World News

German Idea to Fight Anti-Semitism: Make Immigrants Tour Concentration Camps

Posted January 10, 2018 7:27 p.m. EST

Alarmed by displays of anti-Semitism among new immigrants to Germany, a German politician has offered a novel idea that appears to be gaining traction: required visits to Nazi concentration camp memorials.

The idea, proposed by Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator of Palestinian heritage, received a significant boost Wednesday when the leaders of Germany’s Central Council of Jews and the far larger World Jewish Congress agreed with her.

“People who have fled to us who have themselves had to escape or been expelled can develop empathy in such memorials,” the council’s president, Josef Schuster, told Deutschlandfunk radio.

The World Jewish Congress, a leading advocacy organization that represents Jewish communities in 100 countries, also welcomed the idea.

“This proposal is an encouraging and effective method of educating people of all backgrounds about the Nazi attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe and the dangers such hatred can yield,” Ronald S. Lauder, the organization’s president, said in an emailed response to a request for comment.

“More than any other country, Germany has faced up to the crimes of its past in an honest and straightforward way, and has made it clear at the highest levels of government that the memory of the Holocaust must never be forgotten or diminished,” Lauder said.

The idea of requiring new arrivals to visit concentration camps was not universally endorsed. Some scholars of German history described it as a simplistic answer to a more complicated and insidious problem. Many acts of anti-Semitism in Germany, they emphasized, are not by immigrants.

“You don’t stop someone from being a racist or xenophobe by taking them to a concentration camp,” said Sabine von Mering, director of the Center for German and European Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “I don’t think that making it a requirement is somehow going to magically solve this problem. It requires a lot more attention and education.”

Chebli, who suggested the required visits in an interview published Sunday in the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, was not immediately available for comment. Nor was it clear whether the German government would move to make such visits mandatory for immigrants, who are currently offered courses on German language, culture and history.

But the suggestion reflected a growing concern that Germany’s absorption in recent years of more than 1 million immigrants, many fleeing war and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa, had inadvertently created potential incubators of anti-Semitism in the country most saddled with the legacy of the Holocaust, which killed about 6 million Jews.

Sensitivities about the Nazi past are extremely strong in Germany, one of Israel’s strongest supporters. German law includes strict prohibitions on Nazi propaganda and Holocaust denial.

Government authorities have sought to make Germany a safe place for Jews, who number about 200,000 in the country. Despite the recent rise of the nativist far-right Alternative for Germany party and the neo-Nazi tone conveyed by some of its leaders, Germany is still regarded as one of Europe’s more tolerant societies.

Student trips to former Nazi concentration camps, where Jews were enslaved and mass-murdered before and during World War II, are regular elements of German school curriculums.

Chebli raised the idea of helping sensitize new immigrants to the history of Nazi crimes — through concentration camp visits — as part of assimilating them into a German society that values tolerance and opposes discrimination.

“I think it would make sense if everyone living in this country would be obliged to visit a concentration camp memorial site at least once in their lifetime,” including new arrivals, she was quoted by Bild am Sonntag as saying. “Concentration camp visits should become part of integration courses.” Her suggestion came against the backdrop of a perceived rise in anti-Semitic sentiment last month, after President Donald Trump’s declaration that the United States government officially considered the contested city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

A large majority of United Nations member states — including Germany — condemned the U.S. position, which critics called a violation of international law and a new obstacle to resolving the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Participants in protests that erupted in Germany included Arab immigrants, some of them seen burning Israeli flags and heard shouting, “Death to Israel,” in what government officials called a hateful display of ignorance.

Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, who has advocated for Holocaust education as part of the immigrant assimilation process, said in an interview in Der Spiegel newsmagazine last month that the Jerusalem dispute was no excuse for anti-Semitism.

“Whoever burns Israeli flags burns not only one’s decency, but also the values of our constitution,” he told Der Spiegel. “Whoever questions Israel’s right to exist is standing outside our society.”

He also said it should be understood that “whoever attacks Jewish life has to be prosecuted with the full consequence of the constitutional state.”