On April 17, 2018, an Arab-Israeli man wearing a kippah (skullcap worn by religious Jews) was attacked on a Berlin street, lashed with a belt as the attacker repeated the Arabic word for Jew, “Yahudi.” Although the young victim was not in fact Jewish, the event prompted discussion in the Jewish community regarding religious expression in Berlin.
Jews still report various forms of discrimination based on their religious expression In the city where Hitler signed a decree that led to the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews.
Berlin resident Ármin Langer, journalist and author of A Jew in Neukölln, writes of Jewish life in his district. Langer wears a kippah while studying and praying and claims that he has been asked “many times” by Berliners why he does not wear a kippah on a regular basis. “Many fetishize a kippah here,” he told Breaking Israel News. “It makes them happy to see [physical evidence] of Jewish life thriving in Berlin post Second World War.”
The number of Jews living in Berlin is a far cry compared to Berlin’s pre-Second World War population of 160,000 Jews (after the war, only 8,000 – just five percent – of Jews were left in Berlin). According to the latest population statistics of 2017 recorded by the Jewish Data Bank, there are about 116,500 Jews living in Germany.
While some believe that the Jewish population is increasing in Berlin, the epicenter of the Holocaust, the Jewish Data Bank records a different trend. “Despite wide reports of a huge increase,” noted the 2017 report, “the community-registered population in Berlin diminished from 10,009 at the beginning of 2007, to 9,865 in 2016 and 9,735 in 2017. There is, though, some evidence that Jews who are registered elsewhere might in reality be now living in Berlin.”
According to Langer, when one wears a kippah or identifies oneself as a Jew, “nobody treats you as a normal human being,” for better or worse. “There is both anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, both of which treat Jews as a homogenous collective.”
A large majority of the members of the Jewish community in Berlin are Russian speaking Jews who immigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union, cited BerlinJewish.com, a Jewish heritage tour site in Berlin.
“As a Jew, it is quite obvious that I don’t belong here,” said Langer, who was born in Germany and grew up in Austria and Hungary. Langer posed that he often experiences anti-Semitic comments, whether he is wearing a kippah or not. “The other day at a party, someone found out I was Jewish and his first question was whether I come from a wealthy family.”
As a German, Langer also reported being asked if he likes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the prime minister of Israel. “I am German – he’s not my prime minister,” said Langer, who posed that Germans have an “exclusive concept of national belonging and collective.”
Langer expressed his hope that Germany will “learn from America,” a country that he believes has a more inclusive concept of nationality. “Stereotypes are deeply rooted in European culture.” Despite this fact, Langer expressed his belief in the power of education for a more inclusive reality.
Similarly to Langer’s experiences, Dalia Grinfeld, head of the Jewish student union in Germany, told Breaking Israel News that when wearing a magen david (Jewish star) necklace in Berlin, “people ask where I’m from with the mindset that you can’t be Jewish and German at the same time.”
Grinfeld spoke of hiding her necklace when walking in certain areas of Berlin, fearful of physical attacks. “The fact that Jews are scared to show that they are Jewish is a big problem. We need a different mindset in Germany of understanding that diversity is good,” claimed Grinfeld.
Indeed, according to an Ipsos study on the inclusiveness of nationalities that was conducted in 27 countries with more than 20,000 adults aged 18-64, “In Belgium, Chile, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Russia, and Spain, only Christians and atheists are seen by majorities as “real” nationals.”
The survey found that only 46 percent of Germans believe that a Jew can be a real German, with 29 percent saying they were “unsure” and 25 percent responding that Jews can be real Germans. Not only do the majority of Germans believe that Jews cannot be real Germans, but according to Langer, “in Berlin, people consider religious people to be pre-enlightened.”
Such beliefs may affect the way Jews and other religious minorities choose to dress as an expression of their religion. “This affects people of color and people who wear any religious symbol that is not a symbol of Germanness – affecting minorities such as Jews and Muslims – those who are visibly ‘other’” said Langer.
Dissatisfaction among Jews regarding their ability to fully express their religious identity in Berlin raises the question of how Berlin can create a space more inclusive for religious expression and collective.
As Langer expressed, the fact that Germany is home to the second most number of immigrants in the world, leading to diverse religious realities in Berlin, necessitates “a new reality of belonging.”