Jul 18, 2023

Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight Against Antisemitism, Felix Klein, in the synagogue of the Osnabrück Jewish Community in Lower Saxony, July 15th, 2021.

Friso Gentsch/dpa

The Strange Logic of Germany’s Antisemitism Bureaucrats

An army of antisemitism commissioners was supposed to help Germany atone for its past. Critics say it is evidence of a memory effort gone haywire.

In April 2020, Felix Klein, Germany’s top bureaucrat dedicated to the fight against antisemitism, suddenly became a household name. That March, the Ruhrtriennale, a prestigious arts and culture festival in the country’s industrial heartland, had announced that it was inviting the Cameroonian political philosopher Achille Mbembe to deliver the keynote address. A prominent theorist of postcolonialism, Mbembe is regularly invited to speak at universities and conferences around the world. The news that he would appear at the Ruhrtriennale, however, sparked what began as a minor backlash. Lorenz Deutsch, a member of the center-right Free Democratic Party, penned an open letter to the festival’s director claiming that Mbembe was antisemitic. He charged the scholar with “Holocaust relativization” because he had compared the horrors of the Shoah to those of colonialism, and decried him for drawing an “impermissible” analogy between Israel’s rule over Palestinians and the apartheid system in South Africa. At first, the letter elicited only muted press coverage. Then Klein—Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Antisemitism—weighed in.

In an interview with the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Klein repeated many of Deutsch’s objections, putting the force of his position behind them. He accused Mbembe of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians—which is considered antisemitic in Germany under a nonbinding resolution passed by parliament in 2019. (Mbembe has signed petitions in support of an academic boycott of Israel, and has compared Israel to apartheid South Africa in his work, but has said that he has “no relationship whatsoever” with the BDS movement.) “In my capacity as antisemitism officer, I feel called upon to intervene in such a debate,” Klein said in a radio interview on Deutschlandfunk Kultur later that month, in his characteristically mild bureaucratic idiom. After Klein’s interview, the debate over Mbembe’s planned appearance filled airwaves and op-ed pages across Germany. Other anti-antisemitism officials joined the chorus. Uwe Becker, the antisemitism commissioner for the German state of Hessen and then-president of the Deutsch-Israelische Gesellschaft (DIG), or German-Israeli Society—the country’s largest Israel-advocacy group, which receives funding from the German Foreign Office—argued that not only should Mbembe be disinvited, but the festival’s director, Stefanie Carp, should be dismissed from her post. (Carp, whose contract with the Ruhrtriennale ended in 2020, told Jewish Currents that she has not been able to get a job in Germany since.)

Before long, the backlash to the backlash began, continuing even after the festival itself was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 1st, a group of scholars—experts in antisemitism, Nazism, colonialism, and genocide—published a letter expressing their concern about the “misuse” of the issues they study. More than 400 scholars—including Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky—signed another open letter “opposing ideological or political interference and litmus tests in Germany.” Several dozen prominent Jewish academics signed a third, calling on the German government to replace Klein, and accusing the commissioner of “severe professional and moral misconduct” that was especially “unacceptable . . . given his official role and responsibility.” Appearing with Klein on Deutschlandfunk, the national public radio broadcaster, the philosopher and scholar of German memory Susan Neiman, who helped spearhead the first letter, noted that under Klein’s definition of antisemitism even Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein would be barred from lecturing at publicly funded German institutions today; she read from an open letter that the two luminaries had signed in 1948 repeatedly calling Israeli violence “fascist.” “It’s a much sharper criticism of Israeli politics than we’ve ever seen from Mbembe,” Neiman told me recently. Klein was unmoved. He accused Neiman of stripping a historical example of its original context in order to score a political point. “I find historical comparisons like this improper. They’re also used by right-wingers and corona deniers,” he said. Asked last May whether he regretted denouncing Mbembe as an antisemite, he said, “I see no need for an apology.”

Klein’s office was formally established in early 2018, after an Israeli flag was burned in front of the Brandenburg Gate at a protest of Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That incident set off a national campaign to build an army of technocrats dedicated to identifying and calling out antisemitic crimes. There are now official antisemitism commissioners in 14 of Germany’s 16 federal states, and “they’re in the works in the final two as well,” Klein told me. While Klein functions as a figurehead for the system at large, the fast-growing apparatus is, in reality, highly decentralized: He has little formal power over the state-level commissioners, who are chosen by regional governments and appoint their own watchdogs in turn. In the wealthy southern regions of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, commissioners Michael Blume and Ludwig Spaenle are supported by additional antisemitism officials in their respective prosecutors’ offices. Nordrhein-Westfalen, a western state bordering the Netherlands, has appointed 22 antisemitism commissioners to its public prosecutors’ offices. Outside of the government, many religious and non-governmental organizations—including schools and churches—have made it a practice to hire their own antisemitism commissioners. Over the course of reporting this piece, I talked to antisemitism commissioners in police departments and synagogues, as well as to state and federal officials.

