ANTI-SEMITISM AT GERMAN SCHOOLS
Insults Against Jews on the Rise
By Björn Hengst and Jan Friedmann
Right-wing adolescents and young Muslims are displaying levels of
anti-Semitism that were long considered unthinkable in Germany. At
many German schools, the word "Jew" is becoming an insult again.
German politicians don't seem to know how to respond.
The janitor at Berlin's Jean-Piaget high school in the Hellersdorf
neighborhood paints over swastikas scrawled on the walls in May, 2006.
The Jewish High School in Berlin's central Mitte district resembles a
high-security ward. Those who want to access the imposing old
building on Grosse Hamburger Strasse have to pass through a
meticulous security check. The building is surrounded by a fence
several meters high and video cameras register every move. Policemen
stand guard in front of the building.
"We're no ghetto," school director Barbara Wittig clarifies. "We
offer those children protection who have to fear discrimination at
other schools," she adds. And such cases have increased dramatically
in the past two years. "I always though Jews were integrated into
German society," says Wittig. "I would never have thought it possible
for anti-Semitism to express itself as virulently as it has recently."
As of this week, Wittig's students have included two girls who
previously attended the public, non-confessional Lina-Morgenstern
High School in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. Their woes attracted
considerable public attention. For months, one of the two girls, who
is 14 years old, suffered anti-Semitic insults from adolescents with
an Arab background. They also beat her and spat on her. Walking to
school became like running the gauntlet for her. Her tormentors would
hide in wait for her and chase her through the streets. In the end
the girl had to be given police protection on her way to school.
Anti-Semitism on the rise
These events in Kreuzberg represent an especially drastic example,
but they're not the exception. Berlin's state parliament lists 62
reported cases under the category "(right-wing) extremism" in its
study "Indicators of Violence at Berlin's Schools, 2004/2005." That's
a steep increase in comparison with the previous year, when only 39
cases were registered. The category "(right-wing) extremism"
includes "anti-Semitic, racist / xenophobic and right-wing extremist
remarks" by children and adolescents, in addition to remarks
that "incite racial hatred or express fundamentalist / Islamist
One high school student in Berlin's Steglitz-Zehlendorf district said
in class: "All Jews must be gassed." Students in the Friedrichshain-
Kreuzberg district locked another student inside the chemistry lab
and said: "Now we'll turn on the gas." A non-German child at an
elementary school in Treptow-Köpenick insulted his teacher by calling
her a "Jew," a "witch" and a "sea cow." When a teaching aid in
Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg tried to settle an argument between
students, he was told: "Piss off, Jew!"
And the surge of anti-Semitism seems to be growing. In November,
Berlin's public authorities had already registered more cases of anti-
Semitism than during the entire previous year. A recent study by the
European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) also
criticized cases of anti-Semitism, racism and right-wing extremism at
Right-wing extremists take up Nazi slogans
This week, in the town of Grimmen in West Pomerania, right-wing
adolescents mobilized against an exhibition on Anne Frank,
disparaging her diary as a forgery. In October, several adolescents
in Parey, a town in Germany's Saxony-Anhalt region, forced their 16-
year- old classmate to walk across the school yard wearing a large
sign during lunch break. The sign read: "In this town I'm the biggest
swine / Because of the Jewish friends of mine." It's a phrase from
the Nazi era, used to humiliate people with Jewish friends.
A teacher intervened, took the sign away and called the police. The
students responsible for the incident, who are aged between 14 and
16, are under criminal investigation. The charges are incitement of
racial hatred, coercion and defamation. One of the students is also
accused of assault.
Berlin's Jewish community has already issued warnings about "a new
dimension of anti-Semitism." Jewish children increasingly face the
hatred of Muslim adolescents in addition to aggression from right-
wing extremists. The Jewish community advises parents to send their
children to Jewish schools in case of conflicts, pointing out that
there they will at least be safe.
Skullcaps hidden out of fear
But the protected zone ends outside the school walls. A school class
from the Jewish High School was exposed to massive anti-Semitic
insults by another Berlin school class while riding the subway.
Religious Jewish adolescents hide their skullcaps under a hat
whenever they venture onto the street.
The incidents prompted Peter Trapp, a member of the Christian
Democrat Party (CDU) in Berlin's parliament, to submit a formal
query: Trapp wants to know how many such incidents have occurred
recently. He also wants to know how many of those incidents can be
attributed to "the right-wing extremist camp" and how many can be
traced to adolescents "of non-German origin." Trapp has yet to
receive a reply -- indeed, the CDU complains that it is taking
And yet school director Wittig insists that politicians are very much
making an effort to respond to the problem. It's just that she rarely
gets through to them with her projects and appeals, she says. Wittig
also complains that many Arab adolescents are so pig-headed it's hard
to get through to them. "And the teachers allow their students to
tell Jewish jokes," she adds.
"Jew" -- a popular insult
"Students are increasingly using the word 'Jew' in a pejorative
sense. It's climbed up a long way on the ranking of popular insults,"
reports Peter Wagenknecht from the Kreuzberg-based
project "Educational Building Blocks Against Anti-Semitism."
Wagenknecht and his associates educate adolescents about anti-
Semitism in specially organized workshops and classroom talks. The
project still receives financial support from the German government.
But not everyone who uses the word "Jew" as an insult is
automatically an anti-Semite, Wagenknecht says. Many people just act
thoughtlessly, in his view. "Many students no longer have a sense of
how charged the word 'Jew' is when it's used as an insult. They just
want to break a taboo." Wagenknecht points out that some students
similarly use the word "victim" as an insult intended to stigmatize
someone as weak.
When he started to work with young people during the early 1990s,
anti-Semitism wasn't a problem, Wagenknecht explains. He traces much
of today's anti-Semitism to two sources: Students from Arab or
Turkish families have been politicized by the conflict in the Middle
East such that their "anti-Israeli" attitude sometimes crosses over
into open anti-Semitism. German adolescents with extreme right-wing
tendencies, on the other hand, have often been exposed to right-wing
ideology and hence dispose of a correspondingly distorted knowledge
about Jews and Jewish culture.
Wagenknecht worries that more and more Jewish students are too afraid
to openly stand up to their background: "They don't want to present
themselves as Jewish. In such cases, the class often doesn't know
about their background, and the teachers keep mum." Wagenknecht adds
that the students are often acting on advice from their parents, who
want to spare their children conflicts and exposure to aggressive
School director Wittig says: "We're now the only school in Berlin
where Jewish children can stand up to their identity. Elsewhere, most
of them have to adapt to the majority."
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