The Blame Game

Germans and Antisemitism

“Their decision was racist,” my attorney said. “There was no legal basis to deny you permanent residency in Germany.”

Middle Eastern migrants and Jewish star. Neukölln, May 2019.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

Though I suspected this might be the case, I’d been trying to put it out of my mind, as for the most part, the discrimination I’d been subject to in Germany to that point had been mild.

I’d not encountered anything like what I’d been warned about, particularly by American Jews, and members of my parents’ generation for whom Germany will always be a concentration camp.

It may not have been directly Antisemitic, my attorney explained. “It is likely due to the refugee crisis,” I was told.

“All persons from the Middle East are Arabs,” I replied, half serious, half sarcastic. My counsel’s eyes looked down.

I was encouraged to take the case up with their firm, but I decided not to. My budget was tight. The last thing I could afford was a fight with the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Office.)

It was inevitable that the issue of Antisemitism would come up. An Israeli national, I was a potential poster child in the making for a larger fight about limiting Middle Eastern immigration, not just from Arab countries, like Syria.

With Israelis moving to the German city in droves, helping further cement its increasingly Levantine public culture, to many Germans, they were only reinforcing the growing hegemony of Muslims in Berlin.

If effective arguments were to be made to limit Arab migration as a consequence of the refugee crisis, there would have to be a rule argued for slowing immigration in general, not just singling out Arab applications.

I imagined that this was what my request for permanent residency had run up against. Going through the department then — limited to persons from Africa and the Levant — I was already mixed in with Palestinians and Yemenites.

Being lumped in with Arab applicants wasn’t something I objected to, either. My family is largely Middle Eastern, having been in the region since the 19th century, before the first wave of Zionist immigration. And Israel is in the Mideast.

Going through this department at the Ausländerbehörde, together with my neighbours, was its own bit of regional integration, via Germany, ironically, not, of course, in the Levant itself. Leave it to outsiders to group us together as we actually are.

But, looking at the officer assigned to my family’s application, I assumed we were in for something of a rough ride. Dressed in what, if I remember correctly, was a very traditional, Bavarian-looking outfit, I remember our immigration consultant say something unexpectedly negative under her breath.

“We should have gone through the American office,” she explained later, through Jennifer (my wife’s passport) as we had in years prior. But Jen was taking some well-deserved time off of work, and it was best to lead through the partner with an income.

Besides, I was doing well, financially at the time. We own our flat and had been extremely diligent with our taxes. My wife had paid into the pension system through her previous job, for nearly 5 years. We assumed we would have no problem.

“That’s exactly the point,” my attorney said. As a family unit, we’d ticked all the boxes. “There is no reason whatsoever to have denied your application for permanent residency, particularly after six years in Germany.”

My next attempt to obtain permanent residency, two years later, was far more positive. Though I have yet to receive it, I was informed of the steps required to secure it and have made the requisite progress to file the application this summer, according to the attorney who handled our current visas’ renewal.

My point in recounting this story is to provide a less tabloid account of ethnic politics in Germany than the one being invoked by government officials, such as the Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany Felix Klein, who is also revealingly referred to in the press as the “Antisemitism Commissioner.”

As a Jewish migrant, who has lived in the country nine years now, I find that accounts like those of Klein tend to gloss over the more mundane forms of discrimination that take place, in favour of more headline-grabbing examples, like physical attacks on kippa-wearers.

For a week now, the German press has been awash with articles on Klein’s initial call, in an interview with the Funke Mediengruppe, for Jews to refrain from overt expressions of piety, like donning a kippa on Shabbat.

The Commissioner’s advice elicited a firestorm of criticism since, for recommending closeting Jewish identity.

Worse, as criticism mounted this week, Klein ended up changing tack, recommending that because the annual Al-Quds Day March is being held this Saturday, Jews should respond by putting their kippot back on, as though Palestinians — the migrant community that stages the annual march are the enemy.

You don’t cure one racism epidemic by fuelling another. But, it is common for German politicians, including the centre-right, to do that. The refugee crisis has been repeatedly blamed for the rise in Antisemitism in the country since 2015, even though government studies repeatedly point to the far-right.

As the first Commissioner of his kind, I would like to be more charitable to Klein. But I can’t because Antisemitism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin and depend on each other for their appeal. Without Antisemitism, the entire architecture of scapegoating, as it exists towards religious minorities, would not have the form it does today.

The only difference, as we have written here in The Battleground, is that this discrimination, against Semites, let us not forget, divides itself on the basis of class. New migrants are Muslims, and political refugees, thus disadvantaged by default.

Jews are better integrated culturally and economically, as a more longstanding European minority. They are “outsiders within the bourgeoisie”, as the legendary German sociologist, and founder of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, Max Horkheimer, once put it.

Discrimination marks them as second class citizens in certain respects. We are more equal than Muslims, not fully equal, as we must endure the sorts of irrationality my former attorney believed I went through at immigration.

This is the kind of subtlety that gets drowned in the framing of Antisemitism being provided by Felix Klein.

That’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. But it does avoid reinforcing Antisemitism by blaming Muslims for its perpetuation.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.