Germany’s anti-Semitism problem

Jew, Israeli, Zionist

The political scientist David Ranan doubts that anti-Semitism is more pervasive among Muslims than non-Muslims. Currently, however, this thesis is being perverted and used to serve questionable political ends. By Sonja Zekri

A plush salon in muted tones in a Frankfurt luxury hotel. The streets around the main station are slick with rain, in the lobby guests gather for a Muslim wedding: men sporting undercut hairstyles, women wearing headscarves. The political scientist David Ranan enters. He signals a greeting and, then, still standing, utters words of barely suppressed rage: "Did you see how they misrepresented my book in the Bild Zeitung?"

Ranan's book, "Muslim Anti-Semitism" has just been published by Dietz Verlag in Germany and contains excerpts from interviews he conducted over three and a half years with more than 70 Muslims in Germany and England, most of them academics, about their attitudes towards Jews.

The book also contains much more, but the tabloid newspaper Bild, which has styled itself as a mouthpiece for many disgruntled Germans with its campaign on Muslim anti-Semitism, presented only the most bizarre quotes under its headline "What Muslims in Germany think of Jews": about boycotts of Aldi and Coca-Cola because they presumably belong to Jews, about Israel's influence on the German media, about the Israeli organ trade in Palestinian body parts.

Not one to mince his words

It must be noted that Ranan – whose mother fled the Nazis in 1933 – and who was born in 1946 in Tel Aviv and is today a fellow at the Berlin Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism, was himself taken aback by the tendency of many of his interview partners to fall for conspiracy theories.

Political scientist David Ranan (photo: private)
Self-exculpation that feeds into Islamophobia: for David Ranan, the "perfidy" of the German debate is the way that "Germans are glad when someone shows them that Muslims are more anti-Semitic than they are," which is "a funny way of trying to prove their own innocence"

But the tenor of the reporting in Bild is diametrically opposed to the thrust of his research. His book is namely not a representative survey of "the" Muslims in Germany, but rather an attempt to understand the diversity of existing opinions, emotions and perhaps even rationalisations.

"When I began my research, the assertion that there is much more anti-Semitism among Muslims than non-Muslims already seemed odd to me and in need of explanation." He therefore limited the interviews mostly to university-educated Muslims who had either been living in the West for a long time or were born here.

He conducted open, trusting conversations, a fact that makes the report in Bild all the more devastating: "Many of the people I interviewed are now saying: the son of a bitch came and pretended to be our friend, only to pull a knife on us in the end."

It is surely clear by now that Ranan, who has already written a book about Israeli soldiers, is not one to mince words and is capable of expressing great indignation. But these are polemics in the service of reason.

He finds it appalling that a Jewish girl in Berlin was taunted and threatened, but does this really indicate a wave of Islamic anti-Semitism? "The majority of Jews have no problem walking down the street; they are not recognised as Jews," says Ranan, pointing out that he himself does not experience any hostility on German streets, but suspects that "every headscarf-wearing Muslima" is looked at askance: "So do we need a federal commissioner against anti-Semitism, or perhaps one against xenophobia in general?"

Required visits to memorials for Muslim schoolchildren? At best a "shock treatment", he says, but hardly one that is likely to have a lasting effect.

Instead, Ranan would like to see teachers educating their pupils about bullying, bullying at school and in society, about the origins of exclusion, about the "minor nastinesses", as he calls them, that made life in Frankfurt for his well-educated, upper-class grandparents with servants and season tickets to the opera so unbearable in the early 1930s that they fled to Palestine before anyone could even imagine such a thing as the Holocaust.

His father left Berlin for Palestine with his parents. Ranan remembers a photo of the then 24-year-old on the beach in Tel Aviv, with the Arab city of Jaffa and a camel visible in the distance: "My father wore a suit and tie. He always wanted to be a European. He missed Berlin terribly."

