From gangster to peacemaker

As a Jewish gang leader in Berlin in his youth, Arye Sharuz Shalicar suffered harsh antisemitism from Muslim immigrants. Today he promotes Jewish-Muslim friendship and German-Israeli ties

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May 28, 2019 18:11
From gangster to peacemaker

Arye Shalicar in Tel Aviv: Young people are tomorrow’s decision-makers. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The district of Wedding in Berlin is a center of Jihadist activities in the heart of the German capital. The Salafist Al-Sahaba Mosque in its southern part gained notoriety as a meeting point for senior ISIS leaders who ended up fighting in Iraq and Syria. Islamist terrorists who made headlines in the German press, such as the so-called “Emir of Wedding,” are directly associated with the neighborhood that is largely inhabited by immigrants, and where unemployment and poverty are high.

The number of officially registered criminal offenses in the quarter has dropped in recent years. But when Arye Sharuz Shalicar was a teenager growing up there in the 1990s, Wedding was still one of Berlin’s most dangerous areas.

Shalicar was very much a child of that neighborhood: a gang leader and a petty criminal who covered the quarter with his graffiti to gain the respect of his peers. Then in 2001 his life took a remarkable turn: he made aliyah, where he became a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces and published two books.

A young Arye Shalicar in Berlin

Today, 41 years old, married and a father of two, Shalicar heads the Department of Foreign Relations in Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence Affairs, and is one of the closest advisers to Israel Katz, minister of Foreign Affairs, Transportation and Intelligence.

On May 25, Germany’s antisemitism czar, Dr. Felix Klein, caused shock among German Jews by issuing a statement advising them to avoid wearing kippot in public because of rising antisemitism.

As an author and public speaker, Shalicar capitalizes on his extraordinary life story to challenge anti-Jewish bias, to promote Jewish-Muslim friendship, and to improve German-Israeli ties. He has become something of a celebrity in German-speaking countries, frequently appearing on TV and in the press, and his popularity is credited to his ability to personally connect with his audience, to reach it on an emotional level.

SHALICAR MOVED to Wedding in 1991 when he was 13 years old, the son of immigrants from Iran who came to Germany in the 1970s. He shared dark skin and roots in the Middle East with many locals in the neighborhood and he blended in, even learning Turkish and Arabic – two of the 10 languages that he mastered – to better communicate with his peers, whose German was poor.

Most of his friends were Muslim who just assumed that, given his Persian roots, he must be a fellow co-religionist. But when they learned that he was Jewish, they turned his life into a struggle for survival. “It was running the gauntlet,” he says. “I was in constant fear. I knew that every day could be my last one.”

He became a pariah, and felt the full impact of Muslim antisemitism that only recently has been recognized as a serious problem in the immigrant quarters and parallel societies of European cities.

Long before the so-called “Refugee Crisis” and the 2015 Paris terror attacks, long before journalists and filmmakers approached the anti-Jewish attitudes in the Paris Banlieue and the Brussels Molenbeek neighborhoods, Arye Shalicar was fighting for his life in the heart of a European capital because he was Jewish – a struggle that he recounts in his autobiography, published in 2010.

Its title, A Wet Dog Is Better Than a Dry Jew, is a Persian antisemitic idiom that Shalicar first heard from his mother’s cousin, who told him about the antisemitic discrimination that her family endured in her Iranian hometown of Babol. Available only in German, the book is one of the first – if not the first – in-depth documentation of Muslim antisemitism on European streets and schoolyards.

It has also inspired award-winning German-Croatian filmmaker Damir Lukacevic to write a movie script. (In 2016, Lukacevic directed a stage performance of the script in which the actors were students from Shalicar’s former high school.) While the making of the film is still in its infancy, Warner Brothers has already been contracted to distribute the movie once it is completed, and an English version, as well.

“There was only one way to survive: assimilation,” writes Shalicar about his youth in Berlin. “Not into German society. But into the Muslim parallel society of Germany.”

This experience gave him a unique insight into the cosmos of Europe’s Muslim subculture.

Today, he draws on that experience to build bridges between Muslims and Jews and to fight antisemitism. He frequently addresses delegations of German Muslims who come to Israel as part of various educational projects that seek to challenge anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli bias.

