Felix Klein, 50, is the German government’s new commissioner for anti-Semitism. He is the first person to hold the job, which was created by Germany’s Parliament this year amid concern over an apparent rise in incidents.
The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau chief, Griff Witte, sat down with Klein at his office in Berlin on Wednesday. The following are excerpts from their conversation:
Washington Post: What does it say about the state of anti-Semitism in Germany that your job is even necessary?
Felix Klein: We’ve seen anti-Semitic cases recently all over Germany. I’m happy that by creating this position, the German Parliament and the government officially acknowledges that anti-Semitism in Germany is a real problem and that we need to find structures to better combat it.
WP: In what sense have we seen this problem change or grow?
FK: Anti-Semitism has always existed in Germany, unfortunately. But anti-Semitism is manifesting itself more evidently and more aggressively, in comparison to earlier days. There is a change of quality, I would say.
WP: What evidence leads you to that conclusion?
FK: According to our police crime statistics, which only considers reported cases, the number [of anti-Semitic attacks] is at around 1,500. This is actually less than in the years before. But Jews who live in Germany tell me that they observed an increase in incidents. Of course, people don’t make this public, because of alarmism, but because they really feel it.
Unfortunately, we don’t have concrete figures yet about [noncriminal] incidents. For the time being, we have organizations that register anti-Semitic attacks but only in some German cities. But we don’t have a Germany-wide system yet. This is one of the first projects I intend to tackle — to institute a system for reporting anti-Semitic attacks below the threshold of official crimes.
WP: Could you tell me more about how anti-Semitic behavior is different now from what it was a few years ago, or 10 years ago?
FK: There are several developments. One, of course, is the great influx of refugees and people who came to Germany that were raised and educated in countries that are still in the state of war with Israel, or that have been brought up with certain perceptions of Jews in Israel that are totally unacceptable to a German society. So we’re facing an integration problem. Because, of course, these people do not leave that image of Jews in Israel when they enter Germany.
WP: Are we talking chiefly about people who have arrived here recently? Or is this a problem that applies to people who have come earlier?
FK: Well, also earlier, of course. We have Palestinians in Germany that have lived here for a long time, and we see that crimes and incidents are also committed at a high percentage by people from that group. I would not say that generally Arabs or Muslims are anti-Semitic. That’s not true. You can’t generalize it. But of course there’s a certain image of Jews that is not acceptable.
At the same time, we’ve had a development in the general political discussion in Germany that has steadily shifted red lines in an unacceptable direction. For instance, the way Germany should face its past was questioned by some politicians from the AfD, or Alternative for Germany. Discussions like these have contributed to a generally more aggressive political climate, at least with regard to the treatment of Jews.
WP: When it comes to those two different categories — the anti-Semitic incidents that are perpetrated by migrants or refugees, and the anti-Semitism that’s perpetrated by the far right — what is your sense of which one is more pervasive?
FK: I wouldn’t like to prioritize the kind of anti-Semitism to combat first. It is generally unacceptable. But what I think is particularly difficult, and absolutely unacceptable, is the way the extreme right is threatening and insulting Jews, also with historical prejudices and arguments. That’s particularly insulting to them. Whereas I think more aggression and physical attacks maybe generally fall more into the category of anti-Semitic attacks that are motivated by Muslims.
WP: Are there deficiencies in terms of how Germany integrates people that need to be corrected?
FK: Of course, the case we saw last week in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg [where a Syrian refugee is accused of shouting anti-Semitic slurs and whipping a Jewish man with a belt], points out the problem. ... We have to find better techniques or better programs. I want to talk to everybody. Not to radicals, of course, but to the decent and moderate Islamic representatives here in Germany. We need to find strategies to reach Muslims. I think that’s the most successful approach: to engage moderate Muslim voices and also religious communities as allies in that fight.
WP: Was Germany naive in terms of not recognizing just what a big challenge this was going to be?
FK: I don’t think it was naivete. It was a humanitarian gesture that at the time was welcomed by the vast majority of the German population. Now we see much more the consequences of that decision to open the borders. I agree that, to a certain extent, the cultural dimension that is linked with the influx was underestimated. Now we have to deal with it. On the other hand, we also, within the group of refugees, have many people who themselves suffered, or had disadvantages in their minority situation. Case by case, we have to examine the situation well, and, of course, we have to be active. The case last week in Prenzlauer Berg has shown that we need to be more active.
WP: When you saw that video, what did you think?
FK: It surprised me a bit that it happened in Prenzlauer Berg, of course. A well-situated neighborhood. But I wasn’t really surprised. It was clear that a case like this could happen anytime. But I also recall, and it’s important to say, that the last case of anti-Semitic aggression that was widely covered by the press originated in Friedenau. [It was committed] not by a foreigner but by a German who lived here for a long time.
WP: How would you compare the situation that Germany is dealing with the one that others in Europe are dealing with?
FK: Because of our National Socialist [Nazi] past, we have a very special duty to pay the utmost attention possible that things like this don’t happen.
WP: When it comes to dealing with far-right anti-Semitism, one challenge seems to be that the AfD is now in the Bundestag and these views that were normally considered so far outside of the mainstream that they were just not welcome in civil conversation, now they’re right there at the heart of German power again.
FK: With your question, you point out the problem. Of course, the AfD is not a Nazi party, and it’s not, as a whole, an anti-Semitic party. But the AfD allows some of its members to have anti-Semitic opinions that are publicly pronounced, and the AfD does not exercise the right pressure to make these people stop or even say sorry, or expel them from the party.
But you point out exactly the problem: that anti-Semitic opinions and bias against Jews is entering even mainstream society.
WP: Are you ultimately an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to how this is going to play out over the next several years?
FK: I’m basically an optimist. I think it is possible to win the battle against anti-Semitism, because I see also the great willingness of many actors in German society to do something about the problem, also to understand the problem as a problem of society as a whole and not as a Jewish problem that we can leave the Jews alone with.
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.