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‘I No Longer Feel at Home Here’: German Muslims Frustrated by Israel Backing

Lobna Shammout was initially only vaguely aware of the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, because she had been celebrating her 40th birthday. “The breaking news was crashing my phone, I thought ‘please, not today’,” the Palestinian-German said. “When I finally checked … each newsflash was worse than the one before.”

In the following weeks, as Israel launched an all-out assault on Gaza in retaliation for the attacks, which killed 1,200 people, Shammout has waited anxiously for news of her relatives and friends in Gaza. Some have been killed, among the estimated 15,000 Palestinians who the Hamas-run health ministry says have lost their lives.

At the same time, Shammout, who runs a care home for elderly people in Lügde, west Germany, has become a conduit for information requested by her friends and colleagues seeking to understand the conflict. (She says she gives them “the five-minute version”.)

And she, like many Muslims, has watched with increasing frustration as Germany emerges as one of Europe’s most unconditional backers of Israel’s strategy. The country’s political leaders have spoken repeatedly and without apparent hesitation about Germany’s Staatsräson, or reason of state, a principle that places support for Israel at the core of national identity.

The vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, said in a video message: “The phrase ‘Israel’s security is part of Germany’s Staatsräson’ has never been an empty phrase and it must not become one. It means that Israel’s security is essential for us as a country,” adding that Germany bore a “historic responsibility” as the perpetrator of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered.

“It was the generation of my grandparents that wanted to exterminate Jewish life in Germany and Europe. After the Holocaust, the founding of Israel was the promise of protection to the Jews – and Germany is compelled to help ensure that this promise can be fulfilled. This is a historical underpinning of our republic,” Habeck said.

Shammout understands this. But she also feels it leaves little room for critics of Israel’s response to speak out or feel represented by the German government.

“I respect Germany’s history,” Shammout said. “I really understand the support for Israel as a state, as a safe place for Jews, and saying ‘never again’ can the Holocaust happen. It’s a part of being German. But when this historical responsibility is used as an excuse for justifying massive human rights violations, for breaking international law, then it saddens and maddens me and I do not accept this so-called Staatsräson.”

Since the Hamas attacks, Germany has been in a state of heightened tension. While pro-Palestinian marches have been banned in many towns and cities, others have been allowed to go ahead, with strict guidelines. (The federal commissioner for human rights policy, Luise Amtsberg, said: “Terrorism must not be celebrated. We have banned demonstrations when they intend to incite antisemitism, and freedom of expression must not be abused to propagate hate.)

In the meantime there has been a steep increase in reports of antisemitic attacks targeting the country’s estimated 200,000-strong Jewish population. The Rias group, which tracks antisemitism, said it recorded 994 incidents between 7 October and 9 November, an increase of 320% compared with the same period in 2022.

Last month, before a two-day annual conference bringing together politicians, Muslim groups and representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities, the interior minister, Nancy Faeser, called on Muslim groups to clearly condemn the Hamas attacks and distance themselves from antisemitism.

“I expect Muslim organisations to clearly position themselves and uphold their responsibilities in society,” she told German TV. They should condemn Hamas’s attack, “and not just with a ‘yes, but’,” she added. “It must be quite clear we stand on Israel’s side.”

But many Muslims, part of the second biggest religious group in Germany with 5.5 million people, say they are being unfairly targeted. A large increase in Islamophobic attacks has also been registered, and it is suspected that many more have gone unreported.

Scharjil Ahmad Khalid, an imam and Islamic theologian, said extra security was in place at his Khadija mosque in Pankow, northern Berlin. “Just as antisemitism attacks have grown, so too has the animosity towards Muslims,” he said.

Numerous attacks on mosques have been reported, including the depositing of burnt Qur’ans, pig cadavers and excrement on their grounds or in their letterboxes. In Magdeburg, Muslim graves were smeared with swastikas.

Scharjil Admad Khalid

“Messages of hate are regularly posted into our letterboxes, which state, most commonly, ‘you are not part of Germany’, ‘Islam is not part of Germany, go back home’, ‘you’re responsible for importing the antisemitism that is poisoning our country’. They have increased in line with the negative reporting of the media … attributing the antisemitism only to Muslims,” Khalid said. “There is a blanket of suspicion over us all.”

Khalid wrote a commentary in the Berliner Zeitung arguing that the far right, in the ascendant in Germany notably in the form of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), was far more likely to be behind antisemitic attacks than ordinary Muslims. The piece led to a backlash on social media: why had an imam been asked to speak on the issue, wondered some, and how could someone with an Arabic name speak for the Germans?

“I was born and raised in Germany,” Khalid said. “This is racist and deeply offensive.”

Other commentators, such as the Berlin-based Jewish German-American author Deborah Feldmann, have raised the suspicion that the conflict is being used by the far right, including the AfD, as an excuse “to finally be able to say out loud ‘away with those immigrants’ … and it makes me scared because it brings back memories of this time in which my grandparents were forced to flee,” Feldmann told the broadcaster DLF.

Habeck, in his speech, addressed the societal divisions, saying rightwing extremists were “holding back for purely tactical reasons” from antisemitic attacks “in order to be able to agitate against Muslims”.

For Derviş Hızarcı, the chair of Kiga, a non-profit organisation set up to tackle antisemitism but which increasingly finds itself dealing with Islamophobia as well, the widely circulated speech “was good and helpful. But I would like to have heard him ask more questions and offer more suggestions. Like, let’s have a critical reflection about things that we might have ignored, about our mistakes.”

Derviş Hızarcı

The rise of the far right and the continual growth in support for the AfD were reasons for Germans to question “whether we are actually as good at Vergangenheitsbewältigung as we thought we were,” Hızarcı said, referring to the process of coming to terms with the past that has been one of the main pillars of German postwar society.

“If people think it’s above all the Shoah and our response to it that gives us our societal identity, this identity is perhaps too weak if we lack an understanding of ourselves and our responsibility towards everyone,” said Hızarcı, the son of Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest worker) parents who came to Germany in 1969.

In November, before the introduction of a fragile truce in Gaza, participants in a pro-Palestinian demonstration met outside the chancellery in Berlin to demand an immediate ceasefire, a call rejected by the chancellor, Olaf Scholz. (“That would mean ultimately that Israel leaves Hamas the possibility of recovering and obtaining new missiles,” he said on 12 November, calling instead for “humanitarian pauses”.)

Nazan, 48, a nurse born in Germany to Turkish parents, said she had considered giving up her German passport over the government’s position. “I no longer feel at home here,” she said.

It is a sentiment that Shammout, who has a Palestinian father and a German mother, and whose grandfather was forced to flee his home during the Nakba of 1948, knows all too well. “It hurts both sides of me, the Palestinian and the German side,” she said.

Shammout has attended two pro-Palestinian demonstrations in recent weeks and feels there are clear limits on her freedom of expression. “We are not allowed to … say we want a free motherland. We are restricted by police to use only a certain number of flags,” she said.

“I do not support Hamas, and I absolutely condemn the attacks, but I reserve my right to protest, to mourn our dead.”

Shammout said friends had been stopped in the street and told to remove their keffiyeh. She knows a Palestinian student who was told by police she risked being charged with sedition and losing her right to residency if she failed to remove a Palestinian flag from her balcony.

“I was always proud of being a German with Palestinian roots,” she said. “Now I’m starting to doubt my identity, like a teenager.”

Source : BBC