Talking With Neo-Nazis and Pro-Israel Germans
Dispatch #2 from Quds Day in Berlin
On Monday, I wrote a bit about the Quds Day events that took place in Berlin this past weekend. To sum up what happened: As in Tehran, Lebanon, London, Paris, Toronto, and elsewhere, Berlin hosts an Quds Day march at the end of Ramadan. Quds Day (which translates to Jerusalem Day) was originally conceived by Iran in 1979 with the aim of expressing solidarity with Palestinians by marching and rallying, yes, but also by saying all kinds of terrible things about Israel, Zionism, and the Jews.
In Berlin, which has hosted a Quds Day since 1996, the participants ranged from a number of Turkish, Iranian, and Lebanese ex-pats to supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas, some Palestinians, a few neo-Nazis, and some Satmar Jews. Not many there were willing to talk to me, but one Iranian named Omid told me that this was the first Quds rally he’d been to, even though he lived in Iran, and that he was proud such a gathering was possible.
I met one neo-Nazi, who called himself Gene and was wearing a homemade T-shirt that read Assad Ist Gut (Assad is Good). I asked him how such a collection of politically disparate people could come together. His new friend, Tuna, who was Turkish, translated:
“Today we put apart our differences for Jerusalem and to stop the Jews. It’s easy.”
I asked Tuna how he felt about this and he just said yes. I tried to paraphrase that Amos Oz quote about how his father used to see graffiti in Europe that read “Jews, go back to Palestine” and later, after Israel was established, he’d see graffiti in Europe that read “Jews, get out of Palestine,” and asked them what they thought about this. Perhaps not understanding or thinking I was telling a joke, they both kind of chuckled.
There were two counter-demonstrations as well, one that took place right across the street and the other that was stationary near the terminus of the Quds Day rally. The counter-rally across the way was populated by some anti-fascists, some far-left activists, some German Social Democrats, a few Israeli members of the socialist Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair, some members of a German gay alliance dressed in drag, and some anti-Islamist and anti-Iran activists.
As I ambled over to the other side, going around a massive police presence with barricades, riot gear, and trucks, I stopped on the median to chat with a German named Uli (“short for Ulrich,” he courteously explained) who was looking on. I asked him which side he would choose between the two. He jerked his head toward the counter-demonstration.
“I’m not Jewish, but I choose the Israel side because democracy is most important. You have to listen to everyone. But you have to listen to the other side too because they say things that are important as well.”
Over at the counter-rally, there were speeches given in Hebrew, English, and German as well as fair bit of interluding bad techno music. Dr. Kazem Moussavi, a member of the Green Party of Iran, denounced the Iranian regime for its brutality and cruelty and spoke of Israel as a friend to the Iranian people. I spoke with Paul, one of the activists for the group Antifaschistische Aktion, who gave a brief speech to the crowd. He had a septum piercing and on the back of his right calf, he had a large tattoo in block script that read Support Israel in Hebrew. He explained to me briefly:
“It’s important for Germans to support Israel because it’s a democracy. Quds Day is fascist and anti-Semitic and that’s why I’ve come to protest it.”
Paul’s sentiments had been echoed earlier in the week by one of the biggest newspaper columnists in the country.
As the Quds Day rally across shoved off, the counter-rally went alongside it shouting pro-Israel slogans and waving Israeli flags. For those who are familiar with rallies that have to do with Israel, you can imagine what a surprise it is to see activists of the far left screaming defiantly in support of Israel. On the route, I struck up a conversation with a German student named Clemens about the disparity between the German left, some quarters of which contains a vibrant pro-Israel voice, and the rest of the European left, which…very much does not.
“Left-wing Germany is much more sensible than other groups,” he said. “We live in a post-fascist society here and so there’s a stronger feeling against anti-Semitism. In other countries, it’s the other way around. This [supporting Israel] is what we should have learned from our history.”
While we walked, a few random Germans jumped out of cafes or passed by screaming “Lang Lebe Israel!” As the march went on and both sides began hurling abuse at each other, the police eventually diverted the counter-rally off the main street. The group, undeterred, took the next block down and went back to the action. I asked Clemens if he felt it was okay to be critical of Israel.
“It’s not about backing all of their actions,” he said. “I’m here to make a definitive general statement. In a world full of anti-Semitism, we have to support it [Israel]. Israel means Jewish life.”
As we reached the protest again, the counter-demonstration joined a larger one, which was situated at a plaza and cordoned off by barricades. There both sides began shouting at the other again and parts of the Quds Day parade started pressing its way across the street. A phalanx of very tense, very alert German police kept both sides back and eventually drove police vans into the gaps between the crowds. The Quds Day crowd continued on its path while the pro-Israel crowd gathered at the plaza.
The larger counter-rally was made up of more Germans–Jewish and other, some Israelis, and a few Europeans and Americans. A few more speeches were given and then the Hatikvah was played while the police began to break down the barricades. Those who didn’t know the words hummed along.