Soccer broadcaster Marcel Reif, 65, has received many angry letters during his three decades as one of Germany’s most famous sports personalities. He was born in Silesia in 1949. His father was a Jew who survived the Holocaust. His mother was a Polish Catholic. And Reif and his parents even lived in Tel Aviv for two years in the 1950s.
But Reif said he has received only one letter in his broadcasting career that has been even remotely anti-Semitic — it mentioned his “big nose.” People have written “many, many things,” Reif said during a recent meeting with a small group of foreign journalists at a cafe in the Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg. “Just once, once in 30 years, nothing more. Which is OK, it’s OK for this country.”
The soft-spoken commentator normally divides his time between Munich and Zurich, but he was in Berlin in the final week of July as an “ambassador” for the 14th European Maccabi Games, which were inaugurated in 1929 in Prague, and this year, for the first time, called Germany home. The games ran from July 27 to Aug. 5 at the highly symbolic venue of Olympic Stadium, once one of Adolf Hitler’s architectural prides and the site of the highly propagandized and Nazified 1936 Olympic Games, from which many Jewish athletes were barred.
The games featured more than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 36 countries (a majority of the athletes came from Germany, the United States, Israel, France, Great Britain, Russia and Turkey) competing in 19 sports at the Berlin Olympic Park, which, somewhat eerily, doesn’t look much different than it does in the infamous pictures from 1936, minus the Nazi decorations.
Asked whether holding the games here could be seen as a “miracle,” Reif responded, “It’s remarkable. It’s not a miracle anymore, but that’s good.”
In the first days of the games, the symbolism was sometimes overwhelming, intentionally so. A July 28 memorial ceremony at the adjacent Olympiastadion complex featured a speech by Margot Friedlander, 93, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Berlin and was captured by the Gestapo in 1944 and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Friedlander moved with her husband to New York as a newlywed in 1946 and, upon his death in 2003, visited Berlin for the first time since being taken by the Nazis. She moved back to Berlin in 2010 and lives there now, sometimes speaking about the Holocaust to students at German schools.
As a steady rain fell on the approximately 1,500 athletes, relatives and dignitaries at the memorial ceremony, Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas remembered Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who was banned from competing in the 1936 games despite holding a national record. “Hitler robbed her of Olympic victory,” he told the crowd, “but now there’s a street named after her in Berlin.”
Maas talked about the sense of shame among Germans over the Holocaust — a shame visible everywhere in Berlin, with its myriad memorials and preserved historical sites, among them the lakeside Wannsee Villa, where the Final Solution was agreed upon by the Nazi high command, and the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. “Present-day enjoyment is not something we can really ever separate from the suffering of the past,” Maas said, adding that Jews’ desire now to live in Germany, and, in particular, in Berlin represents a “stroke of undeserved” fortune.
But is it really undeserved?
Consider the remorse German society and its government have shown for the Holocaust, which the vast majority of today’s Germans (well over 80 percent) did not live through. Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, a major Jewish figure in Germany and the head of the Chabad Jewish Educational Center in Berlin, told me during my visit, “There’s no nation in the history of the world that has done so much to try to express how ashamed it is for what was done by their country. Every two blocks you have another memorial.”
In Berlin, I found myself feeling compassion for young Germans who carry the burden of deep guilt and shame at what a past version of Germany — one that’s unrecognizable to them — did decades before they were born. When I visited Ukraine some years ago, I didn’t sense the same remorse and introspection — the Jewish memorial at the Babi Yar site is tiny even though Ukrainians were instrumental in carrying out the Nazis’ massacre of Ukrainian Jewry — or in Russia, where, remaining consistent with a hesitancy, or refusal, to condemn its Soviet past, the mass persecution and oppression of millions of Jews by the communists is treated as more-or-less a nonissue today, even though the current Jewish community in Russia is very active.
Germany’s government and internal security services also have gone to great lengths to make their county as safe as possible for Jews, often not an easy task considering the combination of Islamist, far-right and far-left elements in Germany, as well as in the rest of Western Europe. “We do not live on an island of happiness,” said Daniel Botman, executive director of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. But, he said, “So far we have been spared from attacks. Differently to previous [governments], the German government is sensitive to these problems.”