“We know that it’s actually very complicated to do something about antisemitism,” said Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, the director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin. “But if you appoint an antisemitism commissioner, you’ve already accomplished something.” 

The sprawling nature of Germany’s official antisemitism apparatus makes it nearly impossible to offer generalizations about what it is or how it works. While for some commissioners, like Klein, the position is a full-time job, others hold additional posts, such as Thuringia’s Benjamin-Immanuel Hoff, who is also head of the State Chancellery and Minister for Culture, Federal and European Affairs, or Becker, the former president of DIG, the Israel-advocacy group. Confounding things further is that there is no shared understanding of what exactly it means to “fight antisemitism.” Some, like Hoff, seem to treat the position of commissioner like a sinecure that entails little more than giving speeches at a few functions; others, like Blume, the commissioner for Baden-Württemberg, write books on the topic, visit schools to discuss it, and maintain an at times pugilistic presence on social media; still others, like Becker and Berlin’s Samuel Salzborn, seem eager to feed a full-fledged culture war, calling out perceived “Israel-related” antisemitism as aggressively as possible. Some observers expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of these efforts. “We know that it’s actually very complicated to do something about antisemitism,” Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, the director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin, told me. “But if you appoint an antisemitism commissioner, you’ve already accomplished something.”

Despite all the differences in methodology, the antisemitism commissioners often share a similar function: When they’re in the news, it’s usually to level an accusation of antisemitism. Just as Klein first came to prominence after his attack on Mbembe, Hessen’s Becker has made the papers by pointing the finger at everyone from former Frankfurt soccer player Amin Younes to German Israeli sociologist Moshe Zuckermann. Berlin antisemitism commissioner Salzborn has been in the press complaining of antisemitism among teachers, artists, and leftists. Most recently, Hamburg commissioner Stefan Hensel accused Jewish South African photographer Adam Broomberg of antisemitism, pointing to his support for BDS. Broomberg told me that he was most troubled by Hensel’s attempt to use the accusation to influence Hamburg’s cultural life. By lambasting not only him but also the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg, that had hired him, he noted, Hensel was trying to “have an impact on an art school: who the art school hires, what the art school teaches, how the art school teaches. That, to me, is the most pernicious thing.”

The Antisemitism Commissioner for Hessen, Uwe Becker (left), and the Prime Minister of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, raise the flag of the State of Israel in front of the State Chancellery, May 14th, 2021.

Helmut Fricke/AP Images

Though calling out antisemitism is central to the commissioners’ role, it’s unclear what qualifies these officials to adjudicate anti-Jewish bigotry. Klein, for instance, came to his current position after a stint working as the German government’s representative to Jewish organizations, but prior to that, he spent most of his career in Germany’s foreign service working on unrelated issues, stationed in places like Cameroon and Italy. When I visited him in his office in Berlin last April, only a menorah decal pasted on one of the windows hinted at the nature of his position. Klein told me that there are no standardized training programs for the commissioners or educational requirements that they must fulfill before their appointments. Schüler-Springorum pointed out that, though references to the Holocaust underlie every aspect of Germany’s antisemitism system, many of the commissioners are far from experts on the history in question. “It’s amazing how little they know about National Socialism,” she lamented. None of the antisemitism commissioners for either the German Federal Government or its Bundesländer, or states, is ethnically Jewish—which, according to Klein, is by design. “The fight against antisemitism is a problem for the whole of society. It isn’t a problem for the Jewish community to face by itself,” he told me. “I mean, it’s not as though the most pressing problem with antisemitism in Germany is among Jews.”

Indeed, when Jews interact directly with the system, it is often as its targets: Klein told the Berliner Zeitung in a January 2021 interview that “tendentially left-leaning Israelis in Berlin” should “be sensitive to Germany’s special historical responsibility” when they criticize Israel. In the eyes of the commissioners, this seems to be all the more true of Muslims and Arabs—especially Palestinians—who voice support for the Palestinian cause. “Palestinians are like a thorn in the side of Germany’s memory culture,” Palestinian German lawyer Nadija Samour told Jewish Currents. They’re “disposable,” but also “crucial for the German identity . . . If you really want to prove how civilized you are, and how philosemitic or pro-Israel you are, you get the chance to prove that by throwing Palestinians under the bus.”

