The German state of Bavaria has become home to a rising number of anti-Semitic incidents, with many of them linked to protests against coronavirus measures. Jews in the state are growing increasingly nervous.
Max Brym is wearing the blue jacket he always wears when riding the commuter train to soccer practice out in Riem, a neighborhood on the edge of Munich. It is the jacket of his sports club Maccabi, with a small Star of David on the front and a larger one on the back. Maccabi is a Jewish club, after all. Brym, 63, says that people often stare at his jacket and he frequently hears comments like: “What, are the Jews playing football now?”
Brym is the coach of a youth team, and quite a few of the players aren’t actually Jewish. But during games, Brym says, anti-Semitic slogans are far from a rarity. “One time, a trainer asked his team: Why do we have to lose to the Jews, of all teams?”
But his most shocking experience came in May, he says, as he was walking his dog in the English Garden, Munich’s vast urban park. “Suddenly, a guy came up to me on an old mountain bike and yelled: ‘You shit Jews are to blame for this corona shit!’ and ‘You Jewish filth!'” When Brym ran in his direction, the man took off, says Brym. “On his T-shirt was ‘Corona Denier’ and ‘Anti-Vaxxer,'” says Brym, a former university lecturer for philosophy and history.
The Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS) in Bavaria registered more than 100 such anti-Semitic incidents in the state in 2020. The leader of RIAS in Bavaria, Annette Seidel-Arpacı, says there has been a “worrisome increase” in anti-Semitism among conspiracy theorists.
At one protest against the measures implemented to contain the coronavirus, according to RIAS, demonstrators held up a photomontage showing people being forcibly vaccinated by uniformed officials. The emblem on the uniforms strongly resembled the Star of David and bore the inscription “Zion.” Seidel-Arpacı says that many events held by corona-truthers and other conspiracy theorists have included people wearing fake Jewish stars, essentially trying to portray themselves as the victims of discrimination. It represents a shocking relativization of the crimes committed against the Jews in World War II. “They are spreading the anti-Semitic narrative of an allegedly secret group that rules the world and which seeks to plunge ‘the people’ into misfortune,” says Seidel-Arpacı.SPIEGEL International
Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann has also issued a warning against conspiracy myths similar to the QAnon cult in the United States. He says in Germany, too, anti-Semitic prejudices are being spread, with Jews being accused of being both the “masterminds and the beneficiaries of the pandemic.”
It is a dangerous mix that the pandemic year has produced in Germany. Conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists have joined forces and are further fanning the flames of hatred against Jews – which had already been on the rise even before the pandemic. Brym refers to the new conspiracy theorists as “oil on the fire” of anti-Semitism.
The firebrands are on the march nationwide. But the Bavarian chapter of RIAS has counted the largest number of corona protests with anti-Semitic elements. The number of registered anti-Semitic crimes has also risen particularly rapidly in the state. According to the Bavarian Interior Ministry, there were 310 such incidents in 2019, more than 40 percent more than in the previous year.
Most of the offenses, according to the ministry, were perpetrated by right-wing extremists. But what is the explanation? Is it simply a case of charges being filed in more instances? The ministry says there is no evidence of that and, according to a spokesperson, the number of cases remained at a “high level” in 2020 as well. The Bavaria State Criminal Police Office says there were 288 incidents through November of last year, with the state capital of Munich – the city that is home to the largest Jewish community in the country – registering the largest number.
“Bavaria long seen itself as a safe state for Jews,” says Seidel-Arpacı. “Now, the bitter truth is becoming apparent.”
RIAS publishes all reported incidents on its Facebook page, assuming they have the permission of the victim. It makes for a disturbing narrative of hate and incitement, including a cyclist being yelled at in the middle of Munich: “Jewish swine!” In another incident, the phrase “Vaccination Sets You Free” was scrawled on a subway station wall, a reference to the famous “Work Sets You Free” sign at the entrance to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. The same slogan could be read on the mask of a corona-truther at a demonstration in Nuremberg.
