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Jews in fear as German support for Israel is challenged on streets

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BERLIN: Chancellor Olaf Scholz says he’s “ashamed and outraged” at recent antisemitic attacks in Germany. He was speaking at an event to mark the anniversary of the November pogroms of 1938, sometimes known as “Kristallnacht.”

Berlin’s staunch diplomatic support for Israel is often described as a matter of historic responsibility.

But, as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas, social discord is emerging in Germany.

A woman named Noa at a Berlin synagogue told the BBC how she has family who survived the Holocaust by hiding in Poland. Some Jewish people in today’s Germany, she says, are now hiding their identity.

“It’s scary. Why should I live and be afraid of who I am?”

Aaron doesn’t feel comfortable showing items traditionally worn by Jewish men in public, either his kippah or his tzitzit, the tassels of his prayer shawl. Having fled the war in Ukraine, he believes Berlin is unsafe because “a lot of people support terrorist organisations”.

Fears about a rise in antisemitism, since the outbreak of hostilities between Hamas and Israel, are widespread across Europe.

For Germany, incidents such as two petrol bombs being thrown towards a Berlin synagogue in October spark acute anxiety due to the nation’s Nazi past.

Cases of antisemitism were, according to preliminary police figures, already on the rise this year before the Hamas attacks – the majority committed by the far right.

Cases of antisemitism were already on the rise before the Hamas attacks

Since 7 October, senior politicians have urged people, particularly from parts of the political left and Muslim backgrounds, to distance themselves from the actions of Hamas.

Israel’s security is a fundamental cornerstone of German foreign policy with the former chancellor, Angela Merkel, declaring it to be a Staatsräson – reason of state – in 2008. On a recent visit to Israel, Olaf Scholz said: “In such difficult times there is only one place we can be: at Israel’s side.”

But Germany’s state doctrine is being visibly challenged on the streets of cities like Berlin.

“Your staatsräson sucks!” read one placard at a recent pro-Palestinian demonstration.

This march was permitted to take place whereas many have been banned.

Nadim Jarrar, who attended the 9,000-strong demo, tells me he’s frustrated by the “one-sided” narrative. Half-German, half-Palestinian – he thinks Germany must be more prepared to talk about the actions of Israel.

“It’s a healthy process for every nation to get criticised and to have a discussion about what’s going on.” Any German discomfort with that debate, he believes, cannot lead to shutting it down.

NADIM JARAR | It’s a healthy process for every nation to get criticised.

Sami, who has family in the West Bank and lives in Stuttgart, says people must be able “to show we are in pain about what’s happening in Gaza”. “What’s been done to the Palestinians since 1948… We’ve all seen the videos of what they’re doing to our children.”

In a widely viewed video message, Germany’s vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, said that criticism of Israel is “of course allowed” but its right to exist must not be “relativised”.

“Israel’s security is our obligation,” he said.

Some demonstrations have led to violent clashes between police and protesters. The authorities are investigating reports that black and white banners, which are used by jihadist groups and feature the Islamic statement of faith, were flown at a march in the city of Essen.

There was outrage when one group, subsequently disbanded by government, appeared to be celebrating the Hamas atrocities of 7 October on the streets of Berlin.

Felix Klein, the government’s Commissioner for Jewish life in Germany, says it has become apparent that there is a big problem in Germany’s integration policy.

“It is problematic when it turns into antisemitic and anti-Israel hate where people shout ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free’ – which would deny Israel’s right to exist.”

PALESTINIAN CROWDS | In Germany, there are growing demonstrations in support of Palestinians

However, there has been criticism that the messages coming from the government have veered towards stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.

Debate about the German government’s foreign and domestic positioning is likely to persist for as long as the conflict between Israel and Hamas lasts. “Every time there’s a war in Israel,” says Noa, “it just hits us again and again that we are not a full part of the society”.

“We will always be different. We will always be the ones that are not fully German.”

There is real anguish in Germany, rooted in its past, that Jewish people don’t feel safe. But there is also an anger, bubbling in some communities, about a perceived reluctance by the political classes to break a German taboo and criticise Israel. ‑BBC

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