German exhibit showcases contemporary anti-Semitism

berlin – The image of a horned Ariel Sharon with vampire-like teeth is one of several jarring images that greet visitors these days at Germany’s Foreign Ministry building in Berlin.

Among others is a depiction of President George Bush surrounded by bearded rabbis as his gurus and a depiction of Israel as the “Fourth Reich.”

The images are part of a German government exhibition on contemporary anti-Semitism that aims to show that anti-Jewish sentiment in the German Republic, and in Europe generally, is not just a relic of the past.

“Anti-Semitism? Anti-Zionism? Israeli Critique?” opened Aug. 1 in the atrium of Germany’s Foreign Ministry. In September it begins an extensive tour of German cities, starting at Berlin’s Technical University.

The exhibit, a collaborative effort between Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the Berlin-based Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, takes on an issue of enduring controversy: When does criticism of Israel cross the border of legitimacy?

“There is a clear boundary in debates about solidarity with Israel,” said Gernot Erler, minister of state at Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, who introduced the exhibit to some 200 guests at the opening. “Israel’s right to exist within clear and recognizable borders is a non-negotiable point.”

Anti-Semitism “should be an illness of the past,” he continued. “Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is not in the closet. It is a part of European current events, it is in the middle of society.”

The visually powerful exhibit, which was designed by Israel’s Muli ben Sasson and is funded in part by the German Center for Political Education, is arranged on a series of panels that form linked rooms.

It presents both the reality of Jewish diversity and the power of stereotypes that propagate hate and sometimes violence. The exhibit includes the results of surveys showing strong anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s 2005 poll, which found that 50 percent of Europeans think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

While the exhibit includes examples from many countries, it takes a close look at anti-Semitism in Germany, which extends from the extreme left to the extreme right and includes Islamic extremists.

“We in Germany are in danger of seeing anti-Semitism as a problem of others, such as Poles, and to consider ourselves free of it,” said Wolfgang Benz, director of the 25-year-old research center, which is part of the Technical University.

Benz cited German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, who once called anti-Semitism “a rumor about the Jews.” Benz said, “We have to counter that rumor with enlightenment.”

The exhibition covers Christian anti-Jewish attitudes, racist anti-Semitism, post-Holocaust hatred of Jews, which is sometimes expressed as Holocaust denial or resentment against reparations, and anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism — namely, the denial of Israel’s right to exist.

“In a time when two-thirds of the German people promulgate that Israel is the biggest threat on earth, you can’t have enough exhibits like that,” said Gideon Joffe, the president of Berlin’s Jewish community.

The exhibit includes some Israeli examples of harsh self-criticism to underscore the point that the litmus test for anti-Semitism is not whether or not Israel is criticized, but how Israel and Israelis are portrayed.

Barbara Witting, director of the Jewish high school in Berlin, particularly hopes students see the exhibition. Over the last year, she said, several Jewish students transferred to her school after enduring anti-Semitic taunts in other schools.”It is important to recognize that the problem is still alive,” she said. “In Germany, they know what happens if you do not interfere right from the beginning.”

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.