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How we remember can heal or harm: the Halle shooting and ethnic nationalism

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A week ago in Halle, Germany, a gunman killed two people outside of a synagogue after attempting and failing to gain access to the building, where the congregation inside was just beginning Yom Kippur services.

I had left Germany 24 hours before this shooting. A day before that, I had been sitting at a bar near my hostel in Berlin, fighting jet lag and the strange, irrational discomfort I couldn’t help feeling as an American Jew in the capital of Germany.

The bartender approached me and asked me, in English, what I’d be having. I requested a coffee. Returning with a mug of espresso, he inquired, “And what do you plan to see in Berlin today?”

I told him an agenda that he had probably heard from tourists before: as many of the landmarks and museums as I could manage in and near Kreuzberg, beginning at the Jewish Museum.

He wiped the inside of a glass and warned, “You know, there was drama over the director of the Jewish Museum recently. He had some weird views. Anyway, he resigned.”

“What kind of views?” I asked.

“He supported BDS and, you know, other antisemitic things,” he replied casually.

I couldn’t help myself. “BDS is antisemitic? Why?”

“I just… can’t agree with it. It’s wrong.” He looked at me sideways and shifted a bit further down the bar.

I stared into my coffee. Calling out human rights abuses and war crimes is a moral imperative, no matter who is perpetrating them, I wanted to say.

Instead, I flatly responded, “BDS is just an organized way of attempting to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinians.”

He shrugged and moved along to attend to the next customer. Perhaps the conversation made him uncomfortable, especially as I hadn’t revealed anything about my identity. And to be fair, I certainly wasn’t prepared to get into a tiff over what constitutes antisemitism in a bar in Germany.

Curious to find out more after that short-lived interaction, I Googled the circumstances of the previous museum director’s resignation on my phone under the bar. Peter Schäfer, formerly director of the Jewish Museum, was reportedly guilty of defending a museum exhibit on Jerusalem that some claimed was biased in favor of the Palestinian point of view (whatever that means), and a tweet which condemned the German parliament’s recent resolution labeling the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as “anti-semitic.”

I’m not unfamiliar with the assumptions that may cause someone to recoil immediately at the sound of boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions on the State of Israel. I understand that, particularly for a Berliner, criticism of Israel may feel something like dangerously familiar territory. My bartender’s reaction was mild compared to some I’ve experienced in my own community and in American politics back home.

Germany, furthermore, has done more to reckon with and atone for crimes committed in its past than America and many other nations have. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one example of many, a maze of concrete structures as wide as a city block outside of Berlin’s Reichstag Building.

And yet, today, Germany is currently experiencing a resurgence of white nationalism, and an antisemitic and Islamophobic element has a growing influence on German politics — namely, the Alternative for Germany party, which since late 2017 has been the largest opposition group in parliament. Antisemitic hate crimes, including physical attacks on Jewish people, have increased over recent years, according to official government figures. Almost all of this violence is attributed to the far-right, contrary to popular rhetoric attempting to pin it to Muslim immigrants.

But how can this be? How is a movement of white nationalism and racism gaining so much momentum in a country whose parliament just passed a resolution condemning BDS for so-called antisemitism? How can witnessing the tragedy of the Holocaust compel any other political orientation than one that unequivocally stands in solidarity with victims of state violence and repression across the world, including the Palestinian people?

Obviously, there are many answers to these questions. But this unexpected interaction in that grimy, dimly-lit bar in Kreizberg offered one: that — if we isolate the Holocaust and the things that led to it from the white supremacy and imperialism that still must be resisted in all forms and contexts today — we haven’t truly learned from history. If this isn’t the central focus of our promises of “Never Again,” then the very ways we remember and speak about historical oppression can themselves become oppressive, or used to ignore, justify, or even carry out injustice happening right now. This is as true in Germany and the rest of Europe as it is in American discourse and Jewish memory.

I learned of the news of the failed massacre in Halle when my train arrived in Warsaw. The ultimate victims were a woman outside of the synagogue and a man at a Turkish restaurant. This is what the shooter had said in his live stream of the event: “I think the Holocaust never happened. Feminism is the cause of declining birth rates in the West, which acts as a scapegoat for mass immigration, and the root of all these problems is the Jew.”

In light of what I experienced during my time in the country and the trajectory of European politics generally, these deeply anti-feminist, xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments do not feel like ideological aberrations from the norm. This myth of white demographic decline, itself a product of a perverse kind of remembering, feels almost inevitable, commonplace in countries where the most grotesque of fascist atrocities occurred. And some places look even worse than Germany, where neo-fascism has already entered mainstream politics rather than merely existing on the fringes. 

No breed of ethnic nationalism will protect Jewish worshippers or anybody threatened in these massacres; in fact, the Israeli state has developed implicit and explicit alliances with the West’s far-right, like Austria’s Freedom Party or Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Such groups and figures have adopted pro-Israeli stances, but outright or indirectly encourage the nationalisms that threaten Jewish Europeans and other marginalized groups. And this is not a new practice in the Zionist project. Only community resourcefulness, mutual aid, solidarity with others within and across borders, multicultural democracy and a commitment to accounting for and learning from history can sustain a just well-being and security for all of us.

For the two victims of the Halle shooting, baruch dayan ha’emet.

Correction: A previous version of this article implied that Peter Schäfer is Jewish. Schäfer was the former director of the Jewish Museum and is a prominent scholar of Jewish Studies. The Daily regrets this error.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled “Kreuzberg,” a district of Berlin. The article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Emily Wilder at ewilder2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.