This commitment to Israel advocacy—which requires disciplining the state’s Jewish critics as well as suppressing Palestinian speech—has led observers to argue that the system of antisemitism commissioners exists less to ensure the safety of Jews than to placate Germans’ feelings of guilt for the Holocaust. Indeed, last summer, in the course of admonishing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for comparing Israel’s crimes to the Holocaust during his visit to Germany, Klein emphasized the way that antisemitism hurts Germans. “By relativizing the Holocaust, President Abbas lacked any sensitivity towards us German hosts,” Klein said. Emily Dische-Becker, a left-wing Jewish curator and journalist in Berlin, told Jewish Currents that German antisemitism efforts are ultimately not driven by a concern for Jews. “It basically is an issue of German identity politics at the end of the day,” she said. Neiman—whose 2019 book Learning from the Germans argues that the nation provides a model for other countries struggling with the weight of collective memory—told me that the creation of the commissioner system, and the passage of the anti-BDS resolution the following year, had caused her to question her previous evaluation. “Things have changed really dramatically since the book came out,” she said. “I still think that Germany did something historically unique by putting its crimes in the center of its national narrative, but I also think it’s gone haywire in the last three years. This system of antisemitism commissioners basically went in all the wrong directions.”

Germany’s Jewish community is small: According to government statistics, there were around 225,000 Jews living in the country in 2019, with many arriving only in the past few decades. Although some stayed or returned after World War II, most Jews in Germany today immigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. More recent arrivals have come from Israel and the US, drawn by the economic safety net and creative cultural climate of Berlin.

This small community holds enormous symbolic value for a country that understands the fight against antisemitism as a way to consolidate its moral debt from the Holocaust. In a January 2022 speech commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, for example, Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the Shoah the greatest crime against humanity, and claimed that Germany’s anti-antisemitism efforts constituted a way of honoring its victims. Notably, his speech only briefly acknowledged the “millions of other people killed by Nazi terror”—the Sinti and Roma victims, LGBT victims, Communists, political dissidents, Freemasons, Polish intellectuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who also died in the camps. Scholz thus followed in a long tradition of German officials who have distinguished efforts to commemorate German violence against Jews from those honoring the Nazis’ other victims. As the German Jewish writer Max Czollek argues in his book De-Integrate!, Jews have been assigned “the role of model victim for the atrocities of National Socialism.”

Germany’s small Jewish community holds enormous symbolic value for a country that understands the fight against antisemitism as a way to consolidate its moral debt from the Holocaust.

While Germany’s symbolically freighted fight against antisemitism was previously focused inward—German schoolchildren, for instance, receive education in the legacy of the Holocaust—the country is increasingly reassigning responsibility to an internal “Other,” its immigrant population. When I asked Klein why Germany had decided to develop its antisemitism system so aggressively in recent years, he invoked the 2015–16 refugee crisis, which led to a sharp increase in the number of people from the Middle East in Germany, implying a connection with anti-Jewish sentiment. “There was a very specific trigger,” he told me. “There was a demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbolic place in Germany, by people of Arabic origin and refugees. The Bundestag reacted very quickly, passing a resolution across party lines that says that the federal government must finally do something about antisemitism and create this office.” Commissioners frequently cite an increase in what is widely referred to as “imported antisemitism” to argue for the continued expansion of the system. “The antisemitism that has been imported to Europe requires special efforts,” Hessen commissioner Becker has argued, because “for many of the migrants concerned, questions about the origins of the Holocaust and the responsibility arising from it” are far removed “from their personal biographies.”

It’s significant that Klein’s explanation for the creation of his office includes the migrant-led protest that occurred at the Brandenburg Gate in 2017, but makes no mention of the fact that the very same year, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) became the third-largest party in the German parliament, and the extremist politician Björn Höcke gave a speech calling for “a 180 degree turnaround in memory policy”—in other words, advocating for Germany to stop commemorating the Holocaust. Right-wing militant groups are increasingly infiltrating Germany’s armed forces and security agencies, and police, intelligence agents, and soldiers have been uncovered as conspirators in violent extremist plots. Although crimes motivated by hatred and bigotry are notoriously difficult to track with much accuracy, data collection by German authorities suggests that antisemitic incidents are on the rise in the country—and that the vast majority are committed by the far right. In 2021, authorities recorded 3,028 antisemitic crimes in Germany, up from 1,504 in 2017. Of those, 2,552 were reportedly motivated by far-right ideology, while 122 were motivated by “foreign extremist ideology.” Police statistics collected immediately following the 2015–16 refugee crisis do not indicate an increase in antisemitic crimes, and a set of studies of five European nations from 2018, led by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, suggested there had been no measurable uptick as a result of migration from the Middle East.

