“Who killed Jesus?”, the Israeli arms dealer shouts.
As they say, Berlin is unusual for a German city; diverse, rough at the edges, it’s home to the fastest growing Jewish, Israeli community in the world. I’d been booked to speak at a conference, “In the time of the slanderers’.
As you would expect, any conversation around anti-Semitism in Germany is highly charged. The organisers were cautious; ‘don’t book your ticket yet’. ‘Would the venue cancel?’ ‘Would people come?’
I have never been so reminded of Europe’s Nazi past. How can you look through the Brandenburg Gate and not see the spectre of Hitler? And in truth Berlin makes no attempt to hide its past. The Memorial of Jews Murdered in Europe, like some ancient henge, sits at the heart of the city. Exhibits in museums, tourist brochures ask again and again, ‘How Did This Happen?’ Everything is planned to leave us with no shred of doubt — Germany knows where racism leads.
The day before the conference I’m asked to speak at a meeting sponsored by the International Branch of Die Linke. They’d booked the back room of a local cafe. Like every venue I now speak at, the café receives its share of abuse and threats. ‘Jackie Walker is an anti-Semite’ they are told. This was my introduction to the mind-set of the Anti-Deutche (AD). The owners are shaken, the organisers re-assure, precautions are taken and this time the meeting proceeds. By 7:30 around 40 people have squeezed into the room. As more arrive we delay the start and the door to the main café is wedged open so more can hear.
A product of German unification the AD, who claim to be a ‘far left’, anti-fascist group, defend Israel with a militancy that would make Netanyahu’s heart (I’m assured he has one) skip a beat. Anti-nation state, the AD believes Israel should be the ‘last state standing’. They don’t need a conference, there’s no doubt in their minds, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. I’m told they also see themselves as anti-racists, though it’s hard to believe — they’ve apparently described Muslims as ‘Untermenschen’ (sub-humans) — the Nazis slur once used against Jews.
It sounds exactly what it is, politically crazy. They are a tiny group so why mention the AD at all? Their influence, I’m told, goes beyond their numbers and I have no doubt, their ideology reflects confusions on the left around race, politics and the so called ‘New Anti-semetism’, not just in Germany and the rest of Europe, but closer to home in Britain. I want to understand more. Perhaps, in the next few days, I’d get an opportunity to see the AD in action.
As I begin the atmosphere in the room becomes intense. The audience is well briefed, politically astute with an age profile much younger than in Britain. Questions range from the Labour Party, Corbyn and anti-Semitism, to the state of the British left and Brexit.
To watch the meeting: https://www.facebook.com/jacqueline.walker.3990/videos/10155547993849912/
Later I join activists at a restaurant and food project run by, and for, a much larger refugee collective. Yes, I’m told, Chancellor Merkel let refugees in, but as ever, it’s more complicated. While the German Establishment publicly acknowledges the disaster that is racism, white refugees are processed with (relative) speed. This food project however was formed as a response to a refugee of colour who died, starving, after being forced to queue, day after night, in freezing temperatures.
Next day the AD threats of protests hang over the conference but again, fail to materialise. Originally for 140, organisers increased capacity to 200 only to be inundated by over 400 requests for places. From Britain Ken Loach sends greetings. Moshe Machover, via video link, gives a razor sharp analysis of the anti-semetism witch-hunt and its political purpose. My session presents a political and methodological context for producing and performing my one woman show, The Lynching.
Conveniently, all three UK contributors have been denounced that day in the German national media as anti-Semites. Loach’s work is well known and admired in Germany. As one attendee comments, these accusations make the supporters of the ‘New Anti-semetism’ look ridiculous. I have to agree.
Next evening, hosted by Jewish Antifa Berlin, The Lynching has its first German production. I’m told the 140 or so mostly young activists, who sit on window ledges and watch crossed legged from the floor after seats are filled, are the core of Berlin’s young left.
A Syrian rap group kicks off proceedings, a Palestinian poet is next and then the audience laugh; it’s a joke in Hebrew, told by an Israeli performance artist, recently labeled an anti-Semite. Her crime? To dare to speak ‘intifada’ and ‘liberation’ in one poetic sentence. Having received regular commissions will she ever get paid work again? She shrugs her shoulders.
So to The Lynching and the audience gets it, the jokes, the songs, the references, they get the whole narrative and rise to applause as we share a moment of yes, you can only call it exhilaration and political solidarity.
A woman approaches and tells her story. Her mother is Jewish, her father Romany. She works commemorating the Holocaust. She’s not generally political but came because she identified with what she’d heard me say. Her dual heritage, her experience of having the genocide of her father’s people barely referenced, has become almost unbearable. We embrace.
The performance space, Jewish Antifa Berlin say, having been occupied by the AD, this is ours now! All Berlin, all those on the left at least, will hear what’s happened tonight.
Prague was not planned, but once asked I was convinced; if I could, I should go. The audience for The Lynching, as expected, was smaller than Berlin, but even so the room is packed. Many in this audience are the people political activists are always trying to reach — they don’t come to meetings and know only enough to know what they’re being told makes no sense and they want to know more.
Prague I’m told was the city Hitler planned as a future home, a new center for the Reich. This, and the capitulation of the Czech government, left the old town beautifully intact. After the revolution, the urge to disengage from the USSR and re-orient to the US meant the first foreign visit of the new President was to Israel. Military (they call it ‘security’) links with Israel are strong. The government does what it can to protect homegrown Jewish culture. As a result, the Jewish population has, at least in part, re-established itself, populated by returning Czech Jews and their descendants, Israeli Jewish migrants as well as a number of converts. From everything you can see, this Jewish community thrives.
Yes, the present President may be a well-known, far-right racist. But racism doesn’t hinder close relations with Israel in the Czech Republic or anywhere else it seems. This apparent paradox is now so widespread and well known I hardly give it a thought. Instead my attention is drawn to another story.
A scandal has been brewing for years around the site of a concentration camp. Romany people, mostly children, died there. The site is now a pig farm. Only in the last few weeks, after years of lobbying, have the government taken decisive action to buy the land and commemorate the crimes that occurred there. You have to call this what it is; the continuing degradation and abuse of a people who remain the most abused and excluded minority in Europe.
Along with Jews, the Romany people were singled out for total annihilation by Hitler. In the Czech Republic the Nazis almost succeeded and yet I’m told of a number of other Romany sites of Nazi genocide, in the Republic and elsewhere across Europe, that remain unacknowledged and debased.
Later I debate with an Israeli arms dealer, David. In many ways it is as depressing, and distressing, as you might expect. He treats the (woman) Chair with such disdain (telling her to shut up) that a man steps in to replace her. He avoids questions on settlements, says nothing about racism, seems unable to define Zionism and responds, when he gets into difficulties (which was often) with ‘Hammas’ as if this one word incantation excuses all the crimes, the violations of International Law and Human Rights that Israel continues to perpetrates. At one bizarre moment David shouts, ‘Who killed Jesus?’ to prove no Palestinians were in the place called Palestine. For a moment the room is silenced. Suddenly a voice shouts back, ‘Hammas’ and the audience dissolve into laughter.
Finally we are asked, ‘What does the Holocaust mean to you?’ David replies — it has taught him that Jews must never again act as sheep, they must always be armed and ready. For me, the message is clear; Nazi bestiality could happen again, today, tomorrow, to any people, anywhere unless we understand the real lessons of fascism and racism.
It was a trip, and one I’m still processing.
Want to find out more? jackiewalker.org