Toby Axelrod

I understand the temptation to compare today's Germany to the 1930s, but it’s wrong

Constant historical references distract us from weeding out today's antisemitism, our Berlin correspondent says

June 21, 2019 10:13

With news of antisemitic incidents on the rise in Germany, readers abroad may understandably be concerned. In Berlin alone, where I live, the number of incidents rose by 14 per cent over the previous year, to 1,083.

Many cases are never solved — and it’s likely that many are not reported, either — but where perpetrators are identified, the vast majority comes from far-right circles, with some in extreme left or Islamic categories.

Just this week, a 20-year-old man wearing a kippah was spat on and insulted in Berlin. And a rabbi who served in Düsseldorf for 18 years reported having been harassed by an aggressive man — the first such incident in all that time.

But these statistics do not permeate my everyday world. I personally feel safe on the streets and in the synagogues; in the latter, security systems perhaps serve more to reassure participants than to protect against an unseen threat.

Though I do not wear a kippah or other obvious Jewish accouterments in public, I know some who do. Among my friends, there have never been reports of harassment. But I read and take seriously the cases reported in local news.

It is hard not to seek comparisons, drawing lessons from what is going on today based on history.

I understand the temptation to say the 1930s are repeating themselves, but I reject the characterisation, and even see it as a dangerous romanticisation that might distract us from the task at hand: weeding out antisemitism and keeping vigilant against its return.

The comparison with the 1930s even borders on trivialising the state-imposed antisemitism under the Nazis, when the slow and steady procession to extermination was made to look like a needed imposition of law and order.

Mainstream lawmakers in Germany today are not concerned with defining who is a Jew; rather, they are struggling to define antisemitism so as to forge better tools for prosecuting it. These tools are modifications of those shaped by the Allied post-war administrations: clamp down on the public expression of hate, make Nazi philosophy and trappings a taboo in society. In essence, suppression.

As an American steeped in free-speech values, I sometimes chafe at this notion. I would stand up for the right of even my worst enemy to speak his or her mind. Anti-BDS laws in the United States are doomed to fail, I suspect.

But Germany has a very different need. Suppression recognises negative human tendencies, and — in a country where antisemitism led to genocide — suppression of some speech might be a desirable option.

For all the cynicism sometimes expressed about the true motivation of today’s lawmakers, their level of sincerity, or even of knowledge, it counts for a lot that they debate and vote on defining antisemitism. In the end, even the Talmud says we should do the prescribed right thing even before we know why. Understanding sometimes comes later.

June 21, 2019 10:13

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