Last Sunday, thousands rallied in front of the US Capitol against rising anti-Semitism in solidarity with the Jewish people. In Queens, we have in the last few months witnessed violent acts of hate against Jewish people on our streets, synagogues defaced with swastikas, and candidates for local public office calling for the elimination of Israel while demonizing Jewish people for supporting the Jewish state. As Americans, this upsurge of anti-Semitism across the ideological and partisan divide should deeply trouble us all. It’s what led me to visit Germany to further educate myself about Holocaust history and this new anti-Semitism.
Upon arriving, I met Franziska Giffey, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and leading candidate for Mayor of Berlin. Conversations about anti-Semitism today must begin with what she described as the “unthinkable” rise of the Far Right in the last five years. Today, in living memory of the Holocaust, racist rhetoric comes from the halls of the German Parliament. The pandemic has resurfaced age-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories behind COVID-19. At the same time, Ms. Giffey seemed genuinely surprised to hear that malicious libels, centered in hateful tropes of Jewish power and blood libel, are now heard from the halls of the United States Congress.
Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest bigotry. The Jewish story of resilience was ever-present at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, which dedicates itself to the history, culture, and heritage of the Jews of Germany dating to the fourth century. This shared peoplehood brought strength, solidarity, and community. However, even when the Jews were granted citizenship in the 19th century, assimilation and an outward “German” appearance did nothing to stop their marginalization by way of exclusion from certain professions and the civil service. This is because modern anti-Semitism takes on a racialized form of bigotry.
As I traveled from Berlin to Munich, the realities of present-day anti-Semitism came into view. The only synagogue was off limits to all except congregants, due to security concerns. Security guards were posted around the clock much in the way Jewish houses of worship increasingly are here in America. At the Jewish Museum of Munich, it was striking how little is left of what was once a vibrant community. The Nazis destroyed the longstanding synagogue and most of the Jews did not survive the Holocaust.
It was time to visit one of the concentration camps. There is no preparing oneself for the emotional wrenching that overcomes one upon entering this space. The infamous words “Work will set you free” remain emblazoned on the front gate of the Dachau concentration camp. Every human being should reckon with the torture that took place in the “bunker,” the bodies incinerated in the crematorium, and the slave labor that led to the mass murder of those who could no longer endure the brutal work conditions. That evening, while listening to live street music back in Munich, I could not help but wonder what role the grandparents of those present had in what took place at Dachau. This question of complicity is a deep one that must remain in the forefront of efforts to understand and dialogue about what happened here.
I wanted to better understand how the Holocaust could happen in a modern, post-industrial republic. I arrived at the site of the infamous Nuremberg rallies set in a massive stadium constructed by the Nazis for the political purpose of building their fascist movement. The yearly rallies, starting in the 1920s, were billed as cultural, in addition to a political mass meeting in a city that was known for this since the 19th century. Nuremberg became a center of Nazi power. After the Nazis took power democratically in 1933, the rallies continued. This is where the discriminatory Nuremberg laws were passed in 1935. Eventually, dignitaries from Britain, France, and yes, the United States would attend these rallies. During the War, the site was turned into a concentration camp for prisoners of war and was used to deport the Jews of Germany to their ultimate deaths.
I was fortunate to get to speak with emerging German leaders. Sebastian Roloff is a fellow labor lawyer and about to serve in the Parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Sebastian was candid about his advice to his Jewish friends not to travel to certain parts of Germany due to the current threat of anti-Semitism. Even more, he was up front that it was unsafe to walk in certain areas of Berlin wearing a kipah.
The areas of Berlin that Sebastian described are home to vibrant Turkish and other Middle Eastern immigrant communities. Contituencies Hakan Demir is seeking to represent in Parliament. Hakan’s family immigrated to Germany from Turkey in 1970. He comes from a working-class background, having grown up in an apartment with seven siblings. Hakan embodies a striving immigrant spirit. He was frank about the problem of anti-Semitism in the Muslim community. Hakan and I agreed that it is imperative to confront intolerance within our communities. The recent round of violence in the Middle East renders it all the more necessary that we not import the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into our societies. Human rights and justice are not served by inflammatory rhetoric that erases the history and identity of the Jewish people. The inescapable reality of the necessity for a safe and thriving Jewish state is as potent now as it was in the aftermath of the Second World War. The voices telling us otherwise should take a moment to respect and reflect on the Jewish lived experience.
Ethan Felder is a labor lawyer and community leader, raised in Forest Hills. He serves on Community Board 6 and is a proud graduate of the Solomon Schechter School of Queens.