As a Fishel fellow, I was placed in India with JDC Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps with Gabriel Project Mumbai, and I am now working in Berlin as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

World Cup Celebrations, Demonstrations, and Death Threats

If a year ago, you told me that I would be singing the German national anthem (yes, I know it now by heart) with German colors painted on my face and waving a German flag, I would tell you that you’re crazy.  But somehow, all the experiences of the past year led me to this point as I celebrated the World Cup win with hundreds of thousands of Germans in the streets in Berlin.

The thought of German national pride makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  Before coming to Berlin and understanding the current situation here, it made me uncomfortable too.  A Jewish family friend from LA visited a few weeks ago, and I offered her some advice for things to see in the city.  At the top of my list was the Reichstag (the Parliament building), which visitors can climb and get amazing views of the city.  When I told her about it, she got uncomfortable and told me she doesn’t feel right visiting German nationalistic sites.  She’s not alone in her view- I even have a friend who’s lived in Berlin for years now and has German citizenship who told me that all the German flags hanging around the city for the World Cup make her uneasy.  

But if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from my year in Berlin, it’s that I no longer associate this place with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.  I no longer feel uncomfortable seeing German police officers.  I no longer get nervous when German is spoken loudly.  When I see old people on the bus, I no longer wonder what they were doing during World War II. 

That’s not to say that I am forgetting what happened here.  There are constant reminders around the city from street signs to memorials to Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” with former Jewish residents’ names on them) to make sure that doesn’t happen.  And I feel my grandmother’s presence in the area she used to live and go to school.  But rather than feel overwhelmed by the history of the city, I now feel its modern culture and diversity propelling it forward.

I couldn’t help but wonder what my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Berlin would think about me waving a German flag, singing the national anthem, and blending into a crowd of Germans.  I really believe that she would be proud, not only of her granddaughter who returned to her home city to help rebuild the Jewish community, but of the country she once called her homeland.  A place that once persecuted and deported her and her family but that has now risen above that dark period to become a progressive, accepting country that honors its Jewish citizens. 

I left the World Cup celebration thinking about all these things and being excited to feel part of this country, but my excitement quickly changed as I turned the corner to my street and came upon a Palestinian rally.  I have seen dozens of Palestinian rallies back in LA, but this one felt different.

The protestors began with the usual chants saying “Kinder murder- Israel” (“Child murder- Israel”) which was unsettling to hear, but what came next was even more disturbing.  The protestors started to yell “Death to Jews.”  At this point, they were literally standing next to a Holocaust memorial a hundred meters from where I live.  Even amidst the growing anti-Semitism happening around the world today, especially in Europe, I have felt very much protected from it in Germany.  I haven’t experienced any anti-Semitism during my year here living, working, and socializing inside and outside of the Jewish community.  Incidences like the Paris synagogue attack that happened last Sunday don’t happen here.  And even though these anti-Semitic protestors outside my apartment were Arabs, they still live here and are German citizens.  Hearing them chant “Death to Jews” shattered that sense of security I have felt all year in Berlin. 

The night of the celebrations was supposed to be my last night in Berlin.  The plan was for me to be in Israel now, working in a small student village in the desert, but because of everything that is happening over there, I am staying in Berlin for at least the next week. 

In the same spot where the Palestinian rally took place on the same street as the German World Cup celebration, I also attended a pro-Israel rally a few days ago.  Of course, this rally did not include anything violent or hateful.  About 100 people came and showed their support for Israel defending itself and protecting its citizens.  People made speeches, played Israeli music, and waved flags.  It makes me proud to be associated with these people, who support Israel but also empathize with the civilians on the other side.  What a stark contrast this was from the protestors who were yelling "Death to Jews."  I saw this contrast as very representative of the greater conflict.

I read an article today in which Natan Sharanksy, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Israel last month, discusses the future of European Jewry, a topic I’ve dealt with extensively throughout my time in Europe.  Sharanksy believes that increasing rates of Aliyah from Europe which are the result of growing anti-Semitism (especially in France) could mark “the beginning of the end of European Jewry.”  My interactions with young Jews from all over Europe have made me optimistic about the future of European Jewry, but with the growing incidences of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination, especially in countries like France and Hungary, my optimism is fading a bit. 

Jewish writer and activist Marek Halter recently published an article with a plea to European Jews against making Aliyah.   “Will you cede to those seeking our disappearance? Will you leave this home of ours to jihadists and the National Front?” he wrote.  European Jewish communities are divided on the subject of Aliyah, and it’s an issue that I’m also struggling with.  Should Jews stay and fight the anti-Semitism happening in their home countries, or should they escape to Israel where they can live Jewish lives without fear?  Hearing an angry crowd yell “Death to Jews” on my street, in arguably one of the safest cities for Jews in the entire continent is forcing me to address that question.

What a contrasting few days filled with mixed emotions it has been: World Cup celebrations, Israel under siege, demonstrations and death threats…but this is how life is here.  Working in the now celebrated Jewish community that was once persecuted, living in an old Jewish building surrounded by new buildings, and moving to a city that my grandmother was deported from inherently brings with it contrasts and daily experiences that are changing how I view the world.


  1. Brianna - this post was amazing. I got goosebumps reading it. Your observations are so authentic and insightful. I feel so far from Israel and Europe, but it was truly meaningful to read your personal account of the conflict. Keep up the fantastic work and thank you so much for sharing!!!!

    1. Thank you so much Melissa! Glad you enjoyed it! Hope all is well in New York :)

  2. Really liked your post. It gave me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing Brianna!