Berlin anti-Israel parade shrouded in ignorance

berlin | Two young Muslim girls marching in Berlin’s Al-Quds Day parade were holding up signs opposing “occupation, racism and anti-Semitism.”

When asked, the girls were not able to define anti-Semitism.

Then they marched, together with some 1,000 others, through the German capital on Saturday, Nov. 13.

The Shiite Islamist parade was one of several held around the world to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The event was begun in 1979 by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini to condemn Israel’s existence.

Since then, Iran has held its annual demonstration in Tehran, Hezbollah has held military parades in Beirut, and demonstrators around the world have demanded the destruction of Israel.

In Berlin this year, those demands were veiled. There were posters condemning “all forms of terrorism” and proclaiming the equal value of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which one day hopefully would exist together in a “liberated Palestine.”

To some extent, the moderate appearance of the Islamist parade was a result of the attention drawn to the event by a coalition of pro-democracy groups.

“We succeeded in getting them to be more reserved” in their slogans, said Anette Kahane, founder of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a watchdog group against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Kahane helped organize a pro-Israel counterdemonstration. The pro-Israel group included many Iranian exiles protesting rights abuses in their homeland. About 150 people stood on a street blocked off by a phalanx of police vans.

Though there were Jewish participants in the counterdemonstration, no Jewish communal organization was involved. That was in keeping with organizers’ goals, said Arne Behrensen, a member of the Berlin Alliance Against Anti-Semitism.

“We wanted to build a coalition of the left, anti-racist groups and immigrant organizations who see it as their own job to do something against anti-Semitism, radical Islamism and racism, and not to leave it to the Jews,” Behrensen said in a telephone interview. “And we don’t want to leave it to the Iranians to protest against Islamism and Al-Quds Day.”

Mehdi K., holding a pre-revolution Iranian flag, said he had not seen his wife and child in Iran for three years.

“We are against terrorists; we are against people who kill,” said Mehdi, 37, who is Muslim. “We stand next to the Israeli flag. For us it is the same as the German flag. Terrorists are destroying Islam.”

Kahane, who is a member of Berlin’s Jewish community, participated in a Nov. 7 conference to inform the public about the history and goals of Al-Quds Day.

The conference aimed to “make it so that fewer people participate in the Al-Quds demonstration,” said Claudia Dantschke of the Center for Democratic Culture, a co-organizer of the counterdemonstration. She said this year’s Al-Quds parade in Berlin was markedly smaller than in previous years.

Similarly, the Al-Quds Day parade in London on Nov. 6 met with protests by Iranian dissidents who handed out leaflets stating that Iran “is no friend of Palestinians or any other nation.”

One left-wing British group reportedly dropped out of the Al-Quds Day march after talking to the pro-democracy groups.

In Berlin, Dantschke was not surprised that some of the Islamist marchers did not understand the words on the posters they carried. The slogans were “meant for the German public” to ensure that the Islamic group can march again next year, Dantschke said.

“The idea is to get the public on their side, through dissembling,” she said.

“Al-Quds Day stands for the destruction of Israel,” said Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a lecturer and journalist in Berlin who translates Iranian publications for the Middle East Media Research Institute. “It is the anti-Semitic symbol in the national ideology of Iran.”

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.