extremists, making it the largest known group, but with such a large proportion of missing information, the numbers were hardly conclusive about which views predominated. The political motivations of violent attackers were even harder to parse. Of 46 reported anti-Semitic attacks in Berlin in 2018, RIAS could identify the ideological motivation of the perpetrators in just 19 cases. Five attacks were carried out by people espousing a “left-wing anti-imperialist” view; five attacks were classified as “conspiracy-ideological” in nature; four were classified as “Israel-hostile”; two as “Islamist”; two others as “right-wing extremist”; one attack was attributed to a “political middle” worldview.
After the event, as guests nibbled on falafel and hummus, Felix Klein took a seat at a corner table. A 51-year-old career diplomat in rimless glasses, Klein is Germany’s first federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism, a lengthy job title for a position that was created just last year. He told me at the event that a feeling of urgency to create the position set in after pro-Palestinian protesters, angered over President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, burned Israeli flags at demonstrations in Berlin in December 2017. The incidents embarrassed the German government and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, early in her tenure, declared Israel’s security to be a German staatsräson, or “reason of state.”
Klein listed several things the German government should be doing at the federal and state levels to fight anti-Semitism; chief among them was training teachers and the police simply to recognize it. He also said school books should include more lessons about Jewish contributions to Germany. “We only started to talk about Jews when the Nazi period came up in our history lesson,” he said. “We didn’t speak about Jewish life before that, and we didn’t speak about Jewish life after.”
The rise of anti-Semitic acts, Klein told me, was not just a matter of rising hate but a rising willingness to express it. This was because of social media, he said, as well as the A.f.D. and its “brutalization” of the political discourse. There are also the challenges that are caused by anti-Semitism from Muslims, he said, though, he added, according to criminal statistics, this was not the main problem.
Klein was citing the federal statistic that attributed a vast majority of anti-Semitic crimes in Germany to right-wing extremists, the one that many Jewish community leaders disputed. I asked Klein if he thought the statistic was reliable. He acknowledged that, in fact, the methodology was flawed: When it was unclear who the perpetrators were, they were automatically classified as right-wing extremists. “I’ve already started the discussion within the government to change that,” he said.
He added that the existing statistics should not be used as a pretext “to avoid a discussion regarding anti-Semitism from Muslims.” I asked him if there was any fear that such a conversation would raise tensions between minority groups instead of protecting them. “I think there is a fear,” he said. “This is why I think the right strategy is to denounce any form of anti-Semitism, regardless of the numbers. I don’t want to start a discussion about which one is more problematic or more dangerous than the other.”
He leaned in to underscore this point. “You should not start this discussion, because then you start using one political group against the other. We should not do that.”
German anti-Semites are clearly drawn to the A.f.D. One 2018 survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute, a respected polling organization, found that 55 percent of A.f.D. supporters believe that Jews have “too much influence on the world,” far more than the 22 percent average for the overall population. The A.f.D. does not, however, agitate directly against Jews like the far-right parties of old. Its politicians traffic in more insidious forms of secondary anti-Semitism. In a 2017 speech in Dresden, Björn Höcke, the head of the party in the eastern German state of Thuringia, lamented the existence of the Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate — a “monument of shame,” as he referred to it — and called for a “180 degree turn” in Germany’s “politics of memory.” To deny the Holocaust is illegal in Germany, a country with legal restrictions on hate speech. But to suggest that it be forgotten is a circuitous way of reaching the same end.
Yet since the A.f.D.’s entry into Parliament in 2017, its politicians have increasingly presented the party as steadfastly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel. After the attack on the Israeli wearing a yarmulke in Berlin, Jörg Meuthen, a leading A.f.D. politician, tweeted that Germany had become a “world champion of importing Muslim anti-Semitism.” Recently, an A.f.D. parliamentarian, Beatrix von Storch, accused Germany’s United Nations ambassador of “relativizing” and “trivializing” the threat Israel faces from Hamas. The A.f.D. is not alone in the effort. In France, the far-right National Front — recently renamed National Rally — was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of Holocaust denial. It now portrays itself as the protector of Jews fearful of Muslim immigration. In 2014, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter and successor as party leader, called National Front the “best shield” to protect Jews against “the one true enemy, Islamic fundamentalism.”
