Between Diversity and Stigmatisation: Anti-Semitism and Education in a Plural, Multi-Ethnic Society
28. May 2018 | Uncategorized

Anti-Semitic statements and worldviews present educators with particular challenges, often because they are also connected with issues and conflicts that present themselves in a plural, multi-ethnic society. In her article, Anne Goldenbogen summarises the current state of academic debate on anti-Semitism in multi-ethnic societies. She argues for a critical examination of one’s own attitudes and experiences within pedagogical work, but also calls for a greater consideration of young people’s realities of life and of their constructions of identity.

When talking generally about anti-Semitism in the context of migration, the focus is mostly on actual or implied anti-Jewish thinking, in milieus attributed with a Muslim identity. This perspective dates back to the beginning of the 21st century, when the Middle East conflict re-escalated with the breakout of the ‘Second Intifada’ and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caused the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The Middle East became more central to European consciousness. At the same time, empirical surveys revealed a significant increase in anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic incidents, abuses and attitudes in Europe (see EUMC 2004). Werner Bergmann from the Berlin Research Centre on Anti-Semitism summed up the situation in Europe at the beginning of the new millennium: ‘The situation became threatening, especially for the Jewish communities. There was a growing number of anti-Semitic attacks, often by young Muslims, some committed by right-wing perpetrators. These were accompanied by sharp criticism of Israel’s policies across the political spectrum, which in some cases drew on anti-Semitic stereotypes. Both referred to the escalating situation in the Middle East conflict’ (2004: 136).

Against this backdrop, a fierce controversy was sparked worldwide within the framework of anti-Semitism research, which centred on the issue of a so-called ‘new anti-Semitism.’ The proponents of this thesis argued that, under the guise of a legitimate critique of Israel, there was an increase of hostility towards Israel motivated by anti-Semitic sentiment. The conflict in the Middle East was assigned a central role. There was also said to be changes in regards to who actually held anti-Semitic prejudices and thought patterns: Islamist forces in the Arab-Muslim region as well as Muslim migrants in Europe were regarded as the new protagonists. The debate thus expanded around the question of a specifically ‘Muslim anti-Semitism,’ which, according to one position, was an integral part of Islam, derived directly from certain passages of the Qur’an and clearly different from European anti-Semitism. Critics of these theses argued that the discourse was aimed at denigrating and thus delegitimising any criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic. The notions were criticised as being political propaganda instruments, and the focus on actors with Muslim backgrounds was seen as racially defined and promoting a further stigmatisation of Muslim people in Europe (see Bunzl 2008).

Ten Years Later

There is now widespread agreement that there is neither a ‘new’ nor specifically ‘Muslim’ anti-Semitism. Nor is there any monocausal link between ethnic or religious origin and the extent and severity of patterns of anti-Semitic thought. In Germany, young people, as well as adults, generally tend to devalue other groups of people. However, according to a study by the University of Bielefeld, which social group is devalued and to what extent varies on the basis of different migration backgrounds: ‘German adolescents are particularly devaluing of Muslims and are also prone to devaluation towards Jews in the form of secondary anti-Semitism. In contrast, young people from Muslim socialisation contexts are more likely to devalue homosexuals and to be resentful of Jews, whereby these resentments have a strong connection to Israeli politics and are, therefore, particularly evident in the form of anti-Semitic attitudes relating to Israel. Youths from the former Soviet Union are, in turn, highly prone to racist convictions but also to Islamophobia’ (Mansel/Spaiser, 2010: 68). According to Mansel and Spaiser, the devaluing of certain groups is primarily associated with feeling threatened by these groups. A sense of threat seems to exist for a not insignificant number of youngsters socialised within a Muslim community, predominantly in relation to the conflicts in the Middle East. Israel or ‘the Jews’ are perceived as aggressors, the conflict itself is seen as a struggle of ‘the West’ against ‘the Muslims.’ Yet, even in Germany, ‘the Jews’ seem to pose a threat for these young people: as, supposedly, the only recognised victim. ‘What is introduced here, and also occurs in other discussions, is the issue of competitive victimhood. In their perception, their present suffering, as well as the suffering of the very group to which they feel they belong, is not noticed or pales into insignificance against the Shoah. Whilst reference may be made to experiences of discrimination, these cannot compete with the argument of the Holocaust. What remains is a twofold anger, not just towards the Israeli, who is aggressive and potent and attracts hatred, but also towards the passive Jew, who regards himself as a victim’ (Schu 2013: 42). The study continues that non-Muslim adolescents, on the other hand, feel predominantly threatened by ‘the Muslims.’ Here an aspect becomes visible, which is highly relevant for the theoretical as well as the practical analysis of anti-Semitism: Rising Islamophobia at the heart of society. The ninth and penultimate part of the long-term study, ‘Deutsche Zustände,’ published in 2010 under the direction of Wilhelm Heitmeyer, noted a significant increase in anti-Muslim attitudes in Germany. This trend was noted especially in the political centre and just to the left of it, as well as among high-earning members of society. Heitmeyer noted that Islamophobia had become ‘universally acceptable’ and pointed out that, in contrast to almost all other forms of group-focused enmity, even a higher level of education did not prevent this resentment (see Heitmeyer 2010).

