Berlin attack highlights Jewish divide over refugees

Even before the deadly attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, Jews in Germany were divided in their approach to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Muslim countries since 2014.

Citing a Jewish moral duty to aid the displaced, many Jewish organizations, synagogue groups and individuals have rallied to help the newcomers, including asylum seekers fleeing the civil war in Syria. But some Jews have warned that the influx of immigrants risks importing to Germany the homicidal anti-Semitism of Muslim extremists who attacked Jewish targets in France, Belgium, Denmark and beyond.

In the Dec. 19 attack in Berlin, a man described by the Islamic State terrorist group as one of its “soldiers” killed 12 people and wounded 48 by plowing a stolen truck through the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church market. While police hunt for suspects, the attack is likely to further polarize competing views on Muslim immigration in German society in general — especially among Jews who fear they will be among those targeted by Islamists.

Mourners in Berlin place flowers and candles near the site where a man drove a truck into a Christmas market on Dec. 19, 2016 in an apparent terrorist attack. photo/getty images-sean gallup

Following the attack, the top priority is to take on “this army of Muslims from the wildest part of the earth,” said Pavel Feinstein, a member of Berlin’s Jewish community who supports the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose manifesto from April declares, “Islam is not part of Germany.”

The mainstream representatives of Jews in Germany reject AfD for the xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric of some of its members. The party currently holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, up from five a year ago.

Feinstein, 56, said that he came to espouse the AfD view after hearing the slogan “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” being chanted at an anti-Israel demonstration two years ago in Berlin.

“They weren’t just Islamists, they were also normal Muslims, students and so on,” he recalled. “Up to then I felt at home in Berlin. And now this feeling is gone.”

The hostility expressed by Feinstein, an artist who immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union in 1980, may be more common among Russian-speaking Jews, who constitute the largest of the three contingents that make up Germany’s present-day Jewish population of some 200,000 people.

Such views are likely to only harden after the attack, in which one Israeli was wounded. His wife remained missing as of midweek and was feared to be among the dead.

Feinstein’s sentiment seems less prevalent among Jews who grew up after World War II in a society whose youth were taught to reject any semblance of the murderous Nazi xenophobia and anti-Semitism. His rhetoric appears even rarer among the 7,500 Israelis living in Berlin, some of whom say they left for Germany partly over what they see as Israel’s rising nationalism.

Jews of all backgrounds here tend to be skeptical of the wisdom of letting in large numbers of Muslim refugees, as has been the policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Sergey Lagodinsky, a Green Party politician and member of the Berlin Jewish community council.

Against this background, the terrorist attacks may well cost the centrist Merkel her post and send Germany swinging harder to the right than it has in decades. Her decision in 2015 to allow 800,000 immigrants into Germany from the Middle East has already come under attack even inside her own party amid a string of incidents involving that population — including last summer’s brutal ax attack in Würzburg by a 17-year-old from Afghanistan.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany, which is the country’s main Jewish umbrella group and has also organized activities to assist Middle Eastern asylum seekers, has warned against a rightward tilt as an answer to the terrorist threat.

On the other hand, in October 2015, the council’s president, Josef Schuster, said in a widely read interview with Die Welt that “there is now fear that with people of Arab origins, anti-Semitism in Germany could increase. I share this concern.” Schuster said the issue should be addressed by emphasizing integration initiatives among the newcomers. He also said he supported a magnanimous policy toward asylum seekers, though he added that “eventually” a quota would have to be agreed upon.

While most Jews in Germany don’t see the influx of migrants from Middle Eastern countries as an invasion, the issue is nonetheless particularly divisive, according to the German Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn.

“Every conscious Jew knows or remembers what refugee problems are all about,” he said. “At the same time every conscious Jew knows that many Muslims are more hostile to Jews than, say, Eskimos.”

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.