In late October, posters with photos of signs from the Nazi period were found stuck to the doors of three Munich shops, reading “Jews Not Served Here.” A resident of Augsburg, on whose Instagram profile an Israeli flag can be seen, received a message reading: “You Zionist bastard swine, you should be gassed.”
In July, four men followed and insulted Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Brodman. RIAS says that the number of reported incidents in the first half of 2020 was 40 percent higher than the same period of time the previous year.
Jan. 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army. The Nazis were defeated 76 years ago, but once again, Jews in Germany have become the objects of insults and threats. “Commemorating the Jews that were murdered unfortunately does not lead to solidarity with the Jews alive today,” says Seidel-Arpacı.
“Anti-Semitism has seeped into the center of society,” warns Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian government commissioner charged with combatting anti-Semitism. The increase in anti-Semitic crimes, he says, is “appalling.”
Last summer, Michael Movchin, 23, head of the Association of Jewish University Students in Bavaria, received an emailed death threat from an anonymous sender with the moniker “Anti-Jew.” It read: “Shut your mouth you mass murderer and child fucker.”
“Our association frequently receives anti-Semitic emails. We’re used to it,” Movchin says. “But this one referred to my private Twitter profile, meaning he researched me a little bit. It did give me an unpleasant feeling.”
Movchin believes that Jews in Germany should show themselves, even if he understands the fear of those who remove their kippa or hide their Star of David necklace under their sweater. Many of his acquaintances hide their Jewishness “like a well-guarded family secret,” he says. “They don’t want to stumble into tricky situations or have to answer stupid questions.” When the student association started helping older members of the Jewish community with their shopping because of the coronavirus, one married couple begged them not to tell anyone they were Jewish. “They were apparently more afraid of that than they were of corona,” he says.
Because of his Star of David chain, he says, he and the group he was with were thrown out of a shop in Berlin several years ago. “The salesman asked: ‘Are you Jews?’ I didn’t really understand what he wanted. He then screamed at us to get out and that he didn’t want anything to do with Jews.” After that incident, Movchin says, he realized that he started checking more often to see if he was recognizable as a Jew.
“But if we don’t show ourselves, Jewish life in Germany will continue to be largely invisible,” Movchin says. “Anti-Semitism also feeds on the fact that hardly anybody knows somebody who is Jewish.”
Movchin is standing on St. Jakobs Square in the center of Munich where the impressive new synagogue was completed in 2006. He says he is “proud” of this place. “We are visible here, Jewish life taking place in the heart of the city.” But he also points to the safety glass in the windows of the community center next door, and to the guards. “It’s good that we have protection, in contrast to Halle, but it’s also unpleasant,” he says, referring to the 2019 attack on an unprotected synagogue in the city of Halle. “I grew up with police patrolling in front of the synagogue and the Jewish kindergarten.” He says he is happy that churches are open to the public, adding that “we want the synagogues to be open too.”
His parents came to Germany from Ukraine more than 25 years ago and he was born here. “A real Munich native,” he says, adopting the regional dialect. “I’m not going to allow anti-Semites to drive me away.”
Movchin heads over to the old synagogue not far away as a mixture of rain and snow falls from the sky. He is wearing a winter coat, but no hat, nor does he have a kippa on his head. He’s not particularly religious.
Once we reach the old synagogue, it becomes clear why Movchin is so proud of the new one. The old place of worship is hardly recognizable from the outside, hidden in a dark courtyard. Across a forecourt lies the former Jewish retirement home. A plaque in the ground floor commemorates a February 1970 arson attack that killed seven residents. The assailant snuck into the staircase on Shabbat and emptied out a can of gasoline. They never caught the perpetrator.
“When is it finally going to end?” Movchin asks. “When will we as Jews stop having to explain that we don’t look or speak differently from other Germans? That this is our home and that we aren’t diplomatic representatives of Israel? Do we now have to start insisting that we don’t have anything to do with the coronavirus measures?”
