Central Council of Jews in Germany President Josef Schuster, who also serves as a WJC vice president, sat down for an exclusive interview with Politik to discuss the rise of antisemitism in the country and the spread of conspiracy myths surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
The day was very emotional. I attended the official memorial event in Halle and took part in the unveiling of the memorial in the inner courtyard of the Jewish community center, including two memorial plaques commemorating the two victims of the attack. I also attended a memorial ceremony in the Ulrichskirche concert hall, where Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke.
On the same day, the German TV station ZDF reported that half of Germans (52 percent) believe that hostility towards Jews in Germany is "not so prevalent.” How is this possible in the face of ongoing antisemitic attacks?
Those affected are more aware of antisemitism than those who are not.
But 52 percent?
It's a surprisingly high percentage. But the fact is: every fifth German harbors anti-Jewish resentments and anti-Jewish prejudices. This number has remained constant over the years.
The majority of Jews living in Germany avoid going to certain places or showing Jewish symbols in public, for security reasons. Is this surprising to you?
I can understand why so many Germans would avoid certain places. Five years ago, I warned young Jewish people in particular not to walk through some areas with a kippah, but rather to wear a baseball cap. At the time, that caused an outcry in the media.
But my recommendation was taken for granted within the Jewish community. The most recent attack in front of a synagogue in Hamburg also showed how easily people identified as Jewish can be targeted.
And would you still advise this?
The recommendation remains. Unfortunately, nothing has changed.
The police recorded more than two thousand antisemitic crimes in the past year, 93% of which are attributed to right wing extremists. A study by Bielefeld University, however, found that around 80% of victims of antisemitic violence reported that they had been attacked by Muslims. How do you make sense of the two studies?
In the police statistics, antisemitic incidents are often classified as being perpetrated by right-wing extremists if the authorities cannot identify the assailant’s motivation. In this respect, it is obvious that 93% of antisemitic crimes coming from right-wing extremists cannot be fully accurate.
However - and this is also what the statistics say – the majority of antisemitic crimes come from right-wing extremist. Regardless of whether the perpetrator comes the left, the right or Islam, every case is one too many.
Where does this skewed perception, which is shared inside and outside the Jewish community, come from?
Antisemitic incidents involving verbal abuse, whether they occur in school or on the street, also come from Muslims. One thing is undisputed: In 2015 and 2016 a number of refugees, who were shaped by anti-Jewish prejudices in their homeland came to Germany. It is obvious that these people would not give up their hatred of Jews at the German border. That worried us a lot at the time.
On the one hand, there are integration courses that with minimal success deal with this topic. On the other hand, I see that the judiciary is increasingly focusing on antisemitic motivation, although I would sometimes prefer the courts to take an even closer look.
When you look back at your warnings of five years ago, have they come true?
These fears have only partially come true.
Sometimes more, sometimes less openly, conspiracy myths, especially in the age of the coronavirus, often take up classic antisemitic tropes. Do you see a new problem area just emerging?
Antisemitism plays a role in coronavirus conspiracy myths. We are in a situation where nobody really knows how the virus originated. Suddenly there was something in the world that we cannot see and that we cannot grasp, but that affects us worldwide.
There was a similar situation in the Middle Ages with the plague - and the Jews were quickly blamed for that as well. Desiring a scapegoat, people accused Jews of poisoning the wells and participated in pogroms. Similar accusations of Jews being responsible for the coronavirus can be found today; these, in turn, appear again and again at the corresponding demonstrations against social distancing restrictions.
George Soros, the WHO and Bill Gates are being blamed for the coronavirus. How dangerous do you think this is?
I think these conspiracy myths are downright dangerous. They unleash their anti-democratic and antisemitic power via the Internet and also show up in demonstrations against the coronavirus social distancing restrictions. We are experiencing a dangerous mixture of those criticizing lockdown measures with supporters of conspiracy myths as well as members of the far-right and antisemitic Reich Citizens’ Movement.
If you appear in the media as a representative of the Central Council of Jews, it is almost exclusively in a political context and unfortunately very often in a negative context, such as responding to the antisemitic attacks in Halle or Hamburg. Is that how you perceive it as well?
Yes and no. The Central Council is the political representation of Jews in Germany, that is the primary task. The unfortunate fact is that I often have to speak out about antisemitism.
When I took up my post, I said: I would much rather show the beautiful, positive sides of Judaism, Jewish holidays, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition. In the coming year we will celebrate 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany. This is an anniversary in which we want to focus much more on the positive aspects of Jewish life.
What bothers you most?
German Jews are often only understood in the context of 1933 to 1945. What is overlooked, however, is that Jewish life in Germany existed for centuries before the Holocaust and that the community is now flourishing again.