Neiman sees a connection between the resurgence of the far right, which calls decades of German memory work into question, and the growing animus toward immigrants and refugees. “Things changed shortly after the AfD got into power,” she told me. She sees the way the antisemitism commissioner system is functioning as evidence that “the German government would love to blame all the antisemitism in this country on the brown people who came here in 2015.” Klein, however, questioned the methodology of the studies that found no “imported antisemitism.” He pointed to another recent survey suggesting that eight in ten Jews in Germany feel that antisemitism is increasing, and noted that usage of Nazi iconography is always recorded as a far-right crime, potentially skewing the statistics. (None of the other antisemitism experts I spoke with thought that the latter argument undermined the finding that the vast majority of antisemitism comes from the right.) Whatever the numbers show, Klein argued, “Jews’ quality of life in Germany is impaired more by aggression coming from Muslim communities than it appears in the official crime statistics. Many of the far-right crimes take place online—incitement, defamation, etc. Members of Jewish congregations don’t even hear about them.”

A march through the streets of Berlin by supporters of the Alternative für Deutschland part, November 7th, 2015.

Colin McPherson/Alamy

In May 2022, Palestinian and allied activists attempted to register their annual Nakba Day protests with the city of Berlin—the site of one of the largest Palestinian diasporas outside of the Middle East. In response, the Berlin police issued a citywide ban on protests and assemblies that weekend. The police cited concerns that the organizers would be unable to contain the anger of demonstrators mourning the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, claiming, “This clientele currently has a clearly aggressive attitude and is not averse to violent action.” Jüdische Stimme, or Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East—a Jewish group that supports Palestinian rights—also tried to register a vigil in memory of Abu Akleh; they, too, were barred from proceeding. When Palestinians and their allies took to the street anyway, they were arrested. At the time, Berlin antisemitism commissioner Salzborn released a statement lamenting “the antisemitic hatred . . . directed against Israel, but also against Jews in Germany,” and calling the protest bans “a great success in the fight against antisemitism and for the strengthening of democracy.” More recently, he told the ​​Deutsche Presse-Agentur that “antisemitic hatred at anti-Israel rallies is not the exception, but the rule.” (This spring, police again banned Palestinian activists from holding demonstrations on Nakba Day, which marks the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by Zionist forces amid the creation of the State of Israel.)

Klein told me that he was not involved in the court’s decision to reject the permits. Salzborn refused to comment directly on whether he was consulted, and instead reiterated through a spokesperson that the “gatherings were banned by the Berlin police in the state of Berlin due to imminent danger of, among other things, antisemitic hate speech, glorification of violence, conveying readiness to use violence, and violence.” But Wolfram Pemp, who formerly served as antisemitism commissioner for Berlin’s police department, told me that Salzborn played an important role in informing the police’s approach to antisemitism, as did Sigmount Königsberg, the Jewish antisemitism commissioner for the Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin, the formal organization of the Jewish Community of Berlin. Pemp,​​ who was the department’s point of contact for all antisemitism-related issues, said that when the police department developed guidelines on the topic, they consulted with Salzborn and Königsberg. “We took it to them and said, ‘Here are our draft guidelines. Take a look. Do you have comments? Criticism? Ideas?’” I interviewed Pemp before Abu Akleh’s shooting, but his comments suggested that the department did not hesitate to shut down demonstrations it viewed as problematic. “There’s the assembly agency, which has to ask itself about the situation with anti-Israel, anti-Jewish demonstrations,” he said. “For example, Al-Quds [Day] is coming up soon. Can we ban it?”

Berlin police arrest Palestinian protesters during a banned Nakba Day demonstration, May 15th, 2022. Photo: Inés In/Klasse gegen Klasse

Like much of Germany’s work to combat antisemitism, the crackdown on the protests reflected an unwavering commitment to the State of Israel. In 1949, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer articulated what remains the mainstream position on the issue, declaring Israel to be “the externally visible centralization of all the Jews in the world,” and arguing that it was therefore understandable for the country’s leaders to “demand reparations for the injustice that was done to the Jews in the name of the Germans.” A few years later, Germany began reparations payments to Israel, which were crucial to establishing both the Israeli economy and Germany’s self-image as a country intent on atoning for its brutal past. More than 70 years later, this view continues to inform German politics. Indeed, former Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in a 2008 speech before the Knesset that ensuring Israel’s security was “part of my country’s reason of state” and “will never be open to negotiation.” (The term she used, “Staatsraison,” can also be translated as “national interest.”) In his speech last year, Scholz emphasized that core pieces of Germany’s anti-antisemitism work included standing up to those “defaming Israel.”