Experiences of Discrimination and Identity Construction

The experiences of discrimination – to suffer social, economic and political exclusion, open hostilities from members of the social majority – all can and do have consequences. For example, self-ethnicisation processes are closely linked to the relationship between the social majority and minority groups. Two-thirds of the Muslim youth surveyed in a 2007 study by the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) stated that they had no or only a few German friends. A look at the members of the social majority of the same age revealed an area of social tension. About one third of the German non-Muslim adolescents who were interviewed advocated exclusionary tendencies. Around 13 per cent were strongly anti-immigrant or xenophobic, and another 30 per cent supported statements scapegoating Muslims. About 20 per cent of German adolescents expressed specific prejudices against Muslims. This does not go unnoticed by Muslim or Muslim-socialised youth in Germany. Almost 80 per cent had, in the twelve months preceding the survey, experienced at least one situation in which they felt excluded as ‘foreigners.’ Severe or very severe discrimination had affected 26.7 per cent of young people. A rejection or devaluation of Muslims as a collective group in Germany was perceived by 35.9 per cent of respondents. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that two-thirds of young people identified much more with their country of origin (or that of their parents) than with Germany (BMI, 2007: 234ff.). The study also provided interesting insights with regards to the marginalisation of Muslims in a global context. Nearly half of the interviewees felt personally affected by the treatment of Muslims in the Middle East. And 84.9 per cent perceived a generalised suspicion of terrorism against Muslims in a global context, and were furious about it (see BMI, 2007: 234ff.). Individuals may feel rejection because they are identified as alleged ‘foreigners’ or because of a general hostility towards Muslims. This perception of rejection leads to conflicts, especially amongst youngsters, in Germany and worldwide. The need for self-assurance is particularly important when young people are growing up. The search for one’s self always takes place in the interplay between internal and external factors. A range of diverse possible identities, accompanied by just as many instances of external ascriptions with often pejorative connotations, create insecurity and provide a starting point for problematic, potentially anti-Semitic tendencies.

Anke Schu made the following observation in the context of a qualitative survey of male Muslim youth: ‘The Jews that the young people speak of and describe are, however, far away, out of reach, not concrete. The consequence, which is by no means inevitable, but is applicable in the case of the young people that were interviewed, is that a concrete rational critique is missing; irrationalities, fantasies and unrealistic constructs determine the debate. These combine to form anti-Semitic constructions, which are then utilised by young people. In the case of the interviewees, I understand the projections as a shift in the conflict, particularly since the anti-Semitic attitude does not result from a real, sociallyproblematic, relationship or a conflict between the respondents and the Jews, but rather has its origin elsewhere. Unfulfilled desires and repressed aggressions are affecting one’s sense of self. Young people feel their own powerlessness, they have a sense of being disregarded and of their lack of participation. Simultaneously, they experience subordination under dominant social demands, as well as under their familial and religious collective and because of this feel a constant pressure, burden and injustice’ (Schu, 2013: 43).

Addressing Anti-Semitism through Education in a Plural, Multi-Ethnic Society

A central aspect of addressing anti-Semitism through education is the issue of the ‘right to intervene.’ This means that my counterpart ‘must grant me authority based on competence and credibility before he is willing to deal with my views and with sources of information that are foreign to him’ (Fechler, 2006: 205f.). Credibility results from the acknowledgement of competence, authenticity and trust. Competence in the area of education includes both cognitive as well as social knowledge and skills. So it is important to ask: What kind of knowledge do educators have in regards to current manifestations of anti-Semitism? How familiar are educators with the realities of life for the young people that they are addressing? How acquainted are teachers with adolescents’ frames of reference or their identity constructions? What interest do educators themselves have in dealing with anti-Semitic stereotypes and thought patterns? Authenticity is defined by an honest, clear and self-reflective demeanour. Here, too, questions can be raised: How aware is a teacher of their own involvement in the educational process? Have they personally reflected upon their role as educator? To what extent do teachers confront and deal with their own attitudes and prejudices? Trust is a reciprocal process and, from the perspective of educators, can only be established through an open examination of their own thought patterns and those of others. Frequently, contributions of academic research or public discourse refer to the helplessness of teachers and educators in dealing with anti-Semitism. Consequently, further training measures and more up-to-date teaching materials are demanded, and this is always worthy of support. In addition, there should be a clarification that the required training measures are not exclusively aimed at dealing with others pedagogically, but should also be self-reflective. This includes recognising and reflecting on one’s own ‘entanglements’ in social and political discourses (Messerschmidt, 2006: 150). If this is not the case, i.e., if educators fail to consider their own approaches, family biographical backgrounds, personal attitudes and their origins and traditions in a self-reflective way, then there is a risk that the critical examination of anti-Semitism will degenerate into ‘affirmative’ educational work. ‘As affirmative, I denote a form of education in which I can withdraw myself from the subject matter. My own images and opinions remain untouched, because it is clear from the outset how the matter is to be seen’ (Messerschmidt, 2006: 170).

This is doubly relevant for educational work in a multi-ethnic society. It is not only necessary for teachers to deal with their own entanglements in regards to the topic of education, but also with those concerning the process of education and the individuals  being addressed. Teachers need to address and take position on issues of migration, the perception and recognition of origin-related discrimination as well as reflection on national histories and collective forms of memory, since they all play an important role here.

This article originally appeared in German in KIGA Berlin’s handout, ‘Commitment without borders. Ein deutsch-türkisches Handbuch zu Antisemitismusprävention und Holocaust Education’.


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