Berlin, Germany – Their words were loud and clear.
“Sh** Jews, sh** Jews,” dozens chanted, as they stood in front of a synagogue in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen.
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It was mid-May and a few days earlier, Israeli security forces had stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, leading to a new round of fighting between Hamas and the Israeli military.
A video of the impromptu Gelsenkirchen protest on May 12 circulated widely on German social media, causing significant concern about the anti-Semitism on display.
What made it even worse, many said, was that this was not the only such incident.
Elsewhere stones had been thrown at synagogues, Israeli flags burned and Holocaust memorials vandalised.
Over the past few weeks, thousands have also attended pro-Palestine demonstrations in Germany.
Several ended in violence.
Widespread condemnation followed, as well as a theory about who was to blame.
A host of a popular TV chat show asked guests: “Why should we let young Muslims come here if all they’re going to do is spread anti-Semitism?”
A member of the Left party wrote on Facebook: “If we’re being honest we must admit it: We have imported anti-Semitism. One need only look at the video to see that these people are foreigners.”
Former Chancellor-candidate, Markus Soeder, suggested that anti-Semitic hate crimes would be good reason for deportation.
His colleague, Alexander Dobrindt, argued that any asylum seekers who attended the demonstrations should be forced out of Germany.
Members of the German parliament demanded the country’s immigration and integration policies be reassessed.
But has Germany really “imported” anti-Semitism?
“I would be happy if anti-Semitism in Germany was only imported,” Abdassamad el Yazidi, the secretary-general of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, told Al Jazeera.
“Then we could solve it easily. But unfortunately, anti-Semitism is active in all parts of German society. We won’t solve this problem by foisting it onto others.”
Jouanna Hassoun, head of the Berlin-based organisation, Transaidency, which focuses on intercultural exchange, said: “It made me frustrated to hear most of those politicians.
“Because that is far too simplistic, it’s just a way of saying ‘we are clean, it’s not our problem’.”
It is obvious why some are arguing anti-Semitism is imported, said Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt.
Because of the country’s troubled history, anti-Semitism is not socially acceptable here, he explained.
“It’s supposed to be something that only occurs among ‘the others’, ‘the Arabs’, or ‘the migrants’. That’s opposed to other Germans, who see themselves as ‘world champions at memorial’ who have long since overcome anti-Semitism.”
In fact, the vast majority of anti-Semitic hate crimes in Germany have always come from local, white supremacist, right-wing extremists.
The German police recorded a total of 2,351 anti-Semitic incidents in 2020.
Of these, 95 percent, or 2,224, were committed by right-wing extremists.
A further 71 were motivated by religious or foreign ideologies and for another 46, the reasons were unknown.
As a further sign refugees and migrants have not been responsible for a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment, anti-Semitic hate crimes have not increased since 2015, the year that Germany allowed almost a million mostly Syrian refugees in.
The number of anti-Semitic crimes committed by foreigners has remained under 100 almost every year since 2001.
Spikes were recorded in 2009 and 2014, two years that saw significant fighting between Israel and Gaza.
A 2018, multi-country study on whether migrants were bringing anti-Semitism to Europe drew similar conclusions.
In their report, researchers led by the London-based Birkbeck Institute for the study of Antisemitism wrote that while European Jews had fears about migrants, “there is no evidence that [Middle East, North African] migrants contribute significantly to anti-Semitism at the societal level”.
Some of these studies and statistics have been criticised in Germany; it has been suggested that police categories for politically motivated crimes are not adequately vetted.
For example, if the perpetrator is unknown and, for example, vandalised a Holocaust monument, the crime is automatically included in the right-wing category.
Additionally, anti-Semitism monitors who have conducted surveys of Jewish communities say some crimes go unreported.
Part of the problem also revolves around the definition of anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Some of the instances of recent anti-Semitism are clearly criminal acts, according to German law. But there is also some confusion, particularly at recent demonstrations.
Commenting on the recent protests during an interview with the ZDF television channel, the interior minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Herbert Reul, said that it was difficult for local police to intercede at protests because they could not always work out if chants, slogans or symbols were anti-Semitic.
This is not just a problem for law enforcement.
For example, at various pro-Palestinian marches, demonstrators held signs accusing Israel of being a “baby-murdering nation”.
While younger protesters might explain that they carry “baby murderer” signs because 68 babies and children – 66 in Gaza and two in Israel – died in May’s fighting, German critics point to an historical aspect of anti-Semitism, a medieval myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children in religious rituals.
“It may well be that some of the demonstrators are not aware of those anti-Semitic ciphers,” Anne Frank Center director Mendel conceded. “But that’s no excuse.”
Mendel’s suggested solution is better education.
“We need effective concepts against different forms of anti-Semitism in different social groups, not finger pointing,” Mendel said. “We have to look more carefully at the milieus in which antiSemitism is widespread and ask why.”
And that is not racist, he argues.
“It is something that requires empiric research and that doesn’t just happen by looking at a few videos of demonstrations. At the centre, we have been working with these really complex dynamics for years now,” he said.
“We know it is possible to work on the problem of anti-Semitism without lapsing into racism.”