Indeed, many of the commissioners’ relationships to Jewishness are primarily informed through Israel-advocacy work. As Peter Ullrich, a sociologist who studies antisemitism at the Tech­nical University of Berlin, told me, “Many of the commissioners come either from the Antideutsche left”—a movement that emerged during German reunification when a group of activists, fearing a resurgence of German nationalism, threw their unconditional support behind Israel—“or else they were functionaries in the DIG, which is a pretty conservative place.” Becker and Hensel have both played important roles in the DIG, which defines its goal as “contributing to an enlightened view of Israel in German society,” while many commissioners, including Klein, Blume, and Salzborn, have spoken at DIG functions. Saxony commissioner Thomas Feist also served as head of DIG Leipzig. Becker has even donned an Israeli police uniform for Karneval, a pre-Lent festival celebrated in some Catholic parts of Germany. Yossi Bartal, an Israeli journalist in Berlin, told me that “the institutionalization of the fight against antisemitism” has been “pushed by a variety of mainly pro-Israeli organizations, aided by the fact that German politicians think of things mainly on a bureaucratic level, and they want to show that they’re doing something.”

While Becker and Hensel come from the center-right, Salzborn is the most visible commissioner aligned with the left-wing Antideutsche movement. A political scientist who specializes in the study of antisemitism, he has been a prominent figure in Antideutsche circles since the ’90s; his long-standing interest in antisemitism makes him something of an outlier among his fellow commissioners. His reputation for attacking critics of Israel stems in part from a 2011 paper he co-authored, which accused the left-wing party Die Linke of harboring antisemitic tendencies because of the presence of an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist faction. (Scholars of antisemitism such as Ullrich dismissed the paper, writing that its authors “in no way succeed in proving radical left-wing hostility to Israel.”) Salzborn has not softened his views in more recent years. In 2019, he wrote on Twitter, “When the people at the next table on the train start to talk about ‘Palestine’ without any reason at all, it’s time to either get off, put on your headphones, or scream at them. #antisemitism.” Just this May, in defending the ban on Nakba Day demonstrations, he dismissed the validity of the Palestinian story, telling the news outlet Jüdische Allgemeine that the “Nakba narrative . . . ignores the historical context of the founding of the state of Israel, such as the aggression of its Arab neighbors.”

In 2019, Salzborn wrote on Twitter, “When the people at the next table on the train start to talk about ‘Palestine’ without any reason at all, it’s time to either get off, put on your headphones, or scream at them. #antisemitism.”

The antisemitism commissioner system is part of a larger government effort to limit criticism of Israel. In 2019, the German parliament passed its resolution denying state funding to “any projects that call for the boycott of Israel, or actively support the BDS campaign.” Although a flurry of legal challenges forced the parliament to release an addendum clarifying that the resolution was not intended to be legally binding, it had swift and significant effects all the same. Within months of the resolution’s passage, a German city withdrew a literary prize from a British Pakistani novelist, Kamila Shamsie, for her support of BDS; another city attempted to deny a prize to a Lebanese American artist, Walid Raad, after he refused to denounce the movement, though the museum that facilitates the award presented it to him anyway. Peter Schäfer, an internationally renowned scholar of Judaism, resigned from his post as the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum after the museum was castigated for retweeting an article about criticisms of the anti-BDS resolution. In the fall of 2020, a coalition that included many of Germany’s most prominent museums and performing arts centers formed in response to the resolution, which they warned might force state-funded institutions to blacklist critics of Israel. “Accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions,” they wrote.

Many have argued that Germany’s growing antisemitism apparatus seems designed to target Arab, Muslim, Black, and leftist voices. A letter opposing the 2019 resolution, signed by more than 1,500 scholars, artists, and journalists, warned of “a repressive climate in which cultural workers are routinely asked to formally renounce BDS, as a prerequisite for working in Germany.” They noted that this had provided cover for the “over-zealous monitoring of the political views of cultural workers from the Middle East and Global South,” which they decried as “back-door racial profiling.” The antisemitism commissioners’ own anti-Muslim statements only heighten such concerns. Most notably, in a 2012 paper, Salzborn wrote, “Classifying a mere mistrust of Muslims as Islamophobia misrecognizes the very different motives that might inform such a position.” Meanwhile, commissioners have often seemed hesitant to levy accusations of antisemitism against white Germans—especially when the antisemitism in question does not involve criticism of Israel. In 2021, for example, the climate activist Luisa Neubauer accused Hans-Georg Maaßen—a German politician and former head of the national intelligence service—of antisemitism for tweeting dog-whistle comments about “globalists” and sharing links from the white nationalist and Holocaust denial website The Unz Review. Klein rushed to Maaßen’s defense. “Accusations of antisemitism are a sharp sword,” Klein said at the time, chastising Neubauer for wielding them flippantly. Klein now says he regrets his decision to defend Maaßen. “In view of his radicalization, I’ve distanced myself from Maaßen,” he told me. “I hope I meet Luisa Neubauer soon so that I can tell her that we now have the same opinion regarding Maaßen.”

