“Should I tell my students?” Jewish teachers in Germany’s public schools are grappling with the question of whether it is safe and appropriate to reveal their identity amid a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the nation’s schools.
“It took me a while until I had the self-confidence to tell people,” said 41-year old school teacher Michal Schwartze, who worried early on in her career that she could be seen as biased as she teaches history and politics. Eventually Schwartze decided that she couldn’t hide her Jewish perspectives and personal activism against racism and discrimination. “I think it’s important to take a position, and to be explicit about my stance,” she said.
But 32-year-old Berlin-based teacher Anna Furer, on the other hand, does not want her students to know she’s Jewish, especially not the one who praised Adolf Hitler. “I’m trying to ignore this as much as I can, but at the end of the day I have feelings, too,” she said, referring to the student’s anti-Semitic remarks in the past. She is scared of someone in the classroom eventually finding out how much such comments affect her.
Anti-Semitism still - or once again - poses a challenge to the over 200,000 Jews who are estimated to live in Germany. While police statistics suggest that anti-Semitic incidents have occurred at a similar rate across the country for years, incidents have mounted in some cities, including in Germany’s capital Berlin.
According to numbers released by German authorities on Wednesday, numbers surged by more than 10 percent year-on-year and a fifth of anti-Semitic hate crimes in Germany - a category that includes violent or verbal attacks - are now committed in Berlin. While some of the increases may be due to changed reporting mechanisms, authorities view the numbers as a cause for concern. Right-wing extremists were responsible for the vast majority of incidents, followed by attackers with “foreign ideologies” - a phrase that often refers to the influx of immigrants from Muslim countries that have arrived in recent years. Researchers, however, caution against pinning the phenomenon exclusively on these new arrivals.
Recent fears over a resurgence of traditional anti-Semitic patterns across Europe have also triggered a heightened awareness of the problem in Germany in general and in schools in particular, following several cases in which Jewish students were bullied or even assaulted. Whereas scrutiny has focused on public institutions after a student received death threats at a high school in a Berlin suburb last December, private schools are also affected: for months, a boy was allegedly bullied for being Jewish at an elite international school in the center of Berlin.
Yet despite this growing sense of urgency, teachers are still not routinely trained on how to respond to anti-Semitic remarks in schools.
At a recent private workshop for teachers who find themselves confronted with anti-Semitic remarks against their students or themselves, organized by the Berlin-based Competence-Center for Prevention and Empowerment, both Schwartze and Furer recalled incidents they would classify as anti-Semitic. Furer mentioned an Israeli flag that was torn down from posters in the school corridor. Schwartze remembered a students’ questions whether the fate of Jews in Nazi concentration camps could be compared to the situation faced by of Palestinians today or why Jews are exempt from paying taxes in Germany - a claim that is false.
Anti-Semitism in schools comes in many facets, both inside and outside the classrooms, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between legitimate questions and blatant hatred. “We have individuals who are thoroughly anti-Semitic, we have people who simply lack the knowledge - and everything in between,” said Berlin’s official in charge of anti-discrimination efforts, Saraya Gomis.
Few studies exist on the origins of their beliefs, but anecdotal evidence suggest students often repeat stereotypes in the media, at home, or among peers.
Anti-Semitism watchdogs fear that without a comprehensive governmental response, schools could be educating a generation of young people who subscribe to stereotypes.
Germany’s American Jewish Committee (AJC) is collaborating with the regional government in Berlin to better understand the extent of the problem and possible solutions, in a project that is set to be expanded to other parts of the country.
“The truth is: We don’t know that much about how to counter this,” acknowledged Deidre Berger, AJC’s Berlin director. Conspiracy theories, Berger said, were increasingly prevalent and teachers lacked adequate training or knowledge on how to debunk them, according to the AJC’s initial findings. Some teachers feel that their authority is undermined by student references to their religious leaders.
“Students will say: Well, I don’t believe that - I’m going to ask my Imam,” said Berger. “And that’s when a secular democracy is very much put to the test, when students don’t believe the authority of their teachers.” Berger drew a direct link between immigration and a perceived increase in reported anti-Semitic incidents, but so far there is no quantitative data to back such claims, researchers cautioned. Official statistics indicate that the vast majority of incidents are still committed by non-immigrants.
Some critics and researchers also worry that the recent heightened attention on anti-Semitism among refugees distracts from long-existing anti-Semitism prevalent in German society.
“It’s easier to take another group and put all the blame of anti-Semitism on them, rather than to question our own attitudes,” said Juliane Wetzel, a researcher at the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism Technical University of Berlin.
Although no representative studies exist, in initial interviews Wetzel has found that most refugees are eager to integrate into German culture and learn about the country’s history and values.
On a national level, Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to confront anti-Semitism, no matter who the perpetrators are. “We have refugees now, for example, or people of Arab origin, who bring a different type of anti-Semitism into the country,” Merkel said in a TV interview earlier this year. “But unfortunately, anti-Semitism existed before this,” Merkel acknowledged, referring to right-wing attacks or more widespread stereotypes.
But it was the public focus on immigrants that triggered an unprecedented national awareness for a problem teachers themselves have long struggled with.
“Teachers felt left alone with the problems,” said Berger.
The problem is amplified by Germany’s federalized education system that gives the country’s 16 regional state governments authority over their own schools, and has in part prevented a coordinated national response. Workshops such as the one Schwartze and Furer attended are aimed at filling the gap. Among dozens of other teachers, Schwartze and Furer discussed possible solutions. “I usually try to ask students where they got their arguments from,” said Schwartze, who teaches in Frankfurt. “You have to discuss it with them.”
Some associations like the Salaam-Shalom initiative have attempted to build bridges between Muslims and Jews by facilitating joint research projects, for instance focused on the Middle East conflict.
“Many youths simply don’t know what the words they use really mean,” Salaam-Shalom coordinator Armin Langer told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel daily.
Tackling anti-Semitism primarily as a problem between Jews and Muslims in major hubs like Berlin, however, ignores that anti-Semitism is a far broader concern, critics warn.
Singling out one group to discuss a more widespread issue, said Berlin’s Gomis, may trigger racism -and in turn more anti-Semitism. That’s why some teachers like Furer are demanding a more proactive approach in schools that doesn’t solely focus on Germany’s troubled history.
“We shouldn’t only discuss Jews as historic victims,” said Furer, who was born in Russia and later moved to Germany. “Instead, we should also talk about how much we have contributed to culture and science. We need to show students what Jewish life looks like.”