On a Sunday afternoon last October, J.A.f.D. held its inaugural event in a gymnasium on the outskirts of the Hessian city of Wiesbaden. A J.A.f.D. supporter in the crowd of attendees, who wore a yarmulke and a Star of David necklace that dangled outside his shirt next to an A.f.D. pin, told me, in a strong Russian accent, that he had emigrated from Moscow in the early 1990s. As reporters gathered around him, he rattled off a series of claims often recited at far-right political gatherings: Muslim immigrants come from an “absolutely alien” culture. They would “bring Shariah law” and “rape” to Germany. When a reporter from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung tried to get his name, the man refused to give it. He didn’t trust the lügenpresse — “the lying press” — he said, using a phrase that, long preceding “fake news,” had been deployed by propagandists in Nazi Germany to spread conspiracy theories about newspapers controlled by “world Jewry.”
Another reporter approached the anonymous J.A.f.D. supporter and said he was from RT, the Russian state-backed news network. “RT I trust!” said the supporter happily as he broke off to chat with the reporter in Russian. It was not surprising to see RT interested in the story; it makes a special effort to show and to sow social division in the West as part of the Russian government’s influence campaign. But there was also a more specific Russian angle. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany admitted, along with a few million ethnic German “resettlers” from the former Soviet Union, some 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews and their family members. The vast majority of Germany’s Jewish population today has roots in the former Soviet Union. The A.f.D. has tried to win the support of immigrants from former Soviet states — who in Germany have tended to vote conservative — believing them more likely to be receptive to the party’s politics, including support for closer ties to the Russian government. Indeed, in some voting areas with large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the A.f.D. has performed disproportionately well. Several members of J.A.f.D. had roots in the former Soviet Union; the chairwoman is a doctor born in Uzbekistan.
J.A.f.D. board members took their seats in a row on a stage as party politicians and functionaries applauded. Before the event, there was much discussion about the Jewish credentials of one J.A.f.D. member not on the stage who had identified himself on Facebook as a “follower of Jesus Christ.” A reporter asked how the group defined Jewishness. One J.A.f.D. board member, a goateed student of German literature named Artur Abramovych, interjected with a reflection that neatly inverted the historical suffering of European Jewry along the axis of ethnonationalism. Abramovych defined Jews as an “ethno-cultural community.” In contemporary Germany and Europe, he went on, “the appreciation for the importance of ethno-cultural community had mostly been lost.” Rightist parties, however, wanted to revive this sense of community, and Jews, he suggested, intrinsically understand this because of their own sense of tribal belonging. “This is the reason that there’s a certain affinity of Jewry to the right-wing parties of Europe.”
Another reporter asked the board members how they viewed the call for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s politics of memory. “We are not excited about such statements,” responded Bernhard Krauskopf, a retired mechanical engineer who, earlier in the day, said more than 50 members of his family had been murdered in Nazi death camps. He went on to criticize the Social Democratic Party for its “180-degree turn in practice against Jewish Israelis,” for failing to support Israel. The next affront, he added, was the “180-degree turn against Jewish Germans” by the political establishment. “They say, ‘We are so against anti-Semitism,’ ” Krauskopf said, modulating his voice to connote spurious compassion. “And then,” he added in his own ardent cadence, “they import a population group that consists of at least — at least! — 60 percent inveterate Jew haters!”