Many Jews in Germany hoped that anti-Semitism would fade as democracy took root in Germany and new generations replaced the old – but they have been disappointed. In 2006, when the new synagogue and community center were dedicated, Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde München, a Jewish association, believed it represented the dawning of a new age. Finally, she said, she had the feeling that “I have arrived and can slowly unpack my suitcase.”
Born in Munich in 1931, Knobloch survived the Holocaust because farmers hid her at their farmsteads. She has dedicated decades of her life to rebuilding the Jewish community in Germany – indeed, she has essentially spent her entire life trying to make Germany home to Jews again. Now, she is wondering “if Jews even have a future in Germany.” It is a sentence full of bitterness. The reinvigorated anti-Semitism, the hostility: “It really weighs me down,” she says. She herself has received so many death threats that “there isn’t a nearby tree left from which I wasn’t supposed to be hanged.”
In 2012, at the peak of the debate over ritual circumcision, many Jews felt they were being unjustly accused of child abuse. “Do you still even want us Jews around?” Knobloch asked at the time. Today, she says: “I’m afraid that I now have to answer that question with no.”
Still, she allows, there have been a lot of positive developments as well, noting that younger generations in Germany are much more knowledgeable about Judaism. “When I used to visit schools, the students would ask: Ms. Knobloch, what do you want from us? We didn’t do anything wrong. Now, though, they are usually well prepared, something for which I would like to sincerely thank the teachers.” She believes the fight against anti-Semitism will be won or lost at the schools and universities. Politicians condemn hate and incitement, says Knobloch, and hold good speeches. “But they don’t follow up with the kind of action that young people could follow as an example.”
What, though, can be done to put a stop to rampant anti-Semitism? “More than anything, we can’t look away,” says Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter. A member of the center-left Social Democrats, Reiter banned “corona rebels” from wearing the “Jewish star” at their rallies and has also repeatedly called on the people of Munich to get involved in the fight against anti-Semitism. He, himself, regularly attends demonstrations and rallies. Following Pink Floyd co-founder Rogers Waters’ support for a boycott of Israel, Reiter publicly accused him of “insufferable anti-Semitic comments” and made it clear ahead of the group’s 2018 concert in Munich that he wasn’t welcome in the city. Waters rejected the accusation.
“Anti-Semitism and racism must not be given a platform in this city,” Reiter says. Munich, after all, is the city where Adolf Hitler and Nazism got their start, it is here where Hitler found wealthy supporters to help him along.
“For a long time, we had difficulties to really confront these uncomfortable issues,” Reiter said last fall on the anniversary of the right-wing extremist attack on Oktoberfest in 1980.
“We can never again be silent when anti-Semitic and racist hate is stoked in our society,” Reiter says. He calls on the citizens of Munich to show greater “moral courage” and step in if they see Jews being attacked or insulted.
Many Jews do, in fact, feel as though they have been left to confront the hate on their own. “Nobody stopped when the guy screamed insults at me in the English Garden,” says Max Brym, despite the fact, he adds, that many people were in the area. One elderly couple, though, did report as witnesses once the media reported on the incident. Brym says that a lot of people frequently show up to protests after attacks, “but in the moment that something happens, most people suddenly realize they are in a hurry to be somewhere, or they just keep on walking and look away.”
Anti-Semitism commissioner Spaenle has likewise been publicly critical of the fact that nobody rushed to Rabbi Brodman’s assistance when he was attacked by four Arab-speaking men – despite the fact, he says, that a number of people witnessed the incident.
Spaenle is demanding that people pay more attention and says that for a long time, there has been a widespread atmosphere of misplaced tolerance for anti-Semitic statements. “Anti-Semitism wasn’t seen enough, wasn’t talked about enough and wasn’t combatted enough,” he says. Now, though, he believes there is a broader readiness to confront the issue. Spaenle is demanding an “extensive societal front” against anti-Semitism. “We need more solidarity with Jews, more prevention through education and knowledge in addition to state repression of the perpetrators.”
One part of the problem is the relative lack of Jewish personalities in public roles. Marian Offman, 72, is one of the few. He was a member of the Munich city council for 18 years, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) for most of that time, before switching to the SPD in 2019.
The Jewish politician’s name has been included on right-wing extremist enemy lists and he was also part of a group of Munich residents on the since deleted neo-Nazi website “Judas Watch.” “It would have been nice if someone had thrown their support behind me in public,” Offman says today. “But nobody did.”
In 1996, when he ran for his first term on the city council, a competitor from the CSU accused him in a campaign pamphlet of being a “real-estate magnate from the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde.” In 2016, after he posted a commentary on the U.S. election to his Facebook page, someone wrote: “Go back to your country!” On that occasion, though, he says, the comment was criticized by around 50 others.
During our December interview in his Munich office, from which he runs a property management company, he says he is no longer the object of personal insults. But then he recalls a comment made by his opponent last summer in a court case over rent assistance. Offman, the woman said, was “namely Jewish” and thus apparently believes that he “stands above the law.” He says he was particularly distressed when the judge included the obviously anti-Semitic statement in her judgment, even though it had nothing to do with the conflict at hand.
Offman isn’t the kind of person to back down, on the contrary. Often, when right-wingers march through Munich, Offman is there and he isn’t afraid of confronting them. “My conviction is that, as a Jew, I have to stand up to the Nazis. That I can’t be afraid of them and that I am not a victim. I don’t want to accept that role, because that’s what the anti-Semites want. They want to brand us as victims.”
A child of Holocaust survivors, Offman sees his fight against the right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis as an “obligation.” The majority of his family on his father’s side was murdered by the Nazis in Poland.
Offman filed a criminal complaint last summer against Heinz Meyer, who, as head of the Munich chapter of PEGIDA, the extremist, Islamophobic movement that got started in Dresden in 2014, is under observation by German domestic intelligence officials. Offman’s complaint was for incitement, due to a poster Meyer held up in front of the community center that equated the Jewish practice of circumcision with “disfigurement.” Believing the poster to be covered by freedom of expression rights, public prosecutors declined to pursue the case.
Offman himself was even the target of a criminal complaint, with a member of the right-wing extremist initiative “Ausländerstopp” (Stop the Foreigners) accusing Offman of having hit him in the arm when he was trying to hand Offman a pamphlet. “I was even taken into custody and they checked whether I had ever been involved with explosives before.” Offman, who was still a member of the city council at the time, felt it amounted to “harassment.” Prosecutors investigated for several months before finally closing the case, he says.
Offman says that changes especially need to be made in the judiciary. Laws pertaining to incitement are written far too narrowly, he believes, adding that public prosecutors and the court system need to be “much more forceful” in going after anti-Semitism. Max Brym and Michael Movchin agree. Following the threatening email he received in summer, Movchin says, he even gave the police the IP address of the person who sent it, but they did nothing. Only after he went to the commissioner for combating anti-Semitism was the sender, who was in another German state, identified. Nevertheless, he still hasn’t heard anything from investigators.
Charlotte Knobloch says she has long since given up on filing criminal complaints for all the threats and insults she receives. “In the majority of cases, nothing happens,” she says.
Bavarian judiciary officials reject such accusations. “Our public prosecutors are vigilant and aware of the problem,” the state Justice Ministry said in a statement. Anti-Semitic offenses are “consistently pursued.” The statement also noted that Bavaria has thrown its support behind harsher penalties for anti-Semitic crimes. Since 2018, public prosecutors’ offices have been augmented by anti-Semitism commissioners.
The Bavarian judiciary notes that, of the 310 anti-Semitic criminal offenses reported, 30 perpetrators have been sentenced. Another 20 have been charged and in 20 additional instances, measures consistent with the juvenile justice system have been applied. In around 100 cases, it was impossible to identify a perpetrator.
Eight months after the incident in the English Garden, Max Brym received a letter from public prosecutors, notifying him that the investigation had been suspended. Brym had filed a criminal complaint, but officials were unable to identify the perpetrator. “It would send a forceful message to others if the man were to be arrested, a message that they can’t simply get off scot-free,” he says. But, he adds: “I’m not going to hide. The blue jacket with the Star of David on it: It’s not coming off.”