Jewish and Muslim communities search for solidarity

Islam, Jewish and Christian symbolsSix months of Israeli retaliation in Gaza for the October 7 Hamas terror attacks have put Jewish-Muslim relations in particular peril. Germany’s hypersensitivity to anti-Semitism adds an extra layer of difficulty.

Violence in the Middle East brings with it a tragic predictability. For communities the world over that identify with Israel or the Palestinians, the trauma cuts deep.  The current iteration of ire is that much more intense given the unprecedented death and destruction that triggered it. Hamas‘ terror attacks on Israel on 7 October, which killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, was the worst of its kind in the country’s 75-year history.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign is estimated to have killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza. While that could include many fighters for Hamas, which the EU, USA, Germany and others consider a terrorist organisation, more certain is that many of them are children. 

Abdassamad El Yazidi, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said that both Jews and Muslims take the conflict very emotionally. “But it is possible to build trust, argue objectively about the issue, and still treat each other respectfully,” he added.

That is the challenge wherever Jews and Muslims live together in the world. For Germany, it poses a particularly vexing balancing act. The country is home to a Muslim population of about 5.5 million – more than half are German nationals, according to the German Islam Conference – and the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe. Its Jewish community is considerably smaller, perhaps less than 200,000 people, yet German history gives them outsized attention. 

As a means of atoning for the Holocaust in which Nazi Germany killed 6 million European Jews, politicians now lump Israel’s security and protection of Jewish life together into the country’s “reason of state”. That means that in the effort to combat hatred and violence against all groups in society, Jews are first among equals. The German government recently approved an additional payment of €25 million to Holocaust survivors living in Israel to help them cope with the effects of the Hamas attacks. 

“As a society and citizens, we are responsible for the anti-Semitic annihilation of millions of people,” El Yazidi, who is involved in a number of Muslim-Jewish outreach efforts in Germany and around Europe, said. “We must do everything to ensure that this does not happen again. But the answer cannot be to stigmatise another religious group by pushing them aside, by denying them their belonging.” 

Pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of Berlin Cathedral in November 2023
Demonstrating for a ceasefire in Gaza: Germany is home to a Muslim population of about 5.5 million – more than half are German nationals, according to the German Islam Conference – and the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe (image: Joerg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance)


Political 'dishonesty'

Following the Hamas attacks, both government and opposition parties in Germany submitted proposals doubling down on the fight against anti-Semitism with a special focus on “imported anti-Semitism” – a clear shot at minority groups to which many foreign-born people belong. 

In a widely praised video statement in November, Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck called on Muslim groups in Germany to “distance themselves from anti-Semitism so as not to undermine their own right to tolerance”. 

This sort of politics is “dishonest”, El Yazidi said. He called it “brazen” for the country responsible for the Holocaust to speak of “imported” anti-Semitism. 

His organisation’s Jewish counterpart, the Central Council for Jews in Germany, did not respond to a DW request to comment. Fostering dialogue with other communities is part of the council’s mandate to promote Jewish life in Germany. Its “Schalom Aleikum” initiative (“peace be upon you”, the Hebrew equivalent of the Arabic greeting), launched in 2022, aims to act as a research-based think tank on “Christian, Jewish and Muslim realities of life in Germany and make it available to the public”. 

At the end of last year, the initiative published “recommendations for guardrails for Jewish-Muslim dialogue” that it saw “called into massive question” due to the October 7 attacks. 

Among the key points was the recognition that violence between Israel and Palestinians “cannot be the elephant in the room”. It must be openly discussed to avoid people feeling discredited or denounced. 

“I am pleased that ‘Schalom Aleikum’ is keeping a cool head in this time of crisis and war,” said Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews. 

Robert Habeck is Vice-Chancellor of Germany

Downward spiral of general suspicion

A full accounting of the state of relations between Jews and Muslims is difficult to assess. Despite what their names suggest, both central councils are just two of many Muslim and Jewish organisations in Germany. They hardly speak for all Muslims and Jews, many of whom remain unaffiliated with any group. 

Jews and Muslims are united by a common threat they face. Government and non-profit reporting consistently show that far-right extremists pose the biggest risk to both – and society overall. In its 2022 report, the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) documented just 1% of anti-Semitic incidents having an Islamist connection, according to a statement provided at the time of writing.  

That number climbed to 6% in the month after the October 7 attacks, a period that also saw a rise in anti-Muslim incidents. For the majority of anti-Semitism cases, researchers and investigators have been unable to assign any ideological motive or background. 

“These figures do not yet provide any information about the extent for 2023 as a whole,” said RIAS spokesperson Marco Siegmund. 

RIAS also follows the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, as does the German government and others, which counts many forms of Israel criticism as anti-Semitic. 

“Every form of anti-Semitism is dangerous, regardless of the ideology it stems from,” said Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, in a statement. “It is an expression of a deeply anti-democratic attitude and rejects the achievements of our modern, liberal society.”

The closest equivalent to Klein’s role for Muslims is the “anti-racism commissioner”, which the government established in early 2022. The post is assigned to the office for migration, refugees and integration. Many of Germany’s Muslims are born in Germany and hold German citizenship. 

Safeguarding everyone

The different kinds of state attention to its minority groups has implications not only for Jewish-Muslim relations, but also for social cohesion more broadly. 

“I always tried to expand the field into the research of prejudice overall,” said Wolfgang Benz, retired head of the Anti-Semitism Research Center at Berlin’s Technical University. “With the political intention of getting the majority to recognise that you can’t pit one minority against another.” 

He said that is precisely what has happened with “these two minorities quite hostile towards each other”. 

Often, Benz’s research suggests, anti-Jewish sentiment is a symptom of larger expressions of violence and discrimination. Focusing primarily on the anti-Semitic aspect might meet a political standard in Germany but could miss a larger point. 

“We have only learned the lesson of the Holocaust when we are not only friendly to Jews, but when we have recognised that no minority, no matter which one, should be discriminated against and persecuted,” Benz said. “That is precisely what is lacking in German consciousness.” 

William Noah Glucroft

© Deutsche Welle 2024


Islam, Jewish and Christian symbols
Abdassamad El Yazidi, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said that both Jews and Muslims take the conflict very emotionally: “But it is possible to build trust, argue objectively about the issue, and still treat each other respectfully” (image: Fred de Noyelle/Godong/picture alliance)

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