It was unclear whether this messaging would gain much traction with Jews in Germany beyond the confines of the gymnasium. Josef Schuster, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told me the number of Jewish A.f.D. supporters is “very small.” But experience in France suggests a modest level of support would not be far-fetched. In 2012, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen was backed by 13.5 percent of Jewish voters, according to the French polling company IFOP, as reported by France 24. Even so, at stake for these parties is not the relatively small number of Jewish votes but rather an appearance of legitimacy and ideological distance from past fascist movements. The J.A.f.D. allows the A.f.D. to reject as absurd accusations that they are Nazis or traffic in Nazi ideology. During the J.A.f.D. event, a series of non-Jewish A.f.D. politicians addressed attendees, and one of them, a member of Parliament named Petr Bystron, professed delight: “I’m looking forward to the wondrous leaps that will be required to depict you, the Jews in the A.f.D., as Nazis.”
One Monday morning last year, a 39-year-old local congregant named Shlomit Tripp welcomed a class of fourth graders to the synagogue. Tripp, who wore a tie-dyed headband and carried with her a redheaded puppet she calls Shlomo, runs a Jewish puppet theater. She sometimes gives presentations about Judaism to non-Jewish schoolchildren at the synagogue in order “to open our doors,” she told me, “and to show that we are not a mysterious club you can come up with conspiracy theories about.” Such openness is all the more important because Fraenkelufer Synagogue, like others around Germany, resembles something of a fortress: with an iron fence, security cameras, bulletproof glass covering the stained-glass windows and an incessant police presence on the street in front. Synagogues in Germany have been under police protection since around 1969, when Marxist militants tried to bomb a Jewish community center in West Berlin. The following year, a still-unsolved arson attack on a home for Jewish seniors in Munich left seven people dead. Congregants told me they understand the need for the precautions but also lamented the impossibility of natural exchanges with the outside community.
The children put on yarmulkes available for guests and sat in benches facing the ark. Tripp began with a question:
“Where do Jews actually come from?”
“Israel?” one child said.
“Canaan?” another said.
“Where do you think I come from?” Tripp said.
There was a moment of silence before one girl volunteered: “Germany?”
“Correct!” Tripp said. “I was born here in Berlin. Like a lot of you.”
She then showed the children a blue-striped learner’s tallit, a prayer shawl, and, draping it around her shoulders, imitated a man proudly strutting into the sanctuary on the Sabbath. “I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew,” she said in a deep voice, eliciting giggles from the children. She tucked herself into the tallit, wrapping it around her head to show how it’s used in deep prayer. “It’s a bit like a meditation,” she said. “So you can feel really close to God.” The children then came up one at a time and Tripp advised them to think of something “really, really nice” as she folded the tallit over each child for a silent moment. Tripp later told me that, during this part of the talk, she imagines a bell — “ding!” — signifying one less anti-Semite for each child that passes.
After the children left, Tripp told me she has never experienced anti-Semitism from the visiting kids or from her Muslim neighbors and considered fears of Muslim anti-Semitism to be exaggerated. “I don’t want to be naïve,” she added. “Sure there’s a problem. But it’s not like you have to pack your bags and move to Israel.”
Among the newcomers to the synagogue are Nina and Dekel Peretz. Dekel, a full-bearded historian and tour guide who arrived in Berlin in 2002 after serving in the Israeli military, told me that his mother was “totally shocked” about the move. “I grew up in this ‘You don’t go to Germany’ mind-set,’ ” he said. To illustrate this, he told me a story about a childhood family road trip through Europe that involved crossing German territory. The family intended to traverse the country without stopping, but somewhere in the Black Forest, young Dekel had to pee. On the side of the road, he got a stinging nettle rash. He deemed this karmic punishment for stopping. His wife Nina’s family, it turns out, is from the Black Forest. “I didn’t know any Jews or anything about Judaism, except the stuff you read in history class,” she told me. After meeting Dekel, she converted to Judaism and now sits on the synagogue’s board. At the time we first sat down to talk, she was eight months pregnant with their first child.
