The Banality of Antisemitism

Muslim and Jew in Berlin

I’d asked him to leave our building. “Jew,” he snarled in German.”Jews control the world.”

Nowhere is home. M, Neukölln.

If the intruder had actually looked the part of an Antisemite, it would have come as less of a shock.

But, there was no flight jacket, no blonde hair nor blue eyes to be found.

This man was of Turkish background, to be precise. But his dark skin and thick beard made him out to be more Arab.

A former tenant in my building, he’d left a number of years ago and since become homeless.

His family name is Turkish, but his first name is Arabic. M, as I will call him, is also mentally ill.

What M’s exact condition is, I don’t know. But, we see him every day, sitting on benches in our neighbourhood.

His eyes are frequently alight, and he often talks to himself, sometimes shrieking.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, M has sought access to our building.

We usually can tell by his smell. A mix of body odour and excrement, the mix is so strong, we know he’s inside two flights up.

He routinely parks himself in the stairwell, by the door to the first-floor apartment where M once lived.

M’s father and brother still reside there. They take him in from time to time, and clean him up, only to send M out on the street a few hours later.

Why he’s not dead yet or hospitalised with COVID-19, it’s hard to know. Everything about M is vulnerable.

But, every time you start to feel bad for him, M will get aggressive with someone in the building. Particularly the women who live here.

One such incident involved my partner Jennifer, who, laden with grocery bags and a full daypack, nearly fell to the floor.

Two weeks ago, I heard someone yelling in German and Turkish in our rear courtyard. It was 10 PM and I was about to retire.

Looking out the window, I could see M gesticulating madly towards one of our neighbours, who was yelling back at him in Arabic.

This is Neukölln, in a nutshell. Old versus new. Istanbul, (where M’s family is from), against Aleppo.

The Syrian city may well be different. But, those are the cultural coordinates, differentiating the descendants of guest workers from the 1960s from today’s refugees.

I would have let it go. I was too tired to get involved. It was easier to be a journalist and play ethnographer.

But my partner had had enough and took matters into her own hands. This was nuts, so Jennifer called the cops.

Two hours later, M was gone. The police escorted him out after what sounded like an endless negotiation. We overheard it all.

Rising and falling, the conversation’s volume ebbed and flowed like a rollercoaster. M was agitated and the cops were patient.

We were relieved. Though we didn’t expect the situation to be resolved, it bought us a fortnight of peace.

I only saw him once during that time, hassling a speaker at a Syrian Kurdish protest,  from which he was quickly whisked away.

Sure enough, on Monday, M reappeared.

Returning home from work, I found him blocking our front door, speaking loudly to an imaginary interlocutor.

I asked him to leave, and he refused. “Raus,” I said, raising my voice. Out came the Jew insults.

For a country often criticised by rightist politicians in Israel for tolerating Muslim Antisemitism, this was manna from heaven.

Here was a perfect example of what was wrong with refugees welcome culture. Never mind that this man was German, too.

So unselfconscious was his outburst, he might as well have been a Nazi. But he isn’t, even though this was bad ethnic politics.

If you want to put it in a specific box, file it next to his problem with Kurds. It echoes government rhetoric, in Erdoğan’s Turkey.

I couldn’t be more of a caricature to him. M is unstable and homeless, and a Jewish immigrant was refusing him shelter.

So, when a request from the police arrived, asking my partner if she wanted to file a criminal complaint against M, she said yes.

To that end, Jennifer made sure the complaint included a disclosure about his Antisemitic remarks.

But, as her statement made clear, this is not just a criminal issue. M has mental health issues and needs institutional care.

That was the only thing to do. It’s not only the best solution for M’s situation. It’s also the right response. The context demands it.

Since the 2015 refugee crisis, few community relations have become as fraught in the country as those between Jews and Muslims.

That’s why, in discussing the complaint against M, we agreed that Jennifer should cite his mental health.

That’s no small feat to have made, given how explosive and politicised charges of Antisemitism are in Germany.

And, it’s important to emphasise, how often the blame for it has been foisted upon the shoulders of migrants, not the far-right.

This was not a big deal to have done. Having lived here for a decade, we both know that this wouldn’t have happened if M was not indigent and ill.

Claiming that we are being persecuted by our neighbours for our faith would have been factually incorrect.

Worse, it would have reciprocated the racism, by pretending this was about a clash of civilisations. There was no reason for that.

We’ve never had anything but friendly relations with our Muslim neighbours. This was the sole exception.

Racism is like that. It’s a crutch people rely on that gives them relief, without having to work for it.

And, it’s often a reflection of real pain, its extremity an often appealing way to make others feel it, too.

I’m not a psychologist and I don’t mean to overdo it. But people do this in circumstances where ethnic stereotyping is common.

Despite the distance it has travelled since WWII, Germany is still one of those places. More than Germans like to own up to.

Hence all the neo-Nazis here and nonstop ethnic drama. They’re a consequence of widespread, everyday racism.

My partner and I are often overwhelmed by how bad it can get. If, for a minute, we can buck the norm like this, we will.

Thoughtfulness is its own reward. Conforming to the norm, like M did, in calling me a Jew, is just more of the same.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.