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Antisemitism in Germany: A 'lack of empathy?'

Torsten Landsberg | Nadine Wojcik
November 27, 2023

Since the Hamas terror attack in Israel, antisemitism has been on the rise in Germany. How is Germany's Jewish cultural scene dealing with all the hate?

The word 'Antisemitismus' in a German-language dictionary with a Star of David.
The number of antisemitic attacks in Germany has risen since October 7Image: Michael Bihlmayer/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

Stars of David sprayed provocatively on the walls of buildings, reports of antisemitic chants at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, an attack on a synagogue: Since the attack by the militant Islamist terror group Hamas on Israel on October 7, antisemitism has returned in force to Germany. 

"I'm surprised by the social coldness and the lack of empathy among many people," Andrei Kovacs, the head of the association "1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany"told DW. "There's a long silence in the German cultural scene and very little moral courage in society. The situation is worrying."

'Not an exclusively German problem' 

The conflict in the Middle East is complex, Kovacs says, adding that he is open to political debate.

"But October 7 was a turning point for Jewish life, [it was] a pogrom, a bestial massacre," he says. "You can't use historical or political context to relativize these actions." 

A man wearing a face mask looks at a exhibit on 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany at the LVR Jewish Museum in Cologne.
Exhibit on 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany at the LVR Jewish Museum in CologneImage: Stefan Arendt/LVR-ZMB

His association organized several informative events on Jewish traditions and culture in 2021 to mark 1,700 years of Jewish communities in Germany. 

"We designed low-threshold concepts and were particularly focused on rural areas where Judaism is not so widespread, and little is known about it," Kovacs, who is also a musician, points out. 

In the wake of current events, does he feel such efforts are futile? 

"Antisemitism has a long tradition and is not an exclusively German problem," he responds.

Fighting it takes perseverance, he says. 

A broken pane of glas on an exhibit about the Jewish history of a hospital in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood
Antisemitism in action? Someone vandalized an exhibit on the Jewish history of a hospital in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood.Image: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

The number of antisemitic crimes in German has risen sharply since the Hamas attack on Israel. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) says it has registered 680 antisemitic offenses, more than 550 of which were connected to the current crisis in the Middle East.

That's well about the national average, said BKA president Holger Münch, who warned there was a grave danger of escalation. 

Igor Levit stages concert for solidarity

Star pianist Igor Levit is also shocked by what he calls an "explosion of antisemitism and hatred of Jews" as well as a "lack of empathy" in German society. 

"I have lost my basic trust in what society means in Germany," he told Die Zeit weekly in a recent interview.

Levit said that hatred of Jews was not just a personal threat to him but to the "fundament of this federal republic."

He said he felt rage and would like to scream: "Don't you realize that it's directed against you? 'Death to the Jews!' really means 'Death to Democracy!'"

Igor Levit outdoors next to a microphone at a Fridays for Israel protest
Levit, here at a 'Fridays for Israel' demonstration in Berlin in November, is shocked about the level of antisemitism in GermanyImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

The pianist, who is Jewish and who emigrated from Russia to Germany with his parents in 1995, will not let these words stand. He has organized a concert of solidarity with the Berliner Ensemble, one of the German capital's most acclaimed theaters, on Monday.

On his Instagram account, he called on everyone to attend as "a sign, a statement against antisemitism. Because there can be no neutrality, no indifference when it comes to hatred of Jews, when it comes to hatred of people in any form. Ever."

The concert, which has been titled "Against Silence. Against Antisemitism," will be followed by a public discussion with DW moderator Michel Friedman, ZDF journalist Dunja Hayali, climate activist Luisa Neubauer, the actor Ulrich Noethen, the pop star Sven Regener, and the actor and theater director Katharina Thalbach. 

Some two weeks ago, Levit surprised patients and staff at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv with a spontaneous concert. Many of the victims of the October 7 Hamas attack have been treated there. The German ambassador to Israel posted a video of Levit's performance on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Beforehand, the pianist had performed for a small group of people whose relatives had been taken hostage by Hamas.

Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, Germany, the European Union, the US and others.

A packed suitcase

In his Die Zeit interview, Levit said he was considering leaving Germany but had not yet come to that decision. 

By contrast, Deborah Middelhoff, editor-in-chief of the culinary magazine Feinschmecker, said she and her husband are emigrating. 

"Considering my membership of the Jewish religious community and due to the current developments in Germany, I have decided to move the center of my life abroad," she said in a statement via Jahreszeiten Verlag, which publishes Feinschmecker.

A large crowd of people holding up Israel flags at a demonstration against antisemitism in Berlin on Nov. 19, 2023.
Demonstrators in Berlin showed their support for Israel in mid-NovemberImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Are many Jews in Germany packing their bags?

"I am concerned that they are, but fear is the wrong reaction," said Kovacs, whose grandparents survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

He explained that the question of whether Germany was his home had always been present.

"I always have one eye on my suitcase," he said, adding, however, that he felt emboldened by the broad support he'd received from Germany politicians and parts of civil society: "That gives me courage."

This article was originally written in German.