Can the US learn anything from Germany’s approach to antisemitism?

It won’t surprise any of you to learn that Germany today is experiencing many of the same challenges as the United States when it comes to fighting antisemitism and supporting Israel. However, Germany addresses these issues differently than the US, as I learned over a recent week in Germany as a guest of the Berlin-based Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the non-profit think tank devoted to the promotion of liberal democracy, peace and freedom. I came away believing the United States could learn a thing or two from Germany.

As a lay leader of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles, together with a cohort of a dozen AJC colleagues from around the US, we held in-depth meetings with German thought leaders, including members of the German Bundestag, state MPs, commissioners devoted to combatting antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in Germany, senior editors of leading German news periodicals, academics, state heads of the German domestic intelligence service, and Jewish leaders. We learned that sources of antisemitism parallel those in the US.

There is a far right in both countries. The right-wing populist party in Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland (“AfD”), is growing in popularity primarily among formerly East German states. While not taken lightly by the more centrist and liberal German political parties, AfD and the far right are seen as less of a threat than other current sources of antisemitism. The German far right has always been open about their antisemitism and xenophobia. Since these traits are unhidden, the large majority of Germans reject AfD.

More sinister is the far left. Like in the US, German far-left progressivism presents itself as righteously committed to the plight of the oppressed. It sees Israel as a colonialist oppressor and the Jewish diaspora as merely an extension of Israel. The far left in Germany and in the US are either ignorant of, or altogether ignore, the reality that Jews are indigenous to Israel with ties to the land long before Palestinians existed, and that supporting an existential threat to Israel’s survival directly contradicts the very values these progressives purport to stand for. This reflects an enormous failure of education in both Germany and the US More about this in a minute.

Of equal concern in Germany is the influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees who fled antisemitic Middle Eastern homelands and brought their deep rooted antisemitism with them. This group is now failing to integrate into the German culture with all its values, including those that grew out of the Holocaust. Here too, Germany is experiencing a major failure to educate (as is the US).

Then there is also the malevolence of foreign actors, the nation state enemies of Israel topped by Iran. They use pliable members of the far right, far left and Muslim immigrants, whether the groups are conscious of their manipulation or not, to further an anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and antisemitic agenda within Western countries. As in the US, Germany’s intelligence services devote significant resources to counter the acts and effects of these foreign actors.

Yet despite all of the sources of antisemitism in modern Germany and the palpable effects on its Jewish population, one Jewish community leader in Germany told us that the country responsible for the Holocaust may today be the safest place in the world for Jews. There may be some truth to this in the enormous differences between how Germany and the US view their respective relationships to the Jewish homeland and how they each approach antisemitism.

Germany’s genocide of European Jews, and the creation of Israel only 3 years later, imbued Germany with a fundamental commitment to Israel. In 2008, Angela Merkel described this as Germany’s “Staatsräson,” or reason of state. In short, Germany’s reason for being is the existence of Israel. Merkel maintained that Germany has a moral obligation to assure Israel’s security and, by extension, the security of Jews in Germany. It does this with economic, military and diplomatic support, including before the UN and The Hague’s International Court of Justice, and domestically with required Holocaust education and laws against antisemitism.

On the other hand, the US’s commitment to Israel stems almost entirely from the two countries’ shared political structures as liberal democracies, the need for a Westernized partner in the Middle East, and out of affinity for the two countries’ shared Judeo-Christian values. As bases for relationship, these are hardly equal to seeing one’s essential function as support for the Jewish state.

Nor does the US nationally require education about antisemitism or the Holocaust. Education about the Holocaust is spotty across the US, and spottier still about antisemitism and Israel. In California, where ethnic studies in high school will shortly be a required course, Jews are challenged to be included in the course materials at all, or to be included without an antisemitic bias.

The federal German requirement of Holocaust education is falling short too, by not requiring coursework consistency among the German states, schools and faculty, and by permitting students to elect (or their parents to elect for them) not to attend such classes or go on school field trips to concentration camps. Moreover, Holocaust teaching has lost its relevance to a young generation now three or four generations removed, and has no apparent relevance at all to a generation of antisemitic immigrants, many of whom are taught about the Holocaust as simply another chapter in history.

All is not lost though. More than once German educators and dedicated government commissioners said a lot of attention is going to this in state and federal offices. They are actively rethinking how to make Holocaust education relevant to today’s young and immigrant students, including with more education about Israel, its history and Jews.

Not so in the US. Where Germany learned the importance of keeping the Holocaust’s memory vividly alive (memorials exist all over the country, from museums and empty concentration camps to thousands of Stolpersteine—small brass plaques in the sidewalk naming the Jews who lived there before they were exterminated) and legislated against antisemitism to prevent its recurrence, none of the rest of the world did so. As if it was only Germany’s lesson to learn. Germany, like the US, is a free speech country, except Germany has limits: public expressions of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, pro-Hitlerism and pro-Nazism can get you arrested.

Conversely, in the US you can spew all the hate you want under the First Amendment without any legal consequence unless you are intentionally trying to incite violence. The US needs to recognize that the frequent aim of antisemitic speech is, in fact, exactly that—violence—and start broadly enforcing the law. And while at it, all US schools should be teaching, honestly and mandatorily, about the Holocaust and humankind’s other atrocities. In today’s Germany they understand that failing to teach such history and failing to enforce laws against antisemitism together create space for history to repeat itself.

In the US, we need to take a page from that Germany.

About the Author
Jeffrey Finkelstein is a lawyer. He serves on the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles Regional Board and its Executive Committee.
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