German Jewish leaders warn of lifting taboo on anti-Semitism

BERLIN — Jewish leaders and politicians are condemning what they perceive as a growing anti-Semitic atmosphere in Germany.

As the alarm was sounded, there was an attack on a Jewish site in the German capital that Jewish leaders said was motivated by anti-Semitism.

Though new statistics show no significant change in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, the mood here clearly has changed due to the situation in the Mideast, said Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Anti-Semitism in Europe is worse than at any time since the Nazi era, asserted Spiegel in a recent interview.

Others are issuing similar warnings.

"Something seems to have changed in Germany," Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper.

"No one feels this more directly and more urgently than the German Jews," Fischer said. "They feel alone again, and that cannot be permitted to happen. Not in Germany."

There were a total of 127 reported incidents of anti-Semitism from January through March, according to the latest quarterly statistics compiled on such acts in Germany. Last year, the government reported 989 incidents, down from 1,084 in 2000.

In the latest incident, a closed, pre-World War II Jewish hospital in Berlin was vandalized.

In the attack, believed to have taken place Saturday, windows, lamps, safes, furniture and historical material in the 97-year-old building were destroyed.

Police have not determined the motive, but Jewish leaders said they have no doubt that it was an anti-Semitic act.

"The destruction of a Jewish historical site cannot be considered a neutral act," one Jewish official said.

The hospital had been closed by the Nazis in 1941. After the war, the police chief of East Berlin used the building, which was later used by the East German national railway.

Though anti-Semitic crimes have remained fairly static over the past few years, observers agree that there has been a loosening of postwar taboos against such acts.

Both Spiegel and Fischer agree that the change is related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they stressed that criticism of the Israeli government is not the problem.

It is acceptable to criticize the Israeli government, just as Israelis themselves do, said Fischer.

But "criticism is only possible when based on a foundation of unbreakable solidarity" with Israel, he said.

Criticism is essential to democracy, Munich historian and Mideast expert Michael Wolffsohn said in an interview with the Berliner Kurier newspaper.

But, he added, "every Jew today should be worried" about rising anti-Jewish sentiments in Europe.

Underscoring those concerns, popular German actor Michael Degen, 70, a Holocaust survivor, said he is considering leaving Germany.

In a recent radio interview, Degen said he was alarmed by the wave of anti-Semitism spreading through Europe, "hiding under the magic cap of anti-Israelism."

"It sounds paradoxical, but I would feel more secure in Israel," said Degen, whose recent film, "Leo and Claire," tells the true story of a Jewish man who falls in love with an Aryan woman in Nazi Germany.

His statements came against the backdrop of a crisis within the liberal Free Democratic Party, which is grappling with attempts by anti-Israel forces in the party to dominate its foreign policy agenda.

The party released a statement Sunday supporting Israel's right to exist. But its failure to distance itself from anti-Semitic positions taken by some of its leading members has led to a severe loss of confidence among longtime party members.

One of the hottest issues galvanizing politicians and Jewish leaders is the extreme anti-Israel position of Jurgen Mollemann, vice president of the Free Democratic Party and chairman of the German-Arab Society.

Fischer expressed astonishment at the lack of public censure of Mollemann.

According to Spiegel, Mollemann has singled out the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for intense criticism, while "saying nothing for weeks and months on end about attacks against Israelis."

Some have viewed Fischer's criticism in a political context, because the Free Democratic Party is in a position to unseat Fischer's Green Party from the No. 2 spot in a coalition government when national elections are held in September.

In 2001, Mollemann accused Israel of committing war crimes by assassinating terrorists that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had refused to arrest. He has called on Germany and the European Union to halt support for Israel.

According to Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, "if Mollemann has not grasped" the fact that Israel has a right to defend itself against the "brutal, hate-filled and cowardly assassins of this world," then he "disqualifies himself from being taken seriously in politics."

Mollemann, for his part, rejected charges of anti-Semitism, saying his criticisms of Sharon are fair.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.