“Arye is an important bridge-builder,” says Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin branch of the American Jewish Committee, which has invited several groups of German Muslim leaders on trips to Israel. “He can reach people, because he is very authentic. He intimately knows the Muslim milieu in Germany; he knows where these people are coming from.”

Award-winning journalist Özlem Topçu, who writes for the German weekly Die Zeit, met with Shalicar on one of those trips in November 2016. As a German with Turkish roots, she says that the anti-Israeli incitement of Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan also reinforces antisemitic sentiments among Germany’s Muslim community. This often involves misrepresentations of Israeli security operations, such as the diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Israel that erupted in 2010, after the Israeli navy intercepted the Turkish Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara flotilla.

“I still think that many actions by the Israeli army are excessive – especially when they are directed against unarmed Palestinians,” says Topçu. “But often enough they are also taken out of context and falsely portrayed as arbitrary in a way that resonates with antisemitic sentiments. Arye Shalicar does a great job in challenging such narratives, by explaining the background behind Israel security operations.”

Birgül Akpinar – an expert on migration and integration policy for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU Party – who met with Shalicar on the same trip as Topçu, says German authorities are more hesitant to respond to Muslim Jew-hatred than to the antisemitism of German far-right radicals.

“German officials are afraid that they will be charged with racism when they challenge antisemitism among migrants,” said Akpinar. “This is the reason why Arye Shalicar’s contribution is so important. He tries to reconcile. But at the same time he is not afraid to clearly address the problem of Muslim antisemitism that politicians in Germany often don’t want to talk about.”

Shalicar’s “assimilation,” as he calls it, into the community of Wedding was not only one into a parallel society of Muslims and Middle East immigrants. It also meant mingling in a subculture of youngsters who overcompensated for their lack of status with violence and crime. In his recent book, Shalicar recalls how “in Wedding, stabbings and shootings were no rarity.”
He covered the neighborhood in his graffiti and excelled in gang fights, and was arrested time and again.

For the adolescent Shalicar, his misdeeds were a strategy to distract his peers from his Jewish identity and to gain their precarious respect.

“The more I felt the brotherhood with my fellows from Wedding,” writes Shalicar, “the more I found myself on the street being up to something.” But soon enough he went back to being the Jewish pariah, as friends turned their backs on him once they learned of his Jewish background, once they became aware that stories about him being a Jew were more than just a rumor or the object of mockery.

In his books, Shalicar recounts many such anecdotes and the deep personal disappointments that they caused, how his Jewishness turned him into a victim of brute violent attacks. His aliyah, he writes, was a direct response to these events.

Today Shalicar likes to draw analogies between his situation as a Jewish pariah in Wedding and the position of the Jewish state in its hostile geo-political environment.
“I had the right to live in Wedding, even though many there disliked the fact that a Jew was among them,” he says. “Likewise, the Jewish people has the right to live in Israel.”
He adds that just like he needed to be strong to prevail in his Berlin neighborhood, so does the state of Israel in the Middle East.


“You can’t be weak in an environment in which your neighbors want to chase you into the sea,” Shalicar says. “If Israel were weak, it would not exist anymore.”

Stressing Israel’s right and need to defend itself was part of his routine as a spokesperson for the IDF. From 2009 until 2016, Shalicar served as the army’s liaison for journalists from Europe and Australia, a period that covered the 2012 and 2014 Gaza wars also known as operations Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge.

Shalicar became frustrated with foreign journalists who, as he puts it, eagerly wrote emotional accounts about the destruction in Gaza, but barely mentioned the hundreds of rockets that were fired from the Palestinian enclave into Israel.

“There was no interest in understanding the suffering on the Israeli side,” says Shalicar. “Many of the camera teams, correspondents and photographers just wanted footage from the destruction in Gaza. That Hamas used civilian establishments, mosques, hospitals, schools and UN buildings to store and launch rockets into Israel didn’t make it into the news. Images of bombed Palestinian houses and dead bodies were broadcast to Germany’s living rooms, without explaining the reasons behind the incidents that brought about the destruction. In the end, nobody really understood why the fighting had broken out in the first place.”

IT was such conclusions that inspired Shalicar to write his recent book, The New German Antisemite (translated from German), in which he links his dealing with anti-Israeli media bias to his experience as a hunted Jewish pariah on the streets of Berlin. “Negative and one-sided coverage of Israel in the German media encourages antisemitism on the streets,” he writes. “As a result, Jews often feel unsafe when they walk around in German cities.”

