Anti-Semitism in the schoolyard: A new front in Germany’s struggle

German schools have seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, but educators are not trained how to respond, nor on Jewish sensitivities more generally.

Two Jewish teenagers take questions from students about Jewish daily life in Germany as part of a project about religions at a high school in Luckau, Germany, on June 25, 2018.

Markus Schreiber/AP/File

The security at the New Synagogue, located in Berlin’s city center, is regrettably familiar in Germany.

The approach is well protected: A chain-link barrier keeps vehicles at a distance, two guards flank the main entrance, and a metal detector arcs over visitors’ heads. It takes about five minutes to get through.

“In the U.S. you can go into a synagogue without any kind of controls,” says Sigmount Königsberg, the commissioner against anti-Semitism for the Jewish community in Berlin. His office is housed within the synagogue. “In Germany, we hardly remember a time like this. Even when I was 10, growing up in the 1970s, there was always a police officer standing in front of the synagogue.”

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Such security remains critically necessary, as anti-Semitic incidents in Germany are on the upswing. A shooting outside a synagogue in Halle captured global attention in October, but the gunman couldn’t foil security measures to enter. Metal detectors also stand at the entrance to Jewish kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, and homes for senior citizens.

Security like these police officers outside the New Synagogue in Berlin has long been used at Jewish institutions in Germany to protect from anti-Semitic incidents.
Christian Mang/Reuters

But Mr. Königsberg and other activists warn that though such measures are still needed, to root out anti-Semitism it must be fought someplace where it cannot be physically blocked: in schoolyards and classrooms. To stop an anti-Semitic hate that seems at once more aggressive and also more subtle, they say, it needs to be addressed at an early age. And that means ground zero must be schools.

“Nine of 10 children are in public schools,” Mr. Königsberg says. “You can start there.” Yet efforts to date are underfunded and a bit random; more systemic action is needed, he says.

Anti-Semitism in the schoolyard

Society-wide, the numbers around anti-Semitism are stark. Six of 10 Jews in Germany have experienced anti-Semitic “hidden insinuations,” while 9 of 10 Jews in Germany feel “strongly burdened” by anti-Semitism directed at their family, according to a 2017 qualitative study out of Bielefeld University titled “Jewish Perspectives on Antisemitism in Germany.”

Schools in Berlin have seen an uptick in incidents, reporting 41 incidents in 2018, up one-third from the previous year, according to RIAS, a monitoring agency that tracks anti-Semitic incidents.

Recently, at one Berlin public school, Mr. Königsberg says, a teacher was instructing a unit on religion. One boy offered up that he was Jewish, only to hear a classmate mutter in response, “I’ve got to kill you.” The teacher heard the remark, but did nothing to intervene, says Mr. Königsberg.

Other school situations can be understated or offhand, and even perpetrated by teachers, he adds. Take the time a Berlin public school took a field trip to the city’s Holocaust memorial. A 14-year-old Jewish girl, emotional over what she was seeing, began to sob. Her German teacher told her, “Why are you crying? It was so long ago.”

“There is no typical story, no typical solution,” says Mr. Königsberg. “Sometimes I need a lawyer, and other times I need a psychologist.”

Other times, one might need the police. A Jewish woman whose child attends an elite Berlin public school says she volunteered to run the Israel booth at the school’s international fair. She says she immediately felt uncomfortable. First, a child of about 5 years passed by and told her, “Israel is bad.” Later, as students assessed the falafel offered at the booth, several offered that the food had “nothing to do with Israel.”

Toward the end of the fair, a teenager leaned over the table to get in her face, snarling, “I wish the falafel were grenades, and that they would explode in your face.” Another parent intervened and moved the teen away from the table.

The woman visited with police over the verbal assault, but ultimately decided not to file a report. “I didn’t feel a 15-year-old should have a criminal record,” she says.

When she reported the incident to the school principal, she came away disappointed. “The issue was never raised with the community,” says the woman, who wished to remain anonymous since her child is still enrolled in the school. “Eventually the principal left. Nothing was done.”

That incident brings up the question: Where is the anti-Semitism coming from? Reporting around incidents doesn’t often include the background of the perpetrator, so good data is unavailable, says Mr. Königsberg. Yet, while it’s clear that some problems stem from increasing immigration from the Middle East, a greater hostility originates inside Germany’s increasingly vocal far-right, exemplified by the Halle shooting. The far-right is hostile to both Muslims and Jews, says Mr. Königsberg, and it’s important to tackle both. “People need to learn to accept minorities.”

Teaching teachers how to respond

Doing nothing is easiest in the face of an issue that’s “massively complex,” says Levi Salomon, lead spokesman for a lobbying group called Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitism is the oldest form of group-targeted hatred, and 2,000-year-old stereotypes are archived in European memory. Teachers are hesitant and unclear how to deal with that history.”

On top of that, teachers are overwhelmed and overworked in the face of a massive educator shortage, says Heinz-Peter Meidinger, president of Deutscher Lehrerverband, Germany’s largest teachers association. In other words, even if there were a nationalized curriculum for addressing the issue of prejudice, there’s little time to implement it.

There are also institutional problems: Reporting an anti-Semitic incident is not universally required. “Teachers should be required to report,” Mr. Meidinger says. “I also wish that every German state appointed an independent contact person in the school ministry to take reports.”

Administrators’ instincts also might be to keep the issues quiet. “For example, if a student does the Hitler greeting, school management is often afraid of reporting because they think, ‘If this reaches the outside world, we’re ruined,’” says Mr. Meidinger.

Other times, educators who are sensitive to the issue feel isolated or alone, found a 2017 survey of anti-Semitism in schools out of Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences.

The German government has implemented a number of measures against anti-Semitism broadly in society. For example, denial that Jews were murdered during the Holocaust is a crime, as is the display of a swastika. Golden Stolpersteine, concrete cubes with inscribed brass plates, are displayed at thresholds to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.

Regarding schools specifically, anti-Semitism has been introduced as a category of discrimination in the emergency response plans for schools in Berlin and two other states. This requires administrators to report any incidents to a government office starting the 2019-20 academic year. Politicians in other German states are considering following suit.

Yet the people working on this issue feel that much more awareness around anti-Semitism and structural change inside the education system is needed. “We’re hoping for a continuous conversation, rather than one-off approaches around single incidents,” says Marina Chernivsky, head of the Competence Center for Prevention and Empowerment. Her organization is focused on bringing change via outreach and providing educational workshops to teachers, families, and the public. “We can help educate and teach, but there needs to be a shift and systemic change.”

She’s working toward a time when a Jewish child won’t be asked to draw a family tree in class, without the teacher first thinking about the context and possible repercussions of such a request.

In that recent case, says Ms. Chernivsky’s colleague Romina Wiegemann, a child given such an assignment suddenly came home asking questions of a mother who wasn’t prepared to field questions about relatives lost to the Holocaust. When the mother raised the question with administrators, she found little support.

“We must think about the effect this has on children, and make sure schools engage with topics,” says Ms. Wiegemann.

Mr. Königsberg at the New Synagogue thinks that there’s reason to hope. “When I call the schools now, I get an appointment,” he says. “Last year, they ignored me.” But he sees the fight against anti-Semitism as a fight for democracy. “A true democracy doesn’t work with discrimination.”