Berlin: It was a scene dripping with historical irony. On a street in this transformed former capital of Nazi Germany, a German man this week approached Philadelphia Rabbi Jacob Herber, here as part of a delegation of American spiritual leaders, and advised him to remove his kipa, fearing for his safety.
"He said, ‘Sir, do you have to wear that,’ " Rabbi Herber related. "It’s very dangerous here because of Muslims."
"I was surprised," the rabbi said. "The fact that a German is protecting a Jew from a Muslim was unexpected."
At a time when the German government recently granted the Jewish community the same legal status as the Protestant and Catholic communities, and when Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind, a Berlin resident, has been chosen to rebuild the site of the World Trade Center, there is a perception that Jews are increasingly in danger in this cosmopolitan city: but this time from a growing threat of anti-Semitism from Arab Muslims.
A group of American rabbis this week was being warned repeatedly by a variety of Jewish community sources not to public identify themselves as Jews while walking through some sections of this bustling city.
And a veteran Turkish Muslim community official told the delegation of 11 mostly New York-area rabbis Monday night that he feared tensions would become even worse if the United States attacked Iraq.
Safter Cinar, a spokesman for the Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg, said the threat to Jews comes from increasingly aggressive and well-organized fundamentalist Muslim groups living in Germany.
Cinar, a lanky 57-year-old man with a soft-spoken manner and easy laugh, outlined a scenario of large numbers of unemployed Muslim young men who have not been integrated into German society "looking to get out their aggression against Jews and sometimes homosexuals."
In one sense, he said, "it’s worse than you can imagine," adding that parts of Berlin and Brandenburg are unsafe for Jews to travel.
"There are more radical activities, more aggressiveness by a radicalized Islamic community against Jews in Germany," said Cinar, whose umbrella group represents secular Turkish natives living in Germany.
"Nobody is talking about it in public, but it is a problem, and if there is a war, I fear it will be even more radical."
Along with the warning about their yarmulkes, the rabbis were cautioned also by Jewish officials in Frankfort and Berlin to keep a low profile.
Concern for their safety was such that uniformed or undercover cops were assigned to follow the rabbis wherever they went, whether to a Jewish museum or concentration camp, even to the opera to see a German production of "Macbeth."
No one provided hard statistics of increased incidents, but the perception of increased danger was clear.
"I am very concerned," said Rabbi Ron Brown, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Merrick, L.I., who organized the trip to build bridges between American rabbis and German Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
"We’ve been told not to stand out for fear of being identified as Jewish. This raises flags and shows me it’s not our imagination."
During a similar trip to Berlin two years ago, Rabbi Brown said, there were no such concerns.
"I was totally unaware of this threat, but everybody here recognizes it," said Rabbi Brown, describing his level of concern as an 8 out of 10. "We have to figure out an appropriate response because to be a spectator can be disastrous."
Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, a senior scholar at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a frequent visitor to Germany over the last decade, said he was also unaware of the rising threat to Jews in Germany from Muslims, but added, "I don’t discount the warning."
Dr. Dagmar Weiler, director of Bridge of Understanding, an organization funded by Germany to bring American Jews to the country, confirmed the extra security, saying that America’s threat of war with Iraq heightened concern by German law enforcement officials, a first in the eight-year history of her program.
She explained that the majority Muslim population in Germany are the "secular" Turks, who don’t necessarily side with the minority but ever growing and more militant Palestinian Muslim population here.
"My reading at this time is that we are going through an emotional time with German-American relations and an impending war," Weiler said. "We feel [Germans] are being clobbered by America, and yes, on the surface there are more anti-Semitic utterings and there may be more about Israel."
But she said deep down, Germans still love Americans and will still side with Israel more than with the Arabs because "they realize Israel is the only democratic country in the Near East."
Weiler said she had no intentions of changing her program because of the increased threat to Jews.
"I don’t do anything differently," she said. "Perseverance is my middle name."
But Rabbi Craig Scheff of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Rockland County, N.Y., was "disturbed" by having to hide his identity in certain places.
"I felt I was coming here specifically as a representative of the American Jewish community," he said, "and wearing my kipa is part of how I represent myself as a Jew."
Rabbi Scheff said the added security posed a conflict for him because he didn’t know whether people on the street were reacting to him when he wore his kipa or to the police escort
"Regarding the visibility element, I must admit there is a problem," said Karsten D. Voigt, coordinator for German-American cooperation for the German Foreign Ministry, referring to Jews wearing yarmulkes in Germany.
He cited in part the nation’s growing Muslim population. And with the potential war in Iraq, he feared escalating threats to Jews in Germany from Muslim immigrants.
Deirdre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s German office, said there has been a shift in mood here since Sept. 11 and agreed there is a latent threat, but that there is no clear answer how the situation will play out if a war in Iraq is launched.
"Since Sept. 11 there is a feeling here that anti-Semitic cliches and stereotypes are being expressed more openly," she said. "It is important to express concern and not minimize the danger," she said, however adding that it is important to recognize that that there’s not been the same level of violence in Germany against Jews as in other European countries."
But Rabbi Brown said "when a rabbi tells another rabbi to take off his yarmulke, that’s a major statement."
However Rabbi Andreas Nachama, the former head of Berlin’s Jewish community, downplayed the concern about threats from the radical Muslim community.
"From my experience, I don’t see that my neighborhood has changed. The Germans are nervous and the police are nervous but I don’t see a rise in nasty incidents."
Cinar, who came to Germany from Istanbul in 1967, said that two or three years ago, the greater threat to Jews in Germany was neo-Nazis, but now it’s extremist Arab Muslims.
He described the radical Islamist Arab organization in Germany as very well organized and financially independent: not needing money from places like Saudi Arabia. Cinar said they are technologically adept, and their leaders "have a very good education and have integrated well into German society."
Cinar (whose members pray at the mosque but unlike strictly observant Muslims, do not adhere to the ban on alcohol) said the growing prominence of radical Islamists in Germany has led to growing social pressure on coreligionists to become more fundamentalist, even adopting more traditional Muslim garb.
In a subtle but important point, Rabbi Scheff warned that if what Cinar says is true, the increased education and integration into German society by radical Arab Muslims has not caused them to become less anti-Semitic but apparently more.
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