He had a Palestinian flag on his cap. Staring up at the boy, chanting “Allahu Akbar,” at neo-Nazis marching on the local mosque, my gut told me where he was from. I imagined the teen and his friends standing on top of a street divider, taunting Israeli soldiers in Nablus, not skinheads in Neukolln. Yet here they were, face to face with fascists, eager to send them back home. The problem is that Berlin is where they live now. Why condemn them to further homelessness? Europeans are good at making people feel unwanted. Especially those of us with roots in the Middle East.
Not this crowd, however. In between the Islamic chants, anti-capitalists were manning the barricades in unison. “Nazis raus,” they screamed in German. “Antifascista!” yelled a couple of Italian anarchists standing next to me. Their leftist slogans mingled with the Arabic being used, creating a readymade montage that epitomized the multicultural spirit of the demo. The mix was intoxicating. If these Palestinians had been German Jews, seventy years earlier, taunting their tormentors in Yiddish, the effect would have been exactly the same. It was that transparent. I was elated by the parallels.
Listening to my recordings of the event nearly a year’s hence, I feel no less excited by what I witnessed. One can hear a genuine solidarity being expressed by the protestors, which they give voice to in a musical, practically call and response fashion. Considering the rise in animus towards Muslims in Germany, (a recently published study reported that 51% of Germans surveyed consider Islam a “threat”) the leftists at this demonstration were displaying an entirely different kind of politics. And they were doing so in a context in which minorities were once again being threatened by rightists.
One of the most curious aspects of the aformentioned poll was the distinction respondents drew between Jews and Muslims. The former were acceptable, whereas the latter were increasingly not. Though not necessarily a new insight to this survey, the idea that the two are separable conflicts with the generalized racism espoused by German extremists, particularly the sort that was being confronted at the Berlin demo. Certainly, there were anti-Semites in their mix. More important, I think, it points to the persistent of the figure of the European outsider, which, it seems, everyone still needs. Neo-Nazis, perhaps, are a bit more self-conscious of the issue, and how it plays out ethnically, than others.
Still, if their more radical, leftwing counterparts display opposite impulses, depressing poll results aside, that’s where the hope lies. Particularly at a time when the entirety of Europe is once again finding a need for scapegoats. In Britain, it’s immigrants from southeastern Europe. In France, it’s Roma. In Germany, it’s Muslims. And in Hungary, it’s Jews. It’s all too easy to regress. Certainly, fellow Jews, particularly on the right, will reproach me for praising the European left, as persons within its ranks can, at times, dispense with distressingly anti-Semitic ideas, when it comes to Israel. And they’re right. It can be a problem.
Still, if I had the opportunity to drag a conservative co-religionist to an event like this, I’m certain they’d get it: That there are resources for solidarity and tolerance on today’s European left, which defy the pettiness and the provinciality which continue to plague European civilization. It just depends upon your willingness to recognize the universal in such gestures, and understand how they express it. They’re not just demonstations of solidarity with Muslims, or Palestinians, for example, but with minorities. Not just any minorities, surely, but people targeted by racist prejudices, who occupy the same kinds of social spaces that we once did.