The Varieties of Banking Experience

Religion and Nationality in Germany

“We don’t give accounts to Israelis.” The last stage in completing the paperwork for an online bank account, I’d just submitted my passport for review.

Everyone wants to be here. Neukölln, November 2019.

“I provided this earlier,” I replied over video. “What made you change your mind?”

“It’s a German bank,” the clerk answered, sounding embarrassed. I shouldn’t have to ask why. “Please complain to them about their policy.”

I’d been through this before. But, something inside me hadn’t internalised what it meant, or that it might happen again.

Applying for a new account in 2017 at a bank in my neighbourhood, in Berlin, the moment I handed over my Israeli passport, I received a concerned look.

“One second Herr Schalit,” the representative said, studying the Torah symbol on its cover. “I have to discuss this with my manager.”

Five minutes later, she returned and apologised. “I’m sorry, we can’t give you an account,” she said, sounding a bit embarrassed.

“I provided my ID and visa when I set up the appointment,” I responded. “What’s the problem?”

I didn’t receive a reply. Just a tense smile and my passport. “Have a good day,” she said, trying to avoid eye contact.

I walked out feeling like someone had kicked me in the stomach. How was I going to stay in Germany if I couldn’t get a bank account?

It didn’t make sense. Was it really my nationality?

Newspapers were alleging the existence of a blacklist being used by German banks to screen out customers from entire countries at the time, Yemen, in particular.

As I would learn from my accountant, who helped me sign up with a new bank, (I was offered two new accounts, in the end,) Israel is likely caught up in this, as it has long been a centre for money laundering.

To learn about it this way, though, was awkward for historical reasons. The lack of care taken to explain to me what may have been the case at both of the banks that refused me doesn’t help in this regard, either.

Such policies reinforce stereotypes that Jews have about Germany, because they have a discriminatory impact, even though they may not be motivated by discrimination.

Jewish immigrants to Germany are especially sensitive to being singled out. Everything we do here, for us, is always a test of the post-Holocaust order, to see if we really can be considered equals.

Israelis aren’t the only Jews in Germany but they make up an increasingly substantial part of the population, particularly in Berlin, where the majority of them reside.

When Jewish population figures for the country are cited in the media (200K at the time of this article’s writing), the Israeli ex-pats included are defined as Jews, not Israelis.

Part of that is because for Germans, Israeli is a synonym for Jewish. And, because many of the Israeli Jews here are dual nationals, descendants of central and eastern European refugees.

Often bearing names like Goldberg and Levinsky, they’re instantly recognisable as European Jewish last names, not Israeli-sounding ones like Oz, or my own family name, Schalit.

But, because we come from the Middle East now, and not Europe, we are not disinclined to expect we will be subject to discrimination on that basis, in keeping with the Islamophobia we encounter in Germany.

Anti-Muslim racism is too close for comfort, anyway. In Israel, we take it for granted, because it’s so embedded in national politics. But in Europe, we often find it indistinguishable from Antisemitism.

Echoes of the Nazi genocide are unavoidable here, and it always comes from the same far-right quarters. History may compel us to be paranoid, but populism renews our fears.

Hence, how easily someone like me might come to intuit politics in everyday contexts like applying for a bank account. Yes, it was obvious, but you have to be primed to read it that way, too.

When you’re that deeply acculturated by violence, for better or worse, everything can signify conflict.

That’s why reading coverage of the recent RIAS report, documenting Antisemitic incidents in Germany in 2019, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing.

As an academically trained journalist – I did my doctoral work in social theory – it didn’t surprise me that its data was based on threatening or violent incidents.

But what I wanted to read about was evidence of the more ambiguous discrimination I’ve personally felt subject to – partially institutional, partially cultural – which is harder to quantify.

Recording 1253 incidents in four federal states, it was what we normally associate with Antisemitism – physical attacks, hate mail and “harmful behaviour”, as Deutsche Welle’s summary of the report put it.

Not the soft sort of discrimination that distinguishes between communities between in-group and out-group, which assigns different rights to immigrants and citizens.

I grew up hearing family stories about the “yekkes” or German-speaking Jews arriving in Mandate Palestine, who had been wealthy but had been made destitute by the Nazis.

One of the first things they experienced under Hitler, some of them told me as a child, was losing access to work and their businesses, and money. My banking issues reminded me of these stories.

Of course, this is not Nazi Germany. There is no state discrimination of any kind, that would do this directed at Jews. The private sector, though, is confusing.

There, the distinction between then and now is not as easily apparent, because there’s more room to identify bias. Just ask Germans of Arab and Turkish descent who feel passed over in job applications, for example.

Given what happened between 1933 and 1945, the fact that someone could have financial services denied them because of where they come from is doubly problematic.

There may be rational reasons for that denial. But in their absence, such policies discriminate in a manner analogous to cultural discrimination, more typical of the past. Particularly concerning Jews.

“Under German law, the banks don’t have to explain their reasons for not accepting you, or deleting your account,” a Handelsblatt editor, who knew of the Yemenite account closures, explained to me.

“They shouldn’t have such rights, particularly as they suggest discrimination when sweepingly applied like that. But that’s a huge can of worms to challenge.”

I don’t fault studies of Antisemitism in Germany for not covering issues like this. Especially to this degree. Given the overwhelmingly physical character of the racism, it makes perfect sense.

But, at the same time, I think, for minorities like me, who want to be treated as equals to ethnic Germans, we owe it to ourselves to help explain that discrimination is not just about violence.

Because of our history, Jews can over-emphasise this too. A report I  edited, by a Jewish organisation last year, was a case in point.

Over and over again, it expressed concern with Arab immigrant incitement and violence against Jews, as though Muslims were the main threat facing the German Jewish community today.

Far less attention was paid to neo-Nazi terrorists and the political far-right in the study, such as the Reichsbürger and the country’s largest opposition party, Alternative für Deutschland.

Truth be told, I wasn’t surprised by what I read. European Jewish organisations are extremely concerned with Arab migrant politics on Israel and believe they drive Muslim Antisemitism.

The Charlie Hebdo and Brussels Jewish Museum attacks only served to underline their anxieties that European Arabs are the new enemy, not the far-right to the same degree.

But, as the RIAS report makes clear, as have other German surveys like it in recent years, the majority of racist discrimination against German Jews comes from nationalists.

Israel is mostly an issue in German cities, interestingly enough, such as Berlin. But, when you add up all the percentages, it is not as important as right-wing Antisemitism is.

Hence the awkwardness of the Israel excuse in limiting banking services to Jews. It problematises the idea that Antisemitism is Antizionist whenever Israel is part of the discrimination.

To be precise, it’s a way of segregating immigrants from Israel for their Jewishness. But, because Israel is also Muslim, Israeli Palestinians who live in Germany are subject to this too.

The irony is overwhelming and helps underline the suspicion that what’s at work is something far larger, and more inclusive, than the religious discrimination of yore.

That’s how I understand what I went through in my banking travails, and why I would love to read accounts of other ways that foreign nationals are made to feel like second class citizens in Germany.

The fact that my experience of Antisemitism is also one of discrimination against migrants, is entirely instructive in this regard. It deemphasises my Jewishness.

It’s also something that Jews aren’t supposed to experience anywhere after the Holocaust.

We have our own state, and we are, symbolically, white and integrated, abroad. Or at least we thought we were, until recently.

As the explosion of Antisemitism in the United States under Donald Trump shows, everything is up for grabs now. If it’s possible in the US, it can happen anywhere.

Particularly in countries with such dramatic histories of Antisemitism as Germany.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.