Thousands of people across Germany marched Wednesday in solidarity with the country’s Jewish community amid rising concerns over anti-Semitism.
A day after Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, warned against Jewish men wearing a kippa (skullcap) in public, demonstrators wore the head covering in a gesture of solidarity.
The largest event took place in Berlin, with other demonstrations held across the country in Erfurt, Potsdam and Cologne – with people of different faiths coming together.
Schuster’s remarks came after last week’s anti-Semitic attack in Berlin that targeted two men wearing kippas.
According to the latest figures published by the Interior Ministry, there were 1,468 anti-Semitic attacks carried out in Germany in 2016.
The report says that 1,381 of those attacks were committed by people associated with the far right.
Students against the far right
The demonstrations take place at a time where there is growing concern over the influence of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, the largest opposition in Parliament.
Standing on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform, it won 12.6% of the vote, a result described by leading party figures as a “political earthquake.”
But the AfD has also courted controversy within the Jewish community, most notoriously when Björn Höcke, former leader of the party in the eastern state of Thuringia, was expelled after condemning the presence of a Holocaust memorial in the city of Berlin while urging Germany to stop atoning for its Nazi war crimes.
While the AfD has sought to position itself as friendly toward the Jewish community – a senior member told Reuters it has warned of anti-Semitism by Muslims – many are not convinced.
Last Sunday, the Union of Jewish Students met in Frankfurt, where they voted through a policy ruling that it would have nothing do with the party.
“I grew up in Jewish institutions. I went to Jewish Kindergarten, Jewish high school, I’m leading the Jewish Student Union,” Dalia Grinfeld, president of the Jewish Student Union of Germany, told CNN.
“I feel that if we didn’t have the security measures we have, police in front of every Jewish institution, then we wouldn’t have the life here. Because of the AfD, we can never stay safe here.”
Grinfeld says the AfD is attempting to camouflage its racism by offering its support to the Jewish community – support she says it does not want.
“As Jewish people, we do feel as if we are used by the AfD,” she told CNN.
“It’s as if they’re trying to say, ‘we stand with the Jews’ but we don’t’ want them because of their fake solidarity. It’s not real solidarity .
“If you demand that ritual slaughter is not allowed and argue against freedom of religious rights in Germany. then you can’t be a friend of the Jewish people.
“They try to use the ‘We stand with the Jews so we can’t be racist, we’re not anti-Semitic’ line, which is of course what they are.”
Last week’s attack in Berlin, which was captured on video, caused huge shock within in Germany.
The footage shows the attacker, a Syrian refugee, shouting “yahudi” – the Arabic word for Jew – while lashing the victim with his belt.
The victim, Adam Armoush, a 21-year-old Israeli who is not Jewish, told German media that he had worn the kippa in an attempt to prove that Berlin did not have an anti-Semitic atmosphere.
Days later, Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack while expressing concern over the emergence of “another form of anti-Semitism,” aside from that perpetrated by the far right.
In April, the German government appointed Felix Klein as its first special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism did not need to be imported into Germany – it was always there,” Marcel Dirsus, political scientist at the University of Kiel, told CNN.
“But now Jews in Germany are faced with a resurgent far right as well as a new kind of anti-Semitism that is the result of immigration from the Arab world.
“Some opponents of Merkel’s refugee policy are using a string of recent anti-Semitic incidents to attack her stance. Some supporters of her open-door policy deny that immigration from Muslim majority countries and a surge in anti-semitism are at all related.
“Germany needs to make that Jews can feel safe in Berlin, Hamburg or Munich. To do so, Germans will need to make tough choices,” Dirsus said.
Crowds also gathered in Cologne to lend their support to the local Jewish community.
“I feel like being a Jew in Germany nowadays is something that carries a bit more significance than it did a couple of years ago,” Felix Tamsut told CNN from the demonstration in Cologne.
“I feel as if the atmosphere has changed. People talk about the wave of Muslim immigration but the risk also comes from extreme right-wing.
“That’s where most anti-Semitic crime in Germany comes from. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and sentiments which haven’t been made public before are now being made public because of the rise of the AfD.”
Tamsut feels that the success of the AfD has emboldened anti-Semites and allowed them to voice their opinion without shame.
He also rejects far-right rhetoric, which blames the attacks on asylum seekers fleeing from Arab nations.
“I’ve met many refugees personally and I’m proud to call them my friends but the problem is for a lot of them is that they’d never met a Jew before,” Tamsut added.
“They don’t know what we stand for or who we are. They just assume. That’s not true for everyone, but it is for a significant amount.
“For the right wing, it’s more problematic and it’s not going away. It’s on the rise, and as a secular Jew who lives the life of an average citizen here in Germany, the right wing sometimes scares me.”