Antisemitism allegations against Muslims and Palestinians can carry steep costs. A total of seven Arab and Muslim journalists—at least three of whom were Palestinian—were fired from Deutsche Welle’s Arabic service following an investigation co-led by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the antisemitism commissioner for the West German state of Nordr­hein-Westfalen. While some of the journalists had made overtly antisemitic statements (one once tweeted, “The Holocaust is a lie #FreedomofSpeech”), others appeared to be victims of a smear campaign; the evidence against one Palestinian journalist was that she had once written on Facebook that she feared she could be fired for talking about the Palestinian cause. “There’s never been anything like this before [in Germany],” Ahmed Abed, a Palestinian German lawyer who has represented activists and community members targeted by Germany’s antisemitism commissioners, told me. Abed called the accusations of antisemitism leveled against his clients “a public execution.” “In Germany, you’re finished if you’ve been accused of antisemitism. And for good reason. But the antisemitism commissioners act against Palestinian activists without any legal basis,” he said.

“In Germany, you’re finished if you’ve been accused of antisemitism. And for good reason. But the antisemitism commissioners act against Palestinian activists without any legal basis.”

Constitutional scholars have argued that banning the Nakba Day protest also flew in the face of German law. Ralf Michaels, a German legal scholar who wrote about the protests for the legal blog Verfassungsblog, emphasized in an interview that the law does not permit banning racist or antisemitic speech per se; even if it does prohibit such speech in contexts where it is judged to be dangerous or to incite violence, it certainly does not permit blocking protests because people are angry. The legal assessment published by the research service of the German parliament determined that the BDS resolution would be unconstitutional if passed as a binding statute because it curtailed the right to free speech of critics of Israel. (All of the antisemitism commissioners I spoke with insisted that they welcomed legitimate criticism of Israel. “You can of course criticize the politics of the settlements or the course of the security wall,” Klein told me, quickly adding, “but you should take Israel’s legitimate security interests into account when you do so.”)

For Michaels, the decision about the permits was not only legally problematic, but also an encapsulation of the ways in which Germany’s culture of remembrance has gone off track. “One important lesson from National Socialism,” he wrote, “is that antisemitism must be combatted decisively. But that freedom of opinion and of assembly are at the heart of liberal, democratic states is also an important lesson.” He returned to this concern when we spoke. “I think that’s something the antisemitism commissioners have fundamentally misunderstood,” he told me. As representatives of the German state, the commissioners “have a duty to respect the basic rights of others—of critics of Israel, of Palestinians.”

Antisemitism commissioner for Baden-Württemberg Michael Blume speaks at a vigil in front of the synagogue in Ulm, Germany, after an arson attack, June 5th, 2021.

Stefan Puchner/dpa

On a fine spring day in March of 2022, Michael Blume, the Baden-Württemberg antisemitism commissioner, addressed a mostly elderly crowd at a conference on “Managing Crisis in Democracy,” explaining that he had come to his current role through interfaith dialogue. Years earlier, he had been part of a working group on the topic when a participant observed that Muslims and Christians could be united through a shared hatred of Jews. Blume was so troubled by the comment that he and a Muslim leader went to a local synagogue to seek counsel, beginning what would become a long and productive relationship with the local Jewish community.

Blume, who is a boyish 46, is a scholar of religion, and led a 2015 special mission to Iraq, where he helped Yazidi asylum seekers escape religious persecution. In his talk at the conference, he played the part of affable professor, expounding on the connections between antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, and joking that he can speak with particular authority to the fruitfulness of Christian–Muslim dialogue because he is married to a Turkish woman, with whom he has three children. Then, his talk took a puzzling turn. With a miniature Torah in hand, he introduced a theory about the origins of antisemitism. He told the assembled audience that Jews are not a race, but rather part of an ancient school that brought literacy to the world—one whose legacy was passed down to Baden-Württemberg’s own public schools. It was this “Jewish” gift of literacy, he claimed, that seeded resentment, which grew into the hatred that would follow. The audience seemed to accept this interpretation without question, and applauded warmly when Blume was finished.

