The Research and Information Office on Anti-Semitism in Berlin published a survey documenting 947 incidents of anti-Semitic attacks, threats and vandalism in the city in 2017 — almost double the number from the previous year. Synagogues and other Jewish community facilities are under police protection. This is 2018, not 1933.
I have a personal stake in this issue. My paternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz on May 26, 1944. My mother spent months hiding in a Budapest attic, and was twice taken out to be shot by Hungarians collaborating with the Nazi occupiers. She survived both times. My late father survived two death marches.
Germany, to its credit, has made deliberate and determined efforts to confront its dark history. In many ways, it is a model for how countries can confront a past of hatred and atrocities. After the attack on the Israeli man last month, many Germans took to the streets to protest the violence, some wearing kippahs in solidarity with the victim. Though this was a moving expression of public sympathy, anti-Semitic violence continues.
The issue involves an ironic twist. Three years ago, in precise response to lessons learned from the Holocaust, Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to refugees fleeing contemporary evil and the brutality of Syria’s civil war and other conflicts. The decision doubtless sought to correct a historical wrong, which is highly commendable. Yet it rested on two profound weaknesses: a failure to sufficiently prepare the German public before the refugees’ arrival, and a failure to educate the refugees on the basic principles, values and norms of Western democracy.
Germans woke up one morning and realized their country had new occupants unacquainted with their values. The refugees arrived to physical safety, but in a place where their traditional ways are at odds with those of their new home. A study last December by the American Jewish Committee found “widespread” anti-Semitism among the 68 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Germany that the researchers interviewed. Merkel herself has been forced to admit that some of the new arrivals have brought “another form of anti-Semitism into the country.”
This is not an unbridgeable gulf, but the dangers are already apparent in the absence of straight talk, education and commitment to integration. Merkel’s decision, based on the most positive and sympathetic of intentions, has unfortunately had negative, unintended consequences for German society in general and German Jewry in particular.
Recent conversations with Germans suggest the government is lagging in its response to this surge in violence. This insufficient response is not due to governmental anti-Semitism. Quite the opposite: Merkel has condemned the violence. The government’s hesitancy reflects instead a reluctance to directly confront some of those who are responsible: members of the refugee community.
Just as today’s cause is, in part, a break from traditional far-right German anti-Semitism, the government’s vacillating response is a break from its willingness to confront that traditional anti-Semitism. The German government simply cannot be a bystander as Jews are attacked on the streets of German cities.
Learning from its own remarkable efforts to address the past, the German government must forcefully address the spike of anti-Semitism through intensive and immediate education programs. Such efforts should focus on refugee communities, incorporating dialogue with community and faith leaders.
The government should start by implementing programs to educate refugees about the values of liberal, democratic society, including tolerance and the essential balance between freedom of expression, individual liberty and security.
Next, refugees should receive education about both the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism in Germany. These refugees come from communities that have ignored or denied the Holocaust and need to understand what happened in order to grasp the particular danger of their actions. Visiting concentration camps and meeting with Holocaust survivors would significantly enhance understanding.
Finally, officials must meet directly with leaders in the refugee communities to “lay down the law” and explain the consequences for criminal behavior, which should include punishment and, when international and domestic law allows, deportation.
This is not the time for inaction due to political considerations and sensitivities. The government cannot rest on its good intentions in bringing those suffering to a place of safety. The failure to affirmatively, proactively and aggressively criticize, confront and counter anti-Semitism among the refugee communities amounts to standing by amid growing hatred and violence.
Bystander inaction facilitates perpetrator violence, and further endangers the victim. Just 15 men, leading Nazi bureaucrats, planned the murder of millions at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. But thousands of bystanders allowed and facilitated that plan, resulting in six million Jews murdered across Europe.
Bystanders cannot be allowed to look the other way. Germans, of all people, should know that.