Germany’s Misleading Classification of Antisemitic Hate Crimes

People wear kippas during a demonstration in front of a Jewish synagogue to denounce an anti-Semitic attack on a young man wearing a kippa in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
The problem on the far right is serious but overrepresented in official accounts, which lack a category for Islamism.

The German government recently announced that 2019 saw the most antisemitic hate crimes since it began collecting data in 2001. In all, 2,032 antisemitic incidents were reported to German police last year, marking a 13 percent increase over 2018. That certainly fits with the steady drumbeat of stories about rising global antisemitism. However, the German government’s announcement quickly turned cockeyed, as “93.4 percent of the crimes were “ascribed to far–right wing perpetrators, ” according to a report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

Now, the far right in Germany — as elsewhere — is undoubtedly antisemitic. Nazism literally originated there. However, crediting the German far right for nearly all attacks on Germany’s Jews oversimplifies a situation that calls for much more careful analysis.

Some politicians and members of the media may prefer this take, but unquestioningly accepting it won’t keep Germany’s 200,000 Jews safe. It would be better to embrace reality, including two major flaws in this too-convenient narrative. First, there are known problems with the way Germany collects its antisemitic crime data. Second, numerous surveys show that antisemitism is a broader problem that spans German society.

Let’s start with the first point. In classifying antisemitic incidents, the German government uses five categories: right-wing, left-wing, foreign ideology, religious ideology, and (the rarely used) unknown. The categories have remained unchanged since 2001. At this point, they are inadequate.

Remko Leemhuis, acting director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, agrees that there are classification problems. He explained in a phone interview that, if “the police can’t apprehend someone, they automatically mark it down as right-wing extremism.” In other words, reporting on German antisemitism is inherently skewed; the category “right-wing” expands simply because the police don’t consistently use “unknown” when they should.

The Germans also lack a category dedicated to antisemitism driven by Islamism. German authorities have classified antisemitic episodes “at the Quds Day march in Berlin,” for example, as right-wing, as if the event were a neo-Nazi rally. If the German government is serious about fighting antisemitism, it needs to acknowledge that the oldest hatred exists beyond the far right. Consider that, according to the JTA report, “in a 2016 survey of hundreds of German Jews who had experienced antisemitic incidents, 41 percent said the perpetrator was ‘someone with a Muslim extremist view’ and another 16 percent said it was someone from the far left. Only 20 percent identified their aggressors as belonging to the far right.” Given that, the German government would be wise to revise their reporting categories to include “far right,” “far left,” “Islamist,” and “unknown perpetrators.”

More recent polling data only underscores that antisemitism is not an isolated problem. In a survey the World Jewish Congress released last fall, 27 percent of German respondents “agreed with a range of antisemitic statements and stereotypes about Jewish people.” Forty-one percent of respondents agreed that “‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Germany,’” epitomizing the notion that Jews are Others. Lest the German government write this off as a problem of the uneducated, this survey also noted that 18 percent of “‘elites’ — respondents with at least one university degree who make at least €100,000 [$111,300] per year — agreed with antisemitic sentiments.”

In a similar vein, the ADL in its Global 100 survey, which was also released last fall, found that 49 percent of Germans considered it “probably true” that Germany’s Jews were more loyal to Israel. While 14 percent of self-identified Christians and 12 percent of atheists expressed antisemitic attitudes, a nontrivial 49 percent of Muslim respondents did.

The German government should also consider that 46 percent of German Jews told the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) that they “avoid certain places in their local area or neighborhood at least occasionally because they do not feel safe there as Jews,” and 75 percent “at least occasionally avoid wearing, carrying or displaying” things that might visibly identify them as Jewish. In its 2018 report, the FRA noted that Germany is one of “three countries [that] stand out with increased shares of respondents who say that they have considered leaving the country due to safety concerns in the past five years.” Germany led that list, at 19 percent.

This is all to say that antisemitism is an ongoing problem for Germany’s tiny Jewish minority. As Leemhuis observes, “There’s a huge problem with right-wing antisemitism, but if we’re not addressing all forms seriously, we’re not fighting any antisemitism. It doesn’t help when people instrumentalize the problem, when the right is pointing to the left, and the left points to the right. Everyone has to do housekeeping.”

It’s a positive step that the German government is tracking data about antisemitic crimes. But we’ll know that German authorities are serious about fighting resurgent antisemitism when they start accurately tracking and acknowledging its multiple origins.


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