The annual al-Quds Day march in Berlin is often cited as a prime example of the “new” anti-Semitism in Europe: hatred of Jews in connection with Israel, often by Muslims.
Despite attempts by organizers to suppress expressions of anti-Semitism, the march features frequent calls to kill Israelis, Zionist conspiracies and chants of “free Palestine from the river to the sea” — meaning the annihilation of the Jewish state and its inhabitants. Flags of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are on display, and imams preach anti-Semitic verses from the Quran to the crowd in Farsi and Arabic.
To many, such agitation is especially troubling on streets where the persecution of Jews was so brutal that it moved whole societies in Europe to vow “Never again.”
Iran launched al-Quds Day in 1979 to express support for Palestinians and oppose Zionism; international events of support have followed. Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Curiously, however, some of the incidents documented at the Quds Day march in Berlin have been classified by authorities as far-right anti-Semitism, independent watchdog groups have discovered. Critics say the mislabeling facilitates attempts to politicize anti-Semitism, complicating a losing battle to solve it.
“It means we can’t really use the official statistics on anti-Semitism in Germany,” Daniel Poensgen, a researcher at the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), told JTA. Germany’s Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Doubts about the ministry’s methodology have become more pronounced as its data increasingly diverges with information from across Western Europe — and from the perceptions of German Jews themselves.
Last month, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said that supporters of far-right groups were responsible for about 90 percent of the 1,800 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in Germany in 2018, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.
In France, by contrast, more than half of incidents, and virtually all violent ones, are perpetrated by immigrants from Muslim countries or their descendants, according to the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism.
In Britain, the Community Security Trust suggests that far-right perpetrators are responsible for 50 to 60 percent of incidents where victims offered a physical description of their attackers, which happened in about 30 percent of cases in 2018, a 19 percent hike from the previous year.
In the Netherlands, the previous director of a national watchdog on anti-Semitism said that Muslims and Arabs are responsible for about 70 percent of all cases recorded in any given year.
In a 2016 survey of hundreds of German Jews who experienced anti-Semitism, 41 percent said the perpetrator was “someone with a Muslim extremist view” and another 16 percent said it was someone from the far left. Only 20 percent identified aggressors belonging to the far right.
“There is clearly a mismatch here, and it speaks to the inaccuracy of the German official statistics,” Poensgen said. His organization has talked to officials. “There was interest in our criticism, it was listened to and studied, but till now [there’s] severe reluctance on the federal level to change their category system.”
Confidence in German authorities was undermined in 2014 when a court ruled that anti-Semitism was not behind the attempt by three Palestinians to set fire to a synagogue in Wuppertal.
To some, there is a political dimension to the reluctance of German authorities to blame anti-Semitism on Muslim immigrants. Surveys suggest that group is considerably more anti-Semitic than non-immigrants, or more open about it. But “the new Muslim anti-Semitism is taboo, as addressing it would only strengthen opponents of immigration,” Krisztina Koenen wrote in March in the Hungarian-Jewish magazine Neokohn.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced criticism, including that she is importing anti-Semitism, over a decision to let in over 2 million immigrants from Syria and the Middle East since 2015. Last year, a German federal entity took pains to refute the claim. The study by the Berlin-based EVZ Foundation claims there is no connection between anti-Semitism and immigration.
The conclusion prompted scathing criticism by Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee. He said the report’s authors “ignore the data, dismiss the problem, and blame the victims.”
Poensgen doubted that official statistics are being deliberately mislabeled for political purposes. “Most likely it’s the result of an out-of-date classification system that for historical reasons is designed to monitor far-right anti-Semitism,” he said. He cited one 2014 case in which 20 men shouted “Sieg heil” at an al-Quds Day march. The episode appears as a far-right incident in the Interior Ministry’s records.
RIAS uses a more nuanced classification system, Poensgen said. Last year, it indicated that the far right was responsible for about 18 percent of anti-Semitic hate crimes where perpetrators could be affiliated with a specific group. Islamists and anti-Israel activists accounted for 11 percent. Other categories included conspiracy theorists, the far left and centrists. The political affiliation of about half the cases were unknown.
German authorities have made attempts to address Muslim anti-Semitism. Its top intelligence agency recently published a 40-page analysis of rising anti-Semitism by Islamist extremists that was welcomed by Jewish leaders.
But the government’s system for classifying anti-Semitic incidents is flawed, said Laszlo Bernat Veszpremy, who has researched anti-Semitism among recent immigrants to Europe in a paper published by the Budapest Migration Research Institute. It has five categories: right-wing, left-wing, foreign ideology, religious ideology and unknown, which is rarely used.
“The problem is that Islam is not mentioned anywhere, so Islamist or ‘pro-Palestine’ attacks, which could motivate Muslim or Arab perpetrators, can go in at least three categories: right-wing (nationalist), foreign (secular) or religious,” Veszpremy told JTA.
“The de facto situation is that pretty much any anti-Semitic incident in Germany is automatically attributed to the far right because of how the classification system works.”
In France and Belgium, authorities are frequently accused of downplaying left-wing and immigrant anti-Semitism.
“I no longer have full confidence that anti-Semitic hate crimes in France are handled properly,” Sammy Ghozlan, a former police commissioner and founder of France’s National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, or BNVCA, told JTA. He cited the murder trial of a Muslim man who killed his Jewish neighbor while shouting about Allah and calling her a demon. The presiding judge reopened the issue of the defendant’s sanity — after he was found fit to stand trial. Critics charge that the court was reluctant to blame the attack on anti-Jewish animus.
In its annual report for 2016, the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights wrote that a “significant part of the anti-Semitic acts (actions and threats) pertains to neo-Nazi ideology, whereas in most other cases the perpetrators’ motivations are difficult to ascertain.” It did not mention attacks by Muslims, who BNVCA says are responsible for nearly all violent anti-Semitic incidents in France.
The report also questions the very existence of a “new anti-Semitism” generated by critics of Israel, saying that if this new anti-Semitism exists, “then it pertains to a minority” of the cases.
In Belgium, prosecutors recently dismissed a criminal complaint filed against a Turkish cafe owner who in 2014 placed a sign on his business saying dogs are welcome, “but Jews are not.” The prosecutor’s office explained that the cafe owner had promised to write a letter apologizing to the Jewish community. The letter has yet to be seen.
Rubinfeld invoked one of Belgium’s best-known surrealist painters. “This,” he said, “is something out of the world of René Magritte.”