Israel-Hamas war cuts deep into Germany’s soul – POLITICO

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It’s as if one front in the Israel-Hamas war is playing out on the streets of Berlin.

The main battleground has been an avenue lined with chicken and kebab restaurants in Neukölln, a neighborhood in the south-east of the city that’s home to many Middle Eastern immigrants. Some pro-Palestinian activists have called for demonstrators to turn out almost nightly, and, as one post put it, turn the area “into Gaza.”

On October 18, hundreds of people, many of them teenagers, answered the call.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” chanted many in the crowd as a phalanx of riot police closed in on them. Berlin public prosecutors say the slogan is a call for the erasure of Israel, and have moved to make its utterance a criminal offense.

While similar scenes have played out across much of the world, for Germany’s leaders, they are profoundly embarrassing and strike at the heart of the nation’s identity, on account of the country’s Nazi past. 

Germany’s “history and our responsibility arising from the Holocaust make it our duty to stand up for the existence and security of the State of Israel,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said during a visit to Israel on October 17 intended to illustrate Germany’s solidarity.

The difficulty for Scholz is that far from everyone in Germany sees it his way.

German leaders across the political spectrum expressed outrage when, after the Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on Israeli civilians, dozens of people assembled in Neukölln to celebrate. One 23-year-old man, a Palestinian flag draped over his shoulders, handed out sweets.

A community on edge

Since then, tensions in Berlin and in other German cities have rapidly escalated. A surge in antisemitic incidents has left many in the country’s Jewish community on edge and German police have stepped up security at cultural institutions and houses of worship.

At the same time, German police have moved to ban many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, saying there is a high risk of “incitement to hatred” and a threat to public safety. Demonstrators have come out anyway, leading to violent clashes with police.

Some in Germany, particularly on the political left, have questioned whether the bans on pro-Palestinian protests are an overreach of the state, arguing that they stifle legitimate concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza stemming from Israel’s retaliatory strikes.

But Berlin authorities say, based on past experience, the likelihood of antisemitic rhetoric — even violence — at prohibited pro-Palestinian demonstrations is too high.

Protesters demanding a peaceful resolution to the current conflict in Israel and Gaza demonstrate under the slogan “Not in my name!” in Berlin | Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Many on the far-left have joined those protests that do take place.

On Wednesday night, around the same time demonstrators assembled in Neukölln, a group of a few hundred leftist activists showed up at a planned vigil for peace outside the foreign ministry.

“Free Palestine from German guilt,” they chanted in English. Germany, the argument went, should get over its Holocaust history, at least when it comes to support for Israel. The irony is that there is much sympathy for this view on the far right.

One recent poll showed that 78 percent of supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany disagreed with the idea that the country has a “special obligation towards Israel.” Extreme-right politicians have also called on Germany to get over its “cult of guilt.”

For many in the country’s Jewish community — which in recent years has grown to an estimated 200,000 people, including many Israelis — the conflagration in the Middle East has made fear part of daily life.

Molotov cocktails

In the pre-dawn hours on Wednesday, two people wearing masks threw Molotov cocktails at a Berlin Jewish community hub that houses a synagogue. The incendiary devices hit the sidewalk, and no one was hurt. But the attack stoked profound alarm.

“Hamas’ ideology of extermination against everything Jewish is also having an effect in Germany,” said the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the country’s largest umbrella Jewish organization.

Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, several homes in Berlin where Jews are thought to live have been marked with the Star of David.

“My first thought was: ‘It’s like the Nazi time,’” said Sigmount Königsberg, the antisemitism commissioner for Berlin’s Jewish Community, an organization that oversees local synagogues and other parts of Jewish life in the city. “Many Jews are hiding their Jewishness,” he added — in other words, concealing skullcaps or religious insignia out of fear of being attacked.

It remains unclear who perpetrated the firebombing attack and Star of David graffiti. But historical data shows a clear correlation between upsurges in Middle East violence and increased antisemitic incidents in Europe, according to academic researchers.

In the eight days following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, there were 202 antisemitic incidents connected to the war, mostly motivated by “anti-Israel activism,” according to data compiled by the Anti-Semitism Research and Information Center. 

Fears within the Jewish community were particularly prevalent after a former Hamas leader called for worldwide demonstrations in a “day of rage.” Many students at a Jewish school in Berlin stayed home. Two teachers wrote a letter to Berlin’s mayor to express their dismay that, as they put it, the school was nearly empty.

A pro-Palestinian demonstrator displays a placard during a protest against the bombing in Gaza outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on October 18, 2023 | John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images

“This means de facto that Jew-haters have usurped the decision-making authority over Jewish life in Berlin,” they wrote. The teachers then blamed Germany’s willingness to take in refugees from war-torn places like Syria and Lebanon. “Germany has taken in and continues to take in hundreds of thousands of people whose socialization includes antisemitism and hatred of Israel,” they wrote.

Day of rage

Surveys show that Muslims in Germany are more likely to hold antisemitic views than the general population. Politicians often refer this phenomenon as “imported antisemitism,” brought into the country through immigration from Muslim-majority nations.

At the same time, it was a far-right attacker who perpetrated some of the worst antisemitic violence in Germany’s recent history. That came in 2019, when a gunmen tried to massacre 51 people celebrating Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, in a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle. Two people were killed.

German neo-Nazis have praised Hamas’s October 7 attacks in Israel. One group calling itself the “Young Nationalists” posted a picture of a bloodstained Star of David on social media next to the slogan “Israel murders and the world watches.” 

During the Neukölln demonstration, officers arrested individual protestors one by one, picking them out from the crowd and dragging them off by force.

The atmosphere grew increasingly tense. Demonstrators lobbed fireworks and bottles at the police. Dumpsters and tires were set alight. By the end of the night, police made 174 arrests, including 29 minors. Police said 65 officers were injured in the clashes.

At one point amid the chaos, a 15-year-old girl with a Palestinian keffiyeh — a black and white scarf — wrapped around most of her face emerged amid the smoke and explosions to pose for a selfie in front of a row of riot police.

She said she was there to demonstrate for “peace.” When asked how peace would be achieved, she replied: “When the Israeli side pisses off our land, there will be peace. Won’t there?”

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