This is a joint article with Eva Odrischinsky titled, Extreme Antisemitic Incidents at Berlin Schools. It was published by the Began-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) and republished here with the author’s consent…
EXTREME ANTISEMITIC INCIDENTS AT BERLIN SCHOOLS
Manfred Gerstenfeld and Eva Odrischinsky
Jewish pupils in German public schools are particularly vulnerable to the greatly increased antisemitism in the country. A number of extreme antisemitic incidents have been published in recent years, of which several severe ones occurred in Berlin. German authorities are only slowly waking up to the problem and beginning to address it. The government recognizes that in many cases, the alleged perpetrators are children of Muslim immigrants, in particular in Berlin which has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities.
There are many indications that antisemitism in Germany has increased in recent years on social media, in the public domain, within the political system and in society at large. Jews often try to avoid locations where antisemitism is at its worst or may affect them. That is however not possible for school children. These are particularly vulnerable because they have to go to their school. A number of extreme antisemitic incidents in German schools have been published in recent years. By elaborating on several that have taken place in Berlin, one can get an indication of how serious these problems have become.
In April 2017, a Jewish school boy was tormented by fellow pupils of Arab and Turkish descent at a public school in Berlin’s Friedenau district. To protect his identity his first name was changed and he became known in the media as Oscar Michalski. He was not only insulted, but an older student shot at him with a realistic looking gun.1 He also strangled Oscar to the point of unconsciousness. The school’s population is about 80% Muslim, mostly of Turkish and some of Arab provenance. Friedenau is considered a Berlin neighborhood where problems caused by immigrants are not considered particularly serious. Yet in that same neighborhood in 2012 Rabbi Daniel Alter was severely beaten up on a street by four Arab looking youngsters in the presence of his seven year old daughter.2
The school’s headmaster who taught mathematics in the victim’s class said he was unaware of the problems. The school’s administration and social worker ignored the problems even after they were informed by the victim’s parents.3 His parents then moved Oscar to another school.4 The French-German public broadcaster Arte broadcast a documentary on the story of Oscar.5
Part of the media attention this case received was perhaps due to the fact that the victim’s father, Wenzel Michalski, is head of the German Branch of Human Rights Watch.6 Little or no attention was paid to the fact that Oscar’s British mother’s Gemma is a daughter of a member of the House of Lords, Baron Wasserman7 and a granddaughter of the late Hugh Gaitskell, a leader of the British Labour Party and his Jewish wife Baroness Gaitskell.
Another case of antisemitism in a Berlin school came to light in December 2017. In that same month, many years too late, various German politicians started to talk about Muslim antisemitism because of the public burning of a homemade Israeli flag by Muslims in the German capital. An 18-year old Jewish high school pupil at the Ernst-Reuter-School in the Gesundbrunnen neighborhood was told by a female fellow student during a discussion on the Middle East that “Hitler was good, he has murdered Jews.” Fellow students added “you are all child murderers” and “you should all be decapitated.” From that point on during recess, the boy remained indoors for his security.8 9
In March 2018, a second grade Jewish girl at the Paul Simmel Elementary School in Berlin’s Tempelhof-Schöneberg neighborhood was mobbed because of her Jewish identity. Her father said that his daughter had been insulted and threatened with death by Muslim pupils because “she doesn’t believe in Allah.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas thereupon said “When a child is threatened by antisemitism that is shameful and intolerable.”10
Also in 2018, German Jewish student, Liam Rückert relocated from Berlin to Israel because he had experienced rampant hatred of Jews at his Jungfernheide public school in Berlin’s Spandau neighborhood. The school is known to be problematic. Sixty-two percent of its pupils come from migrant backgrounds. Rückert said he realized he had to conceal his Jewish identity when, during a discussion about the Middle East conflict, a student of Arab origin said that if there were a Jew in the class, he would kill him, Rückert also said that he had a gay Arab friend called Hussein. They shared their secret identities. Once Rückert’s Jewish identity became known he was constantly insulted with words like “shit Jew” and “shit Israeli.” The school refused his request to change classes. His mother, who is of Israeli descent said: “We received no support from the school administration.”11
In June 2018 it became known that at the highly reputed John F. Kennedy School situated in the Berlin Zehlendorf neighborhood, a Jewish student had been mobbed by various pupils for several months. This school’s pupils are primarily from German elite families and foreign diplomats. One classmate blew cigarette smoke in the student’s face and told him “he should think about his gassed ancestors.” On other occasions, he received notes from classmates emblazoned with a swastika. A large part of the class had tolerated the mobbing or participated in it. There had also been antisemitic incidents aimed at a female Jewish student.12 This school’s administration said that they hadn’t realized the problems for several months, but took action as soon as they became known. At the beginning of the new school year, the administration plans to introduce a special program on discrimination.13
German Minister for family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth, Franziska Giffey, said “many schools do not want to report antisemitism, radicalization and racism and public hate, because they are afraid of stigmatization.” Last summer the federal government decided to send 170 anti-bullying experts to selected schools which have problems.14
Giffey’s assessment is backed by Frankfurt sociologist, Julia Bernstein, whose groundbreaking study on antisemitism in German schools from the perspective of the victims was published in December 2018. Based on 227 interviews, Bernstein concluded that teachers often fail to recognize the antisemitic nature of the increasingly common swear word “Jew” and school managements deny there is antisemitism for fear of harming the school’s reputation. In Bernstein’s view, the frequent use of Hitler salutes, swastikas and “Holocaust jokes” testifies to the rapid removal of taboos and lowering of inhibitions.15
Vladislava Zdesenko, one of nine Jewish Berlin lawyers who have teamed up to help the victims of antisemitic bullying and their families, says the current situation cannot be allowed to continue. Jewish victims end up changing schools while their assailants stay put and go unpunished. She also notes that “the cases that come to public awareness are just the tip of the iceberg.”16
German authorities are slowly waking up to the problem and beginning to address it partly. Berlin has created an online information portal for teachers to help them thematize antisemitism, and starting in school year 2019 educational institutions in Berlin will be required to report cases of antisemitism to the police or the school authorities.17 18
Last summer the federal government decided to send 170 anti-bullying experts to selected schools which have problems. The government recognizes that in many cases the alleged perpetrators are children of Muslim immigrants, particularly in Berlin, which has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities.19
To conclude: Despite some recent laudable efforts to combat the problem, it will take a long time before most German schools will effectively deal properly with antisemitic and racist incidents and educate pupils against discrimination. If incidents nevertheless occur, the perpetrators should be severely punished. All such incidents should be reported to the authorities and school administrations and those that do not comply should be reprimanded or replaced. This sounds like a near-utopian vision of how the German reality will develop.