Dekel pointed out that Israelis who live in Germany are often criticized by Israeli right-wing politicians who, as he put it, find fault with Israelis who choose the “easy diasporic life” over the “building up of a strong Jewish state.” At the same time, Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have urged European Jews to escape the threat of growing anti-Semitism in Europe by coming “home” to Israel. In January, Netanyahu emphasized the threat to European Jews posed by “the combination of Islamic anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the extreme left,” even as Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry warned that, in 2018, it was the far-right threat that had become the most perilous to Jews in the United States and Europe.
Dekel told me that he envisioned Fraenkelufer Synagogue as a kind of sanctuary from many of these ideas: a community that isn’t defined by fear of anti-Semitism or an orientation toward Israel, but by a local brand of German Judaism. “The question is, What do we want to create for our children?” Dekel said. “We are not sitting on a packed suitcase. We are here to stay.”
In July, Nina gave birth to a girl, Ronja Sarah. On a Shabbat morning a few weeks later, the couple brought her to the synagogue for a baby-naming ceremony. Afterward, the congregation gathered at tables for the Kiddush, a post-service reception. People drank wine and vodka and ate dishes of herring and salmon. The mood was jovial. Nina’s father held the baby as Dekel stood to say a few words about his grandmother Sarah, who inspired the baby’s middle name. Sarah had survived a labor camp in Romania and eventually settled in Tel Aviv with Dekel’s grandfather, a Moroccan Jew. Sarah stuck to her Ashkenazi ways, Dekel told the congregation. She watched German television shows and cooked borscht. After Dekel moved to Berlin, he said, she was the first in the family to accept it. “She liked being able to speak German with me,” Dekel said. “And I think she would have been happy to know that a little girl named Sarah was born in Berlin.”
One evening last summer, three generations of the Michalski family — Wenzel and Gemma, Wenzel’s father, Franz, and his mother, Petra, as well as Solomon’s siblings — sat in a row at an English-language theater in Berlin to watch Solomon, now 16 and enrolled in a new private school, perform in a play inspired by his experience with anti-Semitic bullying.
The play began with a scene in a classroom where an assignment was written on the board: “Tribalism Divides Communities — Elucidate.” The teenagers portrayed two tribes, the Whoozis and the Whatzits, who, because of ancient rivalries, fight. Eventually, everyone falls to the floor and perishes in a final battle. But then everyone slowly rises.
“So that’s it?” one tribe member said. “Everyone dies in the end?”
“That sucks,” another said.
“Yes, but it’s realistic,” another said.
Solomon had the last line.
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not leaving until we get this right.”
After the play, Gemma told me that she didn’t hold grudges against the kids who bullied her son. “I didn’t give up on those kids,” she said. “The school gave up on those kids.” The attitude from many of the teachers, she said, was: “You can’t talk to them; they’re just Muslims.” This revealed a troubling unwillingness to stand up for, as she put it, “life in a liberal, tolerant democracy for everyone, beyond racism.”
I asked Solomon if he had thought much about anti-Semitism before the bullying episodes. He told me about a trip he took with his grandparents just before the bullying began. They visited the places in Poland, the Czech Republic and eastern Germany where his grandfather had hidden from the Gestapo. “That really opened my mind,” he told me. “I knew about my grandpa’s experiences, but I just, you know, felt really proud to be Jewish after that trip. Then after this whole thing happened, it makes me even more proud to be Jewish. I wouldn’t say I feel more religious. But it’s just the identity, the ethnic background of being Jewish and walking in Berlin as a Jewish boy.” His mother later told me that she found it sad that her son had formed a stronger sense of tribal identity based on the experience of mistreatment. She had not wanted him to forge his identity in fear. “I wanted him to be free,” she said.
Solomon told me that he was happy at his new school. He had made new friends of diverse backgrounds, and they had formed a band called the Minorities. Still, he added, he did not feel free to express his newfound Jewish identity in public. He had wanted to wear a Star of David necklace, he told me, but he and his parents had decided that this was not a good idea. The necklace could be exposed if someone were to pull his shirt back. “The thing is,” he said, “it’s still really dangerous. I mean, it’s not like, ‘O.K., everything is fine now.’ ”