Jewish life : Berlin, it's time to talk about the policing of your Jewish sites

Despite a brutal attack on Brussels' Jewish community, Berlin needs to ask itself what role a thin blue line between Jew and Gentile plays in the city's culture, says Titus Chalk.

Weaponed Policeman in front of the Jewish Museum.
Weaponed Policeman in front of the Jewish Museum.Foto: dpa

The attack on Brussels' Jewish Museum at the weekend, which left four dead and a continent grappling with the spectre of anti-Semitism, forced me to return to an article I had begun writing in the summer of 2012. Then, a 53-year-old rabbi and his 6-year-old daughter had been attacked in Friedenau, Berlin in an unambiguous hate crime. I had hoped then to investigate the effectiveness of Berlin's policing of Jewish sites. But the content of my article evolved into something different, partly because of what I did learn and partly because of what it was impossible to learn in an unwilling city.

Writing in the Tagesspiegel in the aftermath of that attack, Dieter Graumann, President of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland was adamant that fear must not be allowed to quash a slowly renascent Jewish life in Germany. "Ich lasse nicht zu, dass mir No-go-Areas auferlegt werden," he wrote. "Ich lasse nicht zu, dass wir unser Judentum nur im Hinterzimmer ausleben dürfen." - "I won't accept no-go areas being imposed on me. I won't accept Jewish life being confined to back rooms." The sentiment of his words was absolutely correct, but I was unable to reconcile them with the situation that I perceived on a daily basis in this city, one that as an ex-Londoner perplexed me.

To the eyes of someone raised in a multi-cultural framework, the Hinterzimmer are precisely where most Jewish life here is confined. That is most startlingly evinced by the presence of police and security guards standing between Jew and Gentile on pavements the city over. In front of Synagogues, in front of Jewish schools, in front of cultural sights such as the Jewish Museum: In total, at 64 Jewish sites in Berlin a dividing line between communities is drawn and enforced by a contingent of 350 Police. When Angela Merkel said attempts to build a multi-cultural society in Germany had failed, she was not wrong. Here was the proof: a community ring-fenced and opportunities for exchange seemingly curtailed. When I first arrived in Berlin, the sight left me agog.

Risk of ghetto-isation of the Jewish community

Could it be that, far from deterring attacks on Jews, such measures were at best ineffective and at worst antagonistic? As autumn settled on Berlin, I resolved to find out. My first port of call was with The Economist's former Berlin bureau chief, Brooke Unger. Unger, himself Jewish and originally from the USA, had lived and worked on four different continents. For him, such security measures were not unusual, rather pragmatic and indeed welcome. "Its absence would be more remarkable to me than its presence," he told me. In Unger's experience, it was only in the UK and USA where Jewish sites are granted less ostentatious police protection. The measures were for him an acknowledgement of contemporary tensions caused by the Middle East conflict rather than a reflection of any special German history. The risk that this approach would lead to the very ghetto-isation of the Jewish community which Graumann wanted to avoid, to him, seemed minimal: "It's certainly not my impression that people are somehow turned off by the security or resentful of it," he said.

I decided to head to Mitte's kosher Beth Café to see if this held true in practice. To see if a café with Police guards on the door was welcoming. If business was good. If patrons felt protected rather than threatened by the very visible security measures. But the Beth Café is a strange place - one that looks perpetually closed - and it took me a few moments to find the door. When I did and tried to open it, I discovered that the only people inside were sat in front of it, blocking it off. I was reminded of an uncomplimentary review of the establishment on the website Qype, in which a user described being told he was a threat to his fellow Jews for parking his bike outside. "When will Jews here stop to hide [sic] behind closed doors?" he wrote. "When will we stop to be [sic] so paranoid?"

Once the staff member who had been blocking the door let me in, I asked if I might interview him about the security measures in place, but he politely declined. Nor, barring his group of friends, were there any patrons to ask. I emailed the Café's proprietors, the Adass Jisroel congregation, as suggested and came up blank. It would, as it turned out, be the start of a series of rejections which left this article on ice going into the winter.

Commentators declined to be interviewed

Normally loquacious commentators such as Lea Rosh and Michel Friedman declined to be interviewed on the matter. I was unable to speak with Uwe Neumärker, head of the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas or indeed its architect Peter Eisenman on the effectiveness of a memorial which needs patrolling to foil anti-Semitic vandals. Similarly, my attempts to reach the headmistress of a Jewish kindergarten failed: I would have liked to have asked her whether policemen on the school gates made her young charges feel safe, secure and at home in Germany. No policemen or women involved in the operation were made available for interview either. In short, almost no-one felt compelled to talk about a subject which, to me, appeared very important indeed. Tellingly, one person who did have something to say was an Israeli nightclub promoter whose events are afforded no special security and where all creeds can party together. A series of "Peace Parties" has even brought Jewish revellers together with their Arab peers - again in the absence of particular police measures.

Perhaps, like Unger, most simply feel that the measures are unremarkable. Perhaps the Jewish community here has bigger fish to fry (for example the integration of Jews from the former Soviet Union). Or perhaps Jews in Germany are determined to remain distinct, having fought and died for this country in the past and having reaped only murder in return. But in the absence of dialogue it is impossible to be certain, leaving the nagging sense that something about the topic is not all together unremarkable. That perhaps this reaction does belie a uniquely German context, one very much linked to a history which still influences discourse here today. The reason why for example a Cologne court's decision to outlaw circumcision was reported primarily as an affront to the country's 103,000 Jews rather than to its 4.3 million Muslims.

Maybe, just maybe, no-one wants to be seen to call into question such a highly visible and conciliatory act- one that plays so neatly into the narrative of Germany's collective responsibility - regardless of its cost, effectiveness or greater social implications. The policing of the country's Jewish sites has literally become a political no-brainer - well-intentioned, expedient, but beyond rational appraisal.

It is all too easy to say that multi-culturalism in Germany has failed on the one hand, whilst creating conditions incompatible with it on the other. For its failings, multi-culturalism at least holds open the possibility of dialogue. That has unfortunately eluded me on this subject; one most seem to deem unworthy of discussion. That to me suggests that for all my outsiderness, my preconceptions, my possible wrong-headedness, there is something in this all. Something worth questioning. Something worth discussing. Something worth writing an article about even.