(RNS) While many countries in Europe have sealed their borders to refugees, Germany has done the opposite. Last year, the country registered over 1 million asylum seekers, including 425,000 from ravaged Syria.
No other country in the European Union has accepted as many. For Syrians and others who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rubber dinghies, Germany has become a beacon of hope.
Though countless volunteers have helped to ease the asylum seekers’ plight in 2015, not all Germans have offered their heartfelt welcome. Amid the groping incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve as well as the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, a growing number of Germans are calling for tighter controls on immigrants and increased border security.
German Jews in particular are troubled by the steep rise of anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents as the sheer number of Middle Eastern Muslims in the nation increases. Sadly, they have reason to be concerned. As the Pew Global Attitudes Poll from 2011 has shown, a great many people in the Middle East grow up in a culture where Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are widespread, and negative views of Jews and Israel are exceedingly common.
“Many Syrians and immigrants of Arab descent have grown up in an environment in which hostility toward Israel and anti-Semitism are a common practice,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Chancellor Angela Merkel last October. “Jews in Germany are afraid that, if unchecked, this anti-Semitism rooted in Arab culture and politics could grow rapidly.”
Schuster’s fears are already a reality. According to the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism, there has been a 34 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2015 in the city of Berlin alone. Though most involve neo-Nazis and right-wing activists, incidents prompted by foreign-born Muslims are on the rise.
Young Muslims attacked a rabbi in Berlin and threatened to kill his daughter in 2012. In 2014, Muslim citizens rallied against Israel and the Gaza war, shouting anti-Semitic slurs, while two Palestinian arsonists set fire to a synagogue in Wuppertal. In recent months a Jewish doctor who helped at a refugee center in Frankfurt has been spat upon and sworn at, and on the island of Fehmarn a Jewish tourist from France was insulted and robbed by refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.
While anti-Semitism in any place is deplorable, in Germany it is horrific. For the country of the Shoah (Holocaust), the memory of atrocities committed under Nazism form a central part of its present identity. Public discourse remains shaped by the demons of the past. Shame and guilt over the Nazi past have also created wide acceptance among Germans of their moral obligation to forcefully reject anti-Semitism. Twenty-first-century Germany is a country of cultural pluralism and religious tolerance. Most of its citizens are thankful for and proud of its small, albeit flourishing Jewish community.
And yet, it is precisely this new Germany of pluralism and tolerance that is put at risk when its future citizens from the Middle East disregard the lessons the country has painfully learned from its past. There is indeed an urgent need, in the words of Josef Schuster, to “integrate the refugees into our community of values as soon as possible.”
So is it possible to integrate refugees into Germany and overcome Muslim anti-Semitism so that postwar Germany remains a country of tolerance and pluralism?
In March of this year at the New Town Hall in Hanover, representatives of the Jewish community met with Catholic bishops and Protestant church leaders for their annual dialogue. Close ties between the Jewish community and the Christian churches are an essential element of the moral fabric of contemporary Germany. These bonds have been slowly built over the years and are a bulwark against anti-Semitism.
At this year’s annual consultation, the agenda centered on responses to the refugee crisis and forging strategies against the new anti-Semitism. Rattled by the increasing anti-Semitic and xenophobic violence, the rabbis and bishops upheld both the biblical call to care for strangers and the human right to asylum. Emphasizing that every human being is created in the image of God, the religious leaders discussed immigration policies. Curiously missing from the meeting were spokespeople for the Muslim community.
Giving Muslims a seat at the table would have been a significant public gesture in the face of the refugee crisis. And this would not have been hard to pull off. Christians and Muslims in Germany have long established a culture of dialogue in the form of mutual intercultural initiatives to overcome racism.
Christian churches have supported immigrants through a network of social agencies since people first came to Germany as gastarbeiter, or guest workers, decades ago. They run day-care centers to which Muslim parents send their children; they have changed their employment rules by hiring Muslim educators and social workers; they have been the strongest supporters of establishing Islamic religious education in public schools. Recently, the Protestant church collaborated with the Coordinating Council of Muslims on a mutual manifesto to “support the encounter between Christians and Muslims in Germany.”
So in the face of the social pressures to integrate 1 million asylum seekers, to not invite the Coordinating Council to the annual consultation of Jewish and Christian officials was a missed opportunity in the fight against anti-Semitism.
Many Germans, both secular and religious, view the churches and other religious organizations as mediators between modern society and traditional religion. And they are concerned that social integration of Muslim refugees might fail if Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot start a frank conversation about their prejudices and stereotypes.
Germany needs its Jews, Christians and Muslims to create a narrative that is conscious of the country's past yet inclusive enough to embrace its most recent immigrants. Integration efforts will succeed only if the conversation about anti-Semitism and religious hatred brings all parties to the table -- in other words, if the discussion is with one another rather than about one another.
(Ulrich Rosenhagen is associate director of the Lubar Institute
for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison)