How This Muslim Teacher In Berlin Is Fighting Anti-Semitism

“Don’t look away when you witness anti-Semitism.”
The cupola of Berlin's new synagogue at Oranienburger Street.
The cupola of Berlin's new synagogue at Oranienburger Street.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Dervis Hizarci is a secondary school teacher in Kreuzberg, one of Berlin’s most diverse neighborhoods, and the chairman of the Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism (KIgA).

As a Berliner with Turkish-Muslim roots, he has seen two disturbing developments firsthand: growing hate against Muslims, and worrisome anti-Semitism among Muslims.

One day, a student in his classroom called another student “Jew.” Both students were Muslim. But as Hizarci pointed out in the account below, rather than evidence of deep-seated anti-Semitism among young Muslims, this incident is proof that no case is hopeless.

“Jew” Can’t Become An Insult Again

Dervis Hizarci: I intervened immediately after the incident occurred. I made it clear to the student that comments that belittle others and stir up hatred had no place in my classroom. But I wanted to find out where his comment came from. Was it simply a rash remark? Was it considered “cool” among kids to say things like this? Or was it a form of deep-seated anti-Semitism?

It became clear that the students in this classroom often spoke disparagingly about Jews. I wanted to know exactly where these insults were coming from. They are unacceptable. “Jew” can’t become an insult in Germany once again.

We must confront hate

Hizarci: The KIgA is a civil society initiative to develop education-based methods for dealing with anti-Semitism. We have a diverse team of 30 members. Our work is also diverse: Besides providing assistance to students and teachers, we also organize Jewish-Muslim exchanges, have planned an exhibition on modern Jewish life in Berlin and advise politicians, administrators, and civil society.

In the classroom where this particular incident occurred, we did a weeklong workshop. Among other things, we visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin, talked about identity and Jewish diversity, discussed the theme of anti-Semitism, and also spoke about some of the students’ own experiences of discrimination.

Where Does Anti-Semitism Come From?

Hizarci: There are different theories about the origins of anti-Semitism among children and young people from Muslim immigrant backgrounds.

The Arab-Israeli conflict - When anti-Semitic ideas would be ascribed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Conspiracy theories - When anti-Semitic ideas spring from the belief that there is some sort of “great Jewish power” secretly ruling the world. This is a cocktail made of false information and a flood of emotions.

But there are few conclusive findings about the spread of anti-Semitism among these young immigrants. The theories here are basically that it comes from the parents, from the imam, over satellite TV or from people who’ve fled the Arab world. All this is conceivable, but it should first be examined before it is postulated as fact. We must make sure of these things and develop our strategies accordingly.

The Start Of A Learning Process

Hizarci: In the case of this student, it wasn’t his parents who influenced him to do this. The boy does not even attend a mosque. He explained that people were saying “Jew” during soccer games, and that it simply functioned as a sort of insult. Problematic enough!

The workshop started a learning process for these students. They were encouraged to express themselves and take in other perspectives. Thinking about situations in which they had felt excluded themselves made them realize that comments like these hurt. This resulted in empathy for others.

When a student manages to endure contradictions, accept others and other ways of being, and scrutinize his or her own prejudices and assumptions, this often produces tolerance and openness. This also applies to teachers. It applies to all of us.

How We Can All Stand Against Hate

Hizarci: I could have ignored this incident. I could have simply punished them. But I made the effort to engage with the students and try to understand them.

Every teacher, every citizen can take this approach ― intervene and confront. That is “modern moral courage.” It works on and offline, and creates specific changes.

I challenge everyone in Germany, regardless of career, belief or origin: When and wherever anti-Semitism appears, don’t avoid it. Start a conversation and identify if it’s ignorance, “youth slang” used without reflection, or deep-seated spitefulness. Then respond appropriately.

I hope imams, pastors, and church- and mosque-goers will do this as well. I hope everyone will. Don’t look away when you witness anti-Semitism. For many people, that attitude is already a given. But it needs to be a guiding principle for everyone.

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Germany. The text was recorded by Leonhard Landes.