That Blume’s audience was willing to accept his theory is unsurprising in the context of German philosemitism, a powerful current that unites otherwise disparate parts of Germany’s political scene in a fierce loyalty to Israel and an affirmation of symbols of Judaism. This narrative echoed a number of philosemitic tropes that are common in Germany and other parts of Western Europe. A recent exhibition at the Jewish Museum Vienna on “100 misunderstandings about and among Jews,” for example, included the notions that “all Jews are great thinkers and Nobel prize winners” and that “there is a special Jewish way of learning.” “Philosemitism and antisemitism are linked dialectically,” the Jewish studies scholar Maurice Samuels writes in Key Concepts in the Study of Antisemitism. “In other words, animus and openness to the Jews each provoke the other. To attempt to understand the development of antisemitism without understanding philosemitism is like listening to only one side of a conversation.” When I told Blume that the antisemitism experts I had spoken with were skeptical of his story about the Jewish gift of literacy, he didn’t seem concerned. “The academic consensus among scholars of antisemitism has been stalled for a long time,” he responded.

So strong are these philosemitic attitudes that they have inspired a wave of Jewish converts; many of the German Jews who lend their moral authority to hard-line positions on Israel are in fact ethnic Germans who were raised Christian. Though the number of converts to Judaism is not made publicly available, some Jews in Germany are concerned that converts now play an outsize role in the country’s Jewish life. While many of the ethnic Jews in Germany emigrated late in life from the Soviet Union, “German converts tend to come from upper-middle-class and white Christian households,” Bartal, the Israeli journalist, said. “They speak the language, they understand the political system very well, and, naturally, as converts, they tend to care a lot about practicing Judaism. They often take on important positions within the synagogues quite fast.”

A man waves an Israeli flag in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, January 22nd, 2022.

Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

Operating in such a philosemitic context, some of the antisemitism commissioners have sought to burnish their authority by associating themselves with Jewishness. Even more common than conversion, Dische-Becker told Jewish Currents, “is a kind of coquetry, a kind of insinuation of Jewishness.” Klein, for example, plays in a string quartet focused on performing works by Jewish composers. Meanwhile, Salzborn has suggested in interviews that his expertise on Jewishness goes deeper than his academic or activist credentials. In an extended in-person interview he granted to the Berliner Morgenpost in March 2022 (the same month in which he refused to speak to Jewish Currents, citing Covid-19 concerns), Salzborn said that while he is not Jewish, he “grew up with parents who decided on Jewish life partners.” Salzborn refused to offer further clarification on who these Jewish figures were and the role they played in his life, saying through a spokesperson that these questions were “personal.” (He also refused to answer questions about whether he had any familiarity with Jewish languages, re­ligion, or culture on the same grounds.)

In extreme cases, antisemitism commissioners have gone so far as to attempt to determine who counts as Jewish. Several years ago, Blume was embroiled in a small scandal after he referred to Jüdische Stimme as “ostensibly Jewish” on Twitter, seemingly because of their critical stance on Israel. The organization responded by filing an official complaint about Blume’s behavior with Winfried Kretschmann, the Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg, saying that Blume had failed to treat members of the community he is tasked with representing with the respect they deserve. While Blume has referenced the complaint repeatedly on social media, lumping it in with other criticisms of his pugilistic public presence, he has not apologized to the activists. When I asked him what reason he had to doubt the Jewishness of Jüdische Stimme, Blume demurred, claiming that, while he was happy to accept anyone’s self-definition as Jewish as a matter of personal religious freedom, he was not sure whether the group’s members counted as members of the Jewish religious communities that are legal partners of the German state: In Germany, membership in religious communities is regulated by state-designated institutions, meaning that to be officially Jewish, one must join the Jüdische Gemeinde, the state-affiliated Jewish community. Iris Hefets, an Israeli Jew living in Berlin who organizes with Jüdische Stimme, dismissed the idea that this bureaucratic system ultimately determined anyone’s Jewishness. That model “is not normal in Judaism,” she said.

Felix Klein speaks at a rally against antisemitism, April 18th, 2018.

Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy

On October 9th, 2019, around 50 worshipers gathered for Yom Kippur in the small synagogue in Halle, a city in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Midway through the service, an attacker appeared at the synagogue’s entrance. Congregants watched in terror on a security feed as he attempted to shoot the lock off the sturdy oak door with a submachine gun, then set a homemade explosive. When the door held firm, the attacker—later discovered to be a 27-year-old neo-Nazi from the nearby city of Benndorf—fatally shot a passing woman instead. He then drove to a nearby Turkish kebab shop, where he killed a young man; he injured two more people as he fled.

The following July, at his trial, the attacker explained that Muslims had been his “secondary target” after Jews; in a Twitch stream where he broadcast the attack live, he had expressed his belief that Jews and feminists wanted to replace him with Muslims and Black people. He held all of these groups responsible both for Germany’s declining birthrate and for his personal inability to find a girlfriend. His primary inspiration was the recent massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a white supremacist shooter opened fire at two mosques, killing 51 worshipers.