The story of modern-day anti-Semitism in Western Europe and its impact on Jewish populations is not a simple one. The three largest Jewish communities in Western Europe are in France (475,000), the United Kingdom (290,000) and Germany (at least 200,000). The first two numbers are based on official surveys, and the third falls between the number of Jews in Germany registered with Jewish communities and the unofficial number that takes into account the large number of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Israel who aren’t part of a Jewish community.
But in the last 25 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, only one of Western Europe’s three largest countries has shown significant growth in its Jewish population — Germany, which had only 30,000 Jews in 1990.
The increasing rate of emigration of Jews from France to Israel is no longer a new story after the 2012 attack by Mohammed Merah on a Jewish school in Toulouse and the siege of Paris’ kosher Hypercacher market by Amedy Coulibaly last January. Each assailant murdered four Jews and in turn focused the news media on the growing North African Muslim (and alarmingly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel) population in France, as well as on the French government’s weaknesses in adequately protecting its Jewish population.
In May, a Paris-based reporter for Britain’s Jewish Chronicle noted that soldiers were becoming less and less present at Jewish sites in Paris after their “around-the-clock” presence following the January attacks, and quoted the rabbi of a congregation who said, “We knew that level of protection wouldn’t last.”
Between January and May of this year, according to French Jewry’s security service, the SPCJ, anti-Semitic incidents nearly doubled compared with the same period in 2014, reaching 508, 121 of which were violent.
Team USA Soccer (under 18) went 2-3 in Berlin and lost in the bronze medal game to Sweden.
For the record, when I recently attended a Shabbat service at a large synagogue in the upscale Neuilly-sur-Seine suburb of Paris, I noticed two soldiers with rifles standing across the street as services let out. At Paris’ Holocaust museum, too, there were multiple heavily armed soldiers standing guard outside.
Spending time in Paris with two of my cousins — sisters who are in their 80s and have lived their entire lives in France — I heard concerns about a growing and hostile Muslim-Arab population similar to ones I’ve read about in American newspapers since the Hypercacher attack. And although Paris is certainly much safer and more attractive for Jews than it might seem from headlines in the U.S., it was clear that my cousins would rather live in Israel (they said they’re too old to move now), where they could join one of their daughters and two of their nieces who emigrated there decades ago.
During my visit, France felt like Europe’s past, with its fears, anxieties and narrative of emigration, while Berlin felt closer to Europe’s Jewish future, with its vibrancy, excitement and narrative of immigration.
Germany, though, is certainly not an oasis of philo-Semitism. The country experienced nearly 1,600 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. During Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, largely Muslim protests swept through Western Europe, including Germany, with protestors chanting slogans like “Death to the Jews,” “Jews to the gas,” and “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come on out and fight on your own.”
“This was certainly a wake-up call for many of us,” Botman said, suggesting that the country’s Jews had been living under a false sense of security until then. Interestingly, though — and this is a part of what makes anti-Semitism in Western Europe so dynamic and complex — while Germany has the largest Muslim population in Europe at nearly 5 million, it may also be less hostile to Jews than the Muslim immigrants in either France or the United Kingdom.
According to a March report by the German government, in 2013 more than 95 percent of anti-Semitic incidents were perpetrated by neo-Nazis. That changed drastically in 2014, with Israel’s war with Hamas, but perhaps some comfort can be found in the fact that Germany’s Jews appear to have less to fear from a growing Muslim population than, say, Jews in France or the U.K. At the Maccabi Games, Rachel Heuberger, the mother of a volleyball player on the German team, said she feels “very safe” living in Frankfurt, and theorized that one key difference between the Muslim populations of Germany and say, France or the U.K., is that Germany’s Muslim citizens are overwhelmingly coming from Turkey.
“There have been some attacks, but in general it’s very safe. It’s not like in France,” she said. “Most Muslim immigrants [here] are Turkish.”
For the German government, dealing with neo-Nazi elements — something they have 70 years of experience with — may be simpler than dealing with newer, Islamist ones. However, another statistic hints that Germany’s Muslim immigrant population has less cause for concern about Jews than those in other parts of Western Europe. For while German intelligence estimates that about 700 Islamic State recruits have been from Germany (some of whom return), many more have come from France and the U.K., even though those countries have smaller Muslim populations than Germany’s.