Palestine, the maltreated holy land, is for Ranan's interlocutors ground zero and the seat of pain for all reflection about the Jews. They only sporadically mention the Koran, which, like the Bible, contains some anti-Jewish passages. Their views are instead mostly based on conditions in the Middle East. But those conditions – and this is something on which Ranan insists – are something completely different than the centuries-long European tradition of hostility towards Jews, whether religiously, economically, or racially motivated, which began with hatred for the people that nailed Christ to the cross and reached its climax with the Holocaust.

Until the rise of Zionism and Jewish immigration, Jews were just another minority among many in the Arab world, an insignificant and hardly very threatening group. Certainly, the triumph of fascism in Europe fascinated many in the Arab world, inspiring movements such as the Baath Party. Intellectuals such as the Egyptian Salama Musa even pursued eugenics concepts and proposed the superiority of a "Pharaonic race".

For most Arab movements, however – and that includes the Muslim Brotherhood – in spite of a programmatic hatred of Jews, the idea of a superior race contradicted the universal claim of Islam that all Muslims are equal.

The Berlin-based Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) has published a number of writings that demonstrate with these and other examples how misleading, and indeed malicious, it is to try to give the impression of a genuine "Arab affinity" for Nazi ideology (Peter Wien, Rene Wildangel in "Blind fur die Geschichte?" [Blind to History?]).

A leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Hilal, described in the early 1930s the suffering of the European Jews and admitted that after centuries of oppression they deserved a special place among the "historically persecuted peoples".

Ranan: hatred of the Israeli occupiers stems from a real experience of powerlessness

Certainly, Egyptian thinkers read Oswald Spengler, because their country, too, was faced with a critical turning point, but for intellectuals like Mohamed Hussein Haikal, the ruthless fascist regimes did not present a way out of the decline and instead were a testament to the destructive power of Western modernity. As representatives of a peaceful Middle Eastern variety of humanism, they found fascism utterly unacceptable.

A series of wars, which the Arab side mostly lost, as well as the failure of the Israeli-Arab peace process have transformed this relationship into a political enmity in which lies and defamation are the order of the day – as in any war. "Christian anti-Semitism was not based on any actual problem," says Ranan. "By contrast, the Muslims in the Middle East have had to deal with a real, unresolved territorial conflict with the Jews ever since the Zionist movement became successful."

Anti-Semitism, as Ranan understands it with reference to the British philosopher Brian Klug, describes a "hostility towards Jews as Jews", i.e., as all-powerful, globally networked and influential fantasy beings. Enmity against the Jews because they supposedly control the stock exchange, the White House and Coca-Cola would thus constitute anti-Semitic prejudice.

But hatred of the Israeli occupiers – by an Arab in any case – stems from a real experience of powerlessness. Ranan goes still further and points out that, when at pro-Palestine demonstrations young Arabs carry signs saying "Israel is a child-killer" this is as a rule not meant to allude to the medieval European myth of ritual murder by Jews ("Most people don't even know such a thing existed"), but to actual Israeli attacks on the occupied territories.

Even anti-Jewish posters in general do not refer to all Jews, but only to Israelis, or more precisely Israeli politics. In Ranan's view, the distinction between "Jew", "Israeli" and "Zionist" is one of the most important topics needing to be addressed in German schools. Further suggestions: more integration. And: less agitation.

When the Bild Zeitung – and with it a variety of right-wing voices – hypocritically calls for policymakers to make it clear that "the anti-Semitism of the Islamic world will not be allowed to take hold here", it is turning the true conditions on their head. With some amusement, Ranan recounts that he has heard worse suggestions from some Germans than merely boycotting Coca-Cola.

For David Ranan, the "perfidy" of the German debate is the way that "Germans are glad when someone shows them that Muslims are more anti-Semitic than they are," which is "a funny way of trying to prove their own innocence."

Germany is thus attempting to absolve itself in the wake of a shocking swing to the right that is allowing people to openly flaunt their anti-Semitism. Focusing on the alleged Islamic threat offers Germanyʹs reeling society a way of avoiding confronting its own anti-Semitic past and the fact that it persists in today's world.

Sonja Zekri

© Suddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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