The week after Thanksgiving, I had the privilege to be a participant on the Germany Close Up trip. The program gives American Jewish students and young professionals the opportunity to see and experience modern Germany and to better understand the political history and cultural landscape.
Two weeks before I left for Germany, Donald Trump won, and American Jews began to see a rise in anti-Semitic crimes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The same, of course, goes for Muslim Americans, Hispanic Americans and black and brown people. The alt-right was gaining visibility and popularity, and I couldn’t help but find it all mildly analogous to Nazi Germany. I started feeling the same sense of anxieties I had felt as a child when learning about the Holocaust in school. Like so many of my friends, I went through the cycle of denial, anger and now complete sadness.
The thing I was most anxious about prior to going on this trip was seeing a concentration camp. Of course, I read and saw pictures in Hebrew school, but I knew visiting one in person would be much different.
On the third day of our trip we went to Sachsenhausen. The all-male camp was used to detain Jews, homosexuals and political prisoners. Just about all of the barracks had been burned down by the Nazis before the camp was liberated in 1945, and all that remains is a large brick wall with barbed wire surrounding the camp, three watchtowers, a few restored barracks — and the ovens.
It was eerie and terrifying walking around the camp. I think we as Jews equate all deaths in the Holocaust to the Jewish people, which is understandable. However, being at the camp was a strong reminder that all minority groups were in danger.
Later that week, we met with a member of the Christian Democratic Union, the center-right party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who shared that Germany has one of the highest populations of Syrian refugees. I held on to this fact for the remainder of the trip as I walked around Berlin and observed the various populations represented. Here I was in a country that at one time committed genocide against all people who were not Aryan, and now has intentionally rebranded itself to be one of the most welcoming places to immigrants. I thought about what welcoming others to a country
actually means. What were the experiences of refugees who came to Germany?
When we were not on tours or hearing academics and panelists speaking on a particular topic, I found myself in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood that is home to many Arabic speaking immigrants, including refugees from Syria.
One day, I had a cab driver who openly shared his experience of coming to Berlin. When he first arrived there five years ago, the rent was much less expensive, and his neighbors were primarily Middle Eastern in origin. Since then, many younger, native Germans had been moving into his neighborhood. The more we talked, the more I gathered that gentrification was becoming more common in many neighborhoods in Berlin that had once housed many immigrants. With more immigrants coming to Berlin, there have been more hate crimes, racism and xenophobia against refugees.
Our tour guide on the trip mentioned that the right-wing populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) has been gaining more popularity due to an increase in immigration. AfD is synonymous in many ways with our alt-right. I couldn’t help but think of Mexican and other immigrant populations coming to America. What has their experience been like? What has the Jewish community done to ensure that immigrants can thrive? What can we do as American Jews to help support the Syrian refugees coming to Germany? What is our responsibility?
During our closing group discussion we went around and shared our most meaningful moments. For some it was group bonding, for others it was visiting Sachsenhausen, and for others it was speaking to Ahmed, a Syrian refugee we met.
I found myself feeling increasingly frustrated as the group was so openly and willingly sharing their most special experiences on this trip. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t pick one particular experience. It wasn’t until the 11-hour plane ride back to San Francisco when it hit me: I didn’t have a singular most meaningful moment. Instead, I walked away with a stronger analysis and understanding of Jewish responsibility.
As Jews, we must be critical thinkers and sensitive to other identities and experiences. Especially at a time when our next president vocalizes hurtful and dangerous rhetoric, it is more important than ever that Jewish leaders and communities begin to examine how we can be allies to other groups who do not have the voice and ability to speak up.
I urge us all to be even more vocal with the vast inequalities we see daily. For example, we can donate to organizations run by black and brown women, educate ourselves on prison reform or stand up for Muslim Americans. Whatever organization or political cause you decide to show up for, show up and show up loud.
Becca Israel is a member of The Kitchen, former Jeremiah Fellow and former intern for Nehirim, a Jewish LGBT organization. Israel lives in Oakland with wife Hannah.