David Stern, a 34-year-old German Jew, told me life in Berlin is “totally normal.” I spoke to him in the stands at Olympiastadion, where he was watching the opening ceremony with his wife and young daughter.
“Especially in Berlin, it’s very good surroundings. You have Jewish schools, Jewish kindergartens and a very big Jewish community,” Stern said.
Even in the U.K., the situation for Jews appears to be headed in the wrong direction. In February, the Community Security Trust (CST), which tracks anti-Semitism in the U.K., reported nearly 1,200 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014, more than twice the figure from the previous year. And in the first six months of 2015, the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism reported 473 anti-Semitic incidents, a 53 percent increase from the corresponding period in 2014.
Dave Rich, CST’s communications director, said in a phone interview from London that he thinks the increase this year in the U.K.’s numbers is a result of better reporting techniques and “reporting drives” that CST runs across Jewish communities in the country, rather than more actual anti-Semitic incidents. “In terms of general day-to-day life, walking around London or Manchester wearing a yarmulke, it’s safe to do so,” Rich said, pointing out that most of the attacks on Jews in the U.K. are not politically motivated, but instead stem from things like “low-level street racism and xenophobia.”
Rich said that since 2010, the British government has spent more than $3 million per year beefing up security at Jewish schools, and earlier this year pledged more than $17 million for security at Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions.
“After the terrorist attacks in Paris and in Copenhagen, we felt the psychological impact here in Britain, but it didn’t result in anyone leaving,” Rich said, adding that many French Jews who have left France have moved to London.
Nevertheless, these numbers don’t fully explain Europe’s complexities. A Pew Research Center survey in June showed that among Western European countries, Jews are viewed by the general population most favorably in France (92 percent), then in the U.K. (86 percent), and then in Germany (80 percent). The differences, then, in the sources and degrees of anti-Semitism in Western European countries, don’t impact whether governments must remain vigilant against it, but how they do so, and Germany’s government may have more experience than any on monitoring and thwarting it. Whereas France and the U.K. have a distinct Islamist problem, Germany continues to face a perpetual neo-Nazi, far-right element, regardless of events in Israel.
“It’s not France. It’s not England. It’s a much, much better situation,” Teichtal said of Germany. “Not because the situation is really actually better, but because the authorities are truly doing everything they can to not let it become a political hindrance for Jews to be here.”
At the Maccabi Games opening ceremonies, it was impossible to walk 20 feet without seeing multiple police cars and armed security guards. Alon Meyer, the president of Makkabi Germany, said that the budget for the games was about $7.6 million. Asked how much went to pay for private security, he said, “very, very much.” The New York Times reported that security alone cost about $5.5 million. A Maccabi official later told the Times of Israel that 60 security guards were posted at the Hotel Estrel at all times, the site where athletes stayed, which is in the heavily Muslim Neukolln neighborhood. Another 300 guards were at Olympic Park during the day — 600 for the opening ceremony.
Still, the Maccabi Games did not go on without some incidents, albeit small ones. On July 31, two teens in Neukolln taunted six Jewish men and threw an object at them, then fled. And at the Hotel Estrel, an Arab man yelled anti-Semitic slurs at two guards. And on Aug. 1, German police reported that anti-Semitic graffiti had been discovered on the East Side Gallery, an iconic section of the Berlin Wall.
Since January, there have been many incidents in Germany of desecration of Jewish cemeteries and anti-Semitic graffiti. Maccabi athletes were advised to not wear identifying Jewish symbols in the streets and to avoid public transportation; and private busses transported the athletes from the hotel to Olympic Park for every event.
Yet that the Maccabi Games could be held in Berlin and celebrated by the German government is a testament to how far the country has come in two generations. And while non-Jewish Berliners didn’t seem to take notice of the games, many of the Maccabi volunteers were non-Jews, and the German daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung featured the Maccabi Games on its cover in its July 29 edition, a statement of mainstream recognition in Berlin.
Jews in Germany today “are proud of Germany,” Alon Meyer said. Teichtal characterized the Jewish scene in the country as an “unbelievable renaissance.”
And although Germany’s Jewish community and infrastructure today is tiny by comparison to that of Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia or a host of Latin American countries, compared to the rest of Western Europe, Germany is starting to look like an increasingly attractive option.