German programs forge rare ties among Middle East foes

According to government statistics there has been no rise in antisemitic crimes since more than a million asylum seekers arrived in the country since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015.

ISRAELI AND SYRIAN musicians perform at a recent concert in Munich. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAELI AND SYRIAN musicians perform at a recent concert in Munich.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“My family would not think very well of this,” a Syrian refugee says of his dinner meeting with a small group of Israeli journalists in Berlin. He and his roommate say they are “happy and honored” to be invited to the dinner – hosted by Germany´s cultural institute, the Goethe-Institut – but would not disclose their names in the media for fear of ramifications on their families back in Syria.
The Goethe-Institut had arranged the dinner on behalf of the German Foreign Affairs Ministry, which invited the journalists to Berlin for a three-day information tour on the subject of migration, integration and the prevention of extremism in Germany, comprising meetings with various organizations, individuals and government ministries connected to the issue.
One of the Goethe-Institut guides that accompanied the group works for an NGO that assists refugees with their integration into the country; she met Adnan (not real name) through her work and invited him and his friend to meet the group.
Adnan, 31, is a personable lawyer with liberal views. But he says that he grew up with the same hate of Israelis that is instilled in all Syrians. His first encounter with an Israeli was at a German language course in Berlin.
At first, he felt his walls automatically going up when he found out she was Israeli. “Before I left Syria, I thought like all of the Syrians,” he says honestly. The general consensus is to view Israelis as enemies who took part of the Syrian land (the Golan Heights in 1967).
“But after I met this friend on the German course, it made me think – she is a normal people, so why would I not talk to her, or think she is my enemy, or a bad person. We can have a discussion. This politics is not my business now; she is a person and I am a person... why can’t we be friends?”
Adnan has remained friends with that woman and has made other Israeli friends too – one who helped him find the apartment which he now shares with Hashem (not real name), 22, and another roommate. 
“The problem is that many Syrians live with a closed mentality and it causes problems with integration,” he said, mentioning the position of women in society as an example. “It’s a different way of thinking. Here everything is possible, especially for the women. There is more freedom... But for most Syrian Muslims it’s not easy.”
German officials have said that more than a million asylum seekers arrived in the country since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, with the highest number coming from Syria.
A recent poll of nearly 800 refugees conducted by the Hanns Seidel Foundation found that more than half the asylum seekers in Bavaria subscribe to classic antisemitic views about Jewish power. The countries of origin of those polled were Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
German Interior Ministry officials told The Jerusalem Post that politicians would closely examine the study and check its scientific accuracy.
But according to government statistics, such views have not necessarily expressed themselves, as there has been no rise in antisemitic crimes since the large wave of refugees came to the country in 2015.
The German government runs compulsory integration courses for refugees, which Adnan sees as “very necessary.”
“You cannot live here with Syrian mentality – you have to change it,” he asserts, adding that he has tried to explain the “live and let live” motto to some of his countrymen.
Hashem and Adnan come from a city in western Syria, home to many Ismailis, which they describe as a more open type of Islam.
Hashem is a passionate and strong-willed young man who is not afraid to go against the grain. He became an atheist years ago, but didn’t feel that he could freely express his opinions. The same applied for his views on Israel. “When they told me Israel was the worst country in the world, I didn’t agree, but I kept that opinion for myself,” he says, adding that he has come to see Jews as the natives of the land.
Both are studying German now and receive housing and social benefits from the state. Adnan dreams of studying English literature and Hashem wants to do a master’s degree in law. While Hashem has found his place in Germany, Adnan wishes to return home someday and become a politician.   
“I need to make something of myself here... get a better education, and in 10-20 years I will go back to rebuild my country. We need people who will try to rebuild it and I will be one of them,” he asserts confidently, saying that if Germany could do it after WWII, so can Syria.
 Sitting at the same dinner table are two Israeli Druze. One is Dr. Samuel Schidem, who earlier showed the group of journalists around the Topography of Terror Foundation, located at the site of the former headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the SS and the Reich Security Main Office during the Nazi period.
Schidem is a research associate and focuses on historical and political education for minorities and immigrants. He is also the former director of IsrAID in Germany, which deployed a team of Arabic and English-speaking psychosocial specialists to help support the refugees.
