In the summer of 2015, on the streets of Berlin, a gang of drunks approached an Israeli and German woman, who were speaking Hebrew, and taunted them with: “How dare you live in Germany!” They then proceeded to throw bottles at them.
Earlier this year, a Berlin family went on vacation and put their home in the care of neighbor, only to find a swastika scrawled inside their kitchen when they returned. And last October, at a private kindergarten in Berlin, a five-year-old boy said to the class: “Hitler should have killed all the Jews.” The teacher, according to witnesses, agreed.
These are just a few of the incidents tracked by the Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), a watchdog group monitoring anti-Semitism in Berlin founded in Jan. 2015 under the umbrella of the Association for Democratic Culture in Berlin with funding from the Berlin Municipality. RIAS seeks to expose, monitor and prevent attacks against Jews, and has plans to expand nationwide.
In July 2015 RIAS opened an online hotline (in German, English and Russian) for victims of anti-Semitism. If the incident involves violence, serious threats or vandalism, RIAS assists victims in filing reports with the police when necessary.
“We have different areas that we monitor,” Benjamin Steinitz, the coordinator of RIAS, told JNS.org. “The main focus is on incidents that people report to us. These can be physical attacks, verbal abuse and incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti, propaganda-like stickers, vandalism of property and desecration of memorial sites.”
Routinely tracking anti-Semitic attacks offers a mechanism for determining trends in anti-Semitism in Germany, including the source and nature of the hate – whether it targets Jews as a religious, ethnic or national group, and if it comes from Islamic, left-wing or right-wing circles. During 2015, RIAS monitored 26 anti-Semitic attacks. In the 19 instances in which the ethnic background of the perpetrators could be identified, 12 cases were said to be carried out by people with a Turkish or Arabic background.
“I would say we know a bit more than two years ago because I received many reports that were not reported to the police,” Steinitz said. RIAS has shared criminal incidents with the police at its request; the organization is currently investigating about 40 cases.
Based on RIAS’s 2015 figures, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) office in Berlin has reported that the number of recorded instances of anti-Semitic attacks in Berlin (but not necessarily the number of attacks) is up by 36 percent in 2015 from the previous year.
“The reason that they were able to collect a higher number of incidents is because they have created outreach into the Jewish community and to Jewish organizations, building up a basis of trust to encourage more people to report incidents,” Deidre Berger, director of AJC Berlin, told JNS.org. “It is important work that will hopefully help police to revise their methods of collection and to work closely with civil society to collect more comprehensive figures on anti-Semitic incidents.”
In deciding what constitutes an anti-Semitic incident, RIAS operates according to the European Union’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, which includes demonization of Israel. AJC Berlin, whose main mission is to combat anti-Semitism in Germany, is lobbying to make this definition the standard for police and justice officials when monitoring and recording anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. The AJC was also responsible for contributing to stricter police guidelines on deciding which slogans and symbols are unacceptable in public rallies.
Additionally, RIAS sometimes monitors public events where anti-Semitic slogans and behavior may happen. For example, at the annual international Al-Quds Day anti-Israel march that took place in Berlin on July 2, Steinitz and his team were on the scene to photograph violations (such as the donning of symbols tied to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah) and to record hate speech against Jews, from the minor to the egregious, such as “Jews to the gas,” a slogan chanted during anti-Israel protests in Berlin during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014.
Despite the efforts to encourage German Jews to report anti-Semitism, Steinitz understands that many may not view the current situation as dire enough, or would prefer to keep a low profile to avoid confrontation and spotlight.
“Also, the general perception of Jews in Germany is to accept the situation because it’s much better than 70 years ago and many Jews recently arrived 20 years ago from the former Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism was organized by state bodies,” Steinitz said.
RIAS wants people to know that Jews need not suffer any abuse in Germany.
“By monitoring the manifestations that are brought to us, we bring light to the dark field, even if it can’t be prosecuted as anti-Semitism,” he said.