Photo by Michal Andrysiak
It’s not easy being an Israeli in Berlin these days. Many are unhappy about the war in Gaza and the right-wing government in Jerusalem and at the same feel the sting from other Israelis about not supporting the Jewish state, while at the same time anti-Semitic attitudes have sporadically popped up from Germans who can’t make a distinction between the state and its people. John Riceburg spoke to a few cultural and political activists…
It was supposed to be a "peace party", but the reactions weren't unanimously peaceful. The Meschugge party in early August at the Sophienclub in Mitte featured DJs from Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Iran, united in saying "Khalas!" (Enough!) to war and conflict. The Meschugge parties are an institution for both the local “Oriental party scene" and Israeli émigrés.
But with the current war going on, "I didn't feel like doing an Israeli party", says party organiser and DJ Aviv Netter, (photo) who's been organising the legendary "un-kosher Jewish" parties in Berlin for the last seven years. So he cancelled one date. And as the next date rolled around, and the war still raging, he decided to host a peace party instead.
At a Meschugge party, an international mix of beatseekers throw their hands up to the throbbing sounds of Oriental dance music and traditional Jewish music. It’s likely the only party where people of Arabic origin will dance under blue and white Israeli flags in Berlin. And while the "peace party" was a sign of genuine multikulti harmony, Netter (who tellingly DJs under "Aviv without the Tel”) also got angry reactions.
"Dirty pig" wrote “Ibrahim” via Facebook. Netter responded that his uncle was also named Ibrahim, and wished his harasser "peace" in Arabic. "No matter what, one shouldn’t hit back,” he explains. “I learned that in high school!" Two years ago, the plucky promoter brought his party to the southwestern town of Heidelberg. When Palestinians demonstrated in front of one of his parties and handed out cookies with the Palestinian flag, he invited them to distribute the cookies inside.
But resistance from outside the Jewish community wasn’t all Netter got. "Traitor!" also appeared on Facebook.
For Netter, the Meschugge parties are intended as cultural celebrations. But "everything in our day is political," he laments. Like most Israelis here, Netter wants to be a Berliner… yet he often finds himself forced to deal with a conflict thousands of kilometres away.
Diaspora in Berlin
According to official data the Israeli community has grown from 2849 in 2008 to 3578, a 25 percent jump. From leftist and anarchist Israelis dissatisfied with the political climate back home, to young professionals with children taking advantage of the Berlin tech-industry buzz, while the cost of living back in Israel skyrockets, it’s hard to pinpoint one precise cause for the influx.
Berlin's Israeli community now reflects the full spectrum of political opinion. The Facebook group for Israelis in Berlin, several thousand strong, might feature a convocation for demonstration against the war in Gaza, but also plenty of unfriendly responses. And even when some try to ignore Israeli politics, Israeli politics (and its critics) won't ignore them.
Taking to the streets
On July 27, half a dozen Israelis sat down at the bar Südblock at Kottbusser Tor for an ad-hoc meeting. They had just been at a demonstration with a few hundred leftists against the Israeli attacks on Gaza, as well as the ISIS attacks on the Kurdish regions of Iraq. They couldn't agree on much – "We're still discussing about whether we're post-Zionists or anti-Zionists," one participant recalls – but as 34-year-old Iris Shahar explained, there was consensus that an Israeli voice against the war was urgently needed. Shahar has been studying history in Berlin for just a year now and didn't have much street protest action under her belt. But when Israelis called for a demonstration against the war at Heinrichplatz on July 30, she was the one to read out their communique, looking both angry and nervous. Nearly 500 people marched to Kotti that day, chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” in Hebrew and a handful of other languages as well.
With his long black dreadlocks, 27-year-old programmer and musician David Nelband, looks the part of Berlin protester. In comparison to the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, Nelband is a relative veteran to Palestinian-organised demonstrations in Berlin. At Adenauer Platz he heard a man shouting slogans against “Judenschweine”, with several dozen people chiming in. "A devastating moment,” he says, but he also emphasises that most demonstrations he’d been to clearly reject anti-Semitism.
For Shahar, Israel's claim to be a Jewish democratic state is oxymoronic: “De facto, it's mostly Jewish and hardly democratic.” That's why she objects to anti-Zionism being equated to anti-Semitism: "Israel claims to represent all Jewish people, even in the diaspora, but it's not true."
"My friends in Israel are in a state of despair,” says Etay Naor, a copy editor and musician. Demonstrations against the war in different cities in Israel have been regularly attacked by right-wing thugs, with the police looking away. In the month of July alone, there were 33 different right-wing attacks. "It's much more dangerous to be an Arab or a leftist in Israel than to be an Israeli Jew in Berlin,” he explains.
The four-year Berliner doesn't minimise the danger of anti-Semitism in history or today. But despite all the talk of a new wave of anti-Semitism on Germany's streets, he can't recall a single bad experience.
David Nelband can recall one incident in a döner shop in Wedding. When asked where he came from, he replied, "Russia." But that was his choice. "I felt bad about it afterwards,” he regretfully says.
For Shahar, Israel's wars "encourage anti-Semitism in the world" and even "endanger Jews in the diaspora". That's why she feels a responsibility to protest – to show that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
"I understand the German public is scared to touch this subject," says Naor, but he knows one thing for certain: Israelis who are against the war need support. Especially because Germany isn't some kind of neutral observer in the conflict: "Germany supports Israel both diplomatically and by sending weapons." Nelband adds that Israelis participating in anti-war actions can help de-legitimise anti-Semitic arguments, showing that not all Jews support the state's policies.
Conflict belongs to the politicians
"Being Jewish has never been easy," Netter says, but he hasn't had many problems in eight years in Berlin – except once, when an enormous and inebriated Chechen on the subway saw him reading a book in Hebrew and things got a little ugly. Netter thinks people in Berlin see the conflict "from a distance", since it really "belongs to the politicians".
He also doesn’t believe the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Berlin were anti-Semitic. He remembers his first gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2001: "The media coverage focused on people in extreme S&M gear and drag garb, even though the majority of people hadn't put much thought into their outfits." In the same way, the media at Berlin demonstrations focus on the few individuals with anti-Semitic slogans, since that attracts the most attention.
Berlin, at end of the day, is a city where young Egyptians can dance to the latest Israeli pop hits. Netter might not go to demonstrations – he thinks that these days political protest, just like party promotion, is more effective via Facebook and other social media. But he is still a strong believer in peace. And a basement party, just like a street demonstration, can sow the seeds.