As a visibly Israeli organization, ISRaid’s work in Germany led to many first-time encounters between Israelis and Syrians. Schidem describes an initial fear, which came to vanish over the course of these meetings. “There was a lot of curiosity from people from Syria,” he says, adding that interactions between the people broke tensions and were replaced by positive connections. “ISRaid’s strategy is to see a chance in the crisis,” he asserts.
Eden Cami, an Israeli singer is sitting across the table from Schidem. Cami is a strikingly beautiful singer with a gentle demeanor. Her ambition to be a singer led her to Berlin where she saw greater opportunity. She invites the group to her band’s gig the next night and we accept the invitation.
Arriving late, we crowd into the packed venue, Donau115, as the sound of Middle Eastern music reverberates through the small room.
The band is called the Kayan Project – Kayan being the Arabic word for existence. It’s made up of a Syrian Oud player, a Danish double bass player and an Israeli percussionist. Eden sings in Hebrew, Arabic and English and the band fuses a variety of genres.
Eden notes that her Syrian band member’s willingness to get behind the idea and play music to Hebrew songs is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. When Cami presents the band to audiences, she explains that they combine Hebrew and Arabic – “two languages which most people don’t know are very close to one another. Languages that aren’t often heard together in a positive context.”
Earlier that day, we were introduced to another initiative which aims to break down cultural divides. The Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism – KIgA, is a Muslim initiative to tackle the phenomenon within its own community.
The NGO was founded by two Germans of Turkish heritage who were concerned by increasing antisemitism in the neighborhood, which is home to a large Turkish migrant population. The 2003 bombing of a synagogue in Istanbul was the final trigger that spurred the organization’s founders into action.
KIgA strives to educate youth in the community about its neighborhood’s Holocaust history, to challenge preconceptions about Jews, and to promote tolerance of religious diversity. The group’s Peer Education Training program prepares and empowers youth to work with younger peers in the communities to become agents of change.
“We see Muslims as part of the solution,” says KIgA Chairman Dervis Hizarci.
 Another tack the organization takes is to show the similarities between Islam and Judaism, a method which is also used by an organization called Meet2Respect, which does interreligious work at schools in Berlin with the goal of reducing prejudice and antisemitic attitudes among the Muslim population. The organization conducts regular joint school visits by imams and rabbis to speak out against violence and discrimination against people of other faiths.
Last week, for the first time, the organization brought a small group of Muslim students to visit a synagogue. The female teenagers donned colorful Islamic headscarves, and the rabbi placed kippot on the heads of the two male students as they entered the Beth Zion Synagogue – one has Syrian origins and the other has Gazan roots.
The students were accompanied by Imam Ender Cetin and Rabbi Elias Dray, the latter who explained different aspects of Judaism to them, and answered their eager questions. The group then sat down for an open discussion with the two religious leaders, as well as the Israeli journalists. The conversation inevitably turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the students conveyed a willingness to hear the Israeli narrative, while at the same time displaying loyalty to the Palestinian people and strong opinions in support of their narrative.
Local Jewish counterparts were notably absent, and staff explained that with the small number of Jews in the city – it’s impossible for them to partake in all projects of this kind. The estimated Jewish population of Germany is 100,000. The Muslim population is close to five million, according to most estimates.
Hizarci recalls a workshop KiGA ran with both Jews and Muslims in which they discussed the concept of Zionism. While the Jews associated the terms with positive connotations such as hope, home and security, the Muslims associated it with aggression and occupation. Hizarci said it was an eye-opening moment for the Muslims to understand what Zionism means to Jews.
The group’s peers program works on the premise that the youth are more likely to accept guidance from members of their own communities than from regular German educators with whom they feel less identification. 
This principle is also used by other organizations who strive to teach German values to refugees via mentors from within the community.
“The refugees told us to stop with our ‘welcome refugees’ signs, and then they would come to our workshops,” said Prof. Gernot Wolfram from The Federal Agency for Civic Education, who is a specialist on media sociology and integration. The refugees also told agency staff that instead of baking or dancing workshops, they would prefer a framework that would help them use their former professions to contribute to German society.
“We started to identify so called ambassadors of the refugees who wanted to work with us, to teach cultural education... The most important thing for us was to identify multipliers,” Wolfram said, adding that the method proved to be successful, and was an important way to reduce the sense among the community that outsiders were trying to change them.
“An important way to prevent extremism is to find people who have trust in the communities,” he stressed, noting that they were trying to convince NGOs and organizations work according to this principle.  “We can only have fast access to communities through people with whom we have mutual trust and this is why we call them multipliers.”