Indeed, in Germany as elsewhere in Europe, protest rallies against Israeli military campaigns or other political matters that involve the Jewish state have set the scene for public antisemitic outbursts that include chants such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” or “Slaughter the Jews!” In order to challenge such sentiment, Shalicar frequently tours Germany as a public speaker, and regularly advises German security forces that are struggling to get a grip on the violent and volatile situations in many of Germany’s immigrant neighborhoods.

Shalicar in uniform while working for the IDF Spokesperson’s Office

Even after leaving the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, Shalicar remains one of the most prominent voices of Israel advocacy in the German media, appearing regularly on TV and in newspapers. In addition, he runs a German Facebook profile that has almost 18,000 followers. All this is voluntary work aimed at not only confronting antisemitism, but also to improve German-Israeli relations that Shalicar sees impacted by a distorted negative image that many Germans have of the Jewish state.

“Germany is where I have been born and where I spent a large part of my life,” he writes. “I speak German with my children. And there are so many fields in which Germany and Israel, both my home countries, could support each other. So I want to contribute my small share to get German-Israeli relations back on track.”

Bärbel Metz, director of the German-Israeli friendship association (DIG) that frequently invites him on speaking tours, says “Arye Shalicar is an honest and credible broker between Germans and Israelis. People believe him because of his personal experience and because he knows both sides equally well. He has the remarkable ability to address people at eye-level, regardless of whether they are high-ranking officials or high school students.”

But it is the high school students whom Shalicar cares about the most.

“Young people are tomorrow’s decision-makers,” he explains. “If we want things to improve in the future, it is them who we have to talk to. In addition, young people are more open-minded. They often are easier to reach than older people.”

Shalicar with Ciprian Gadea, who played the role of ‘Arye Shalicar’ in Lukacevic’s theater play in 2016 at Arye’s former high school

No less important, speaking to teenagers also helps him deal with the difficult experiences that he had to undergo when he was the same age.

“It is a powerful emotional experience to tell someone who is 15 years old about something that you experienced when you were 15 yourself,” he says. “When I look these kids in the eyes, I see myself.”

It is this personal and emotional connection that he makes with his audience that characterizes his style rather than highbrow abstraction.

“Arye Shalicar doesn’t theorize about antisemitism, as if this would be something abstract,” says Cahait Basar, a history and social science teacher at a Cologne high school, who invited Shalicar to speak to his students in February. “Instead, he presents the problem from a perspective of human and emotional experience. And he does so using a simple language that young people understand.”

Those who chat with Shalicar in German recognize remnants of the kind of street slang typically spoken among Germany’s poorer and less-educated immigrants. Despite his degree from Hebrew University, despite the numerous articles and books that he has written, despite the many languages that he speaks and despite his penchant for listening to audio books of the Scottish philosopher David Hume when he gets stuck in traffic, Shalicar likes to keep things simple.

One night in February, Shalicar addressed a crowd at the Jewish Community Center in the German town of Aachen. After he finished reading a biographical anecdote from his new book, and the floor was open for questions from the audience, an elderly man approached the microphone and said, “Simple people like me often don’t understand what really is going on in the Middle East. I am not an intellectual like you!”

Shalicar with his family at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Shalicar started laughing. “I can’t recall ever having been called an intellectual,” he responded. “I think if my homies from Berlin would hear that they would find it very funny.” The hall burst out laughing.

It is such unpretentious statements that capture the hearts of Shalicar’s listeners. Indeed, Die Zeit journalist Topçu is convinced that Shalicar – with his personal background and his down-to-earth style – can affect people more than she can as the editor of an intellectual newspaper.

But simplicity and eye-level contact is what Shalicar aims for when he meets high-ranking diplomats and state officials.

In 2017, Shalicar guided Germany’s minister of justice on a helicopter tour of Israel, the same Heiko Maas who today is the Federal Republic’s minister of foreign affairs. When Maas boarded the helicopter with his Israeli counterpart, Ayelet Shaked, Shalicar simply greeted him with the words, “Hello, Heiko, I’m Arye.”

“I can’t stand diplomatic protocol,” says Shalicar as he recounts this anecdote, a remarkable statement from somebody who routinely meets senior officials on state visits. “I think it’s much better to talk to people straight from the heart.”

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