As the shooter himself emphasized, antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and misogyny were woven together in the motivation for his violent actions. Anti-racism activists argue that this is typical, and requires a coordinated response. But while Germany’s anti-antisemitism efforts are exploding in scale, the state is making no parallel investment in its anti-racist initiatives. This is true not only at the level of government bureaucracy—where the country has a constellation of antidiscrimination offices, but just one official anti-racism commissioner, Reem Alabali-Radovan—but also at the level of German civil society, which receives significant state funding. Bartal says he has noticed a new eagerness to pay for anti-antisemitism measures, and seen civil society groups of all kinds emphasizing such work as part of their mandates in order to increase their access to government resources. “You hear from a lot of people who work in these civil society organizations that antisemitism is another financing pot, another way to get your application [approved],” he said. Though the German government also funds civil society groups focused on combating racism and Islamophobia, Bartal noted, such organizations seem to undergo a different level of scrutiny than their Jewish counterparts. Whereas “the fight against antisemitism is politicized as pro-Israel,” anti-racism organizers are more likely to receive state money “if they’re very non-political,” he said. The uptick in funding is contributing to a situation in which the number of anti-antisemitism initiatives bears little relationship to the number of Jews. “The question is,” Hefets told me, “why should antisemitism be more important than racism or antiziganism”—prejudice against Romani people—“or anti-LGBTQ discrimination,” all of which target groups whose numbers exceed the Jewish population in Germany.

What’s more, there seems to be limited co­ordination between the antisemitism commissioners and those working on anti-racist or migrant issues. Salzborn declined through a spokesperson to answer a question about whether there should be more resources allocated to combat Islamophobia, saying that the matter “does not fall within the professional responsibility of the antisemitism commissioner.” In a 2020 interview, Salzborn argued that antisemitism and racism were fundamentally different from one another: “Unlike racism . . . which is built on selective prejudices, antisemitism is a comprehensive worldview.” When I asked Felix Klein why he thought Germany’s problem with antisemitism required an entirely different apparatus than the country’s problem with racism, he pointed to the fact that antisemitism had deeper roots in Germany: “There have always been Jews and Jew hatred in Germany,” he said, “while racism exploded later because of increased immigration.” But he faltered in offering a theory of the differences between anti-Jewish hate and other forms of discrimination that would necessitate such siloing. Racists, he told me, simply despise Black people and Muslims, while “antisemites disparage Jews on the one hand, but on the other hand they’re deeply afraid of Jews, of Jewish supremacy.” He also argued that antisemitism has a vehemence unmatched in other forms of hatred, imparting a digressive story about a Nazi ship captain who abandoned vital supplies in favor of transporting Jews to their deaths.

“In the end, it did not matter to the neo-Nazi from Halle whether he killed Jews in the synagogue or migrants in a kebab store. But Muslims are promised much less protection by politics. The many attacks on mosques never count as a warning for the government.” 

Neiman argues that the insistence on the separation of antisemitism from other forms of hatred and bigotry are related to the German “emphasis on the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust.” This “insistence on singularity,” while driven by a desire for accountability, “is taken to imply that antisemitism is worse than other forms of racism,” she said. “This undermines the solidarity that we need to combat both: How can those fighting other forms of racism be expected to stand against antisemitism if those fighting antisemitism refuse to take racism equally seriously?” People affected by racism or Islamophobia argue that this approach also makes them less safe. “In the end, it did not matter to the neo-Nazi from Halle whether he killed Jews in the synagogue or migrants in a kebab store,” Abed, the Palestinian German lawyer, told me. “But Muslims are promised much less protection by politics. The many attacks on mosques never count as a warning for the government.”

Survivors of the Halle attack took away a similar lesson. “I deeply believe that antisemitism, racism, and Islamophobia are closely linked with one another,” Jeremy Borovitz, a Berlin-based rabbi who had traveled to Halle for the Yom Kippur service with some of his congregants, told the German outlet Belltower News during the trial. He noted that Jews “are in some way privileged” in German discourse. “People in Germany are more willing to listen to us than to people of Turkish or Arab descent, Roma, or other persecuted groups.” And he stressed that he wanted to use his platform to spread the message that “if we address antisemitism, we also need to address racism and other forms of hatred and discrimination.”

The commissioners have not heeded such calls. Speaking from the commissioner’s office of Jewish life and against antisemitism a month after his appointment, Salzborn referenced the attack and called for “solidarity”—not for all vulnerable groups, but for Jews alone. He lamented that such solidarity is often “denied” to Jews in Germany, “especially from progressive milieus, when it comes to anti-Israel anti-Semitism.”

Peter Kuras is a writer and translator. He was born and raised in Traverse City, Michigan, and lives with his wife and two daughters in Berlin.