June 14, 2001
Studying Hate in Berlin
The globalization of trade and communications may soon be joined by a new globalization of anti-Semitism, according to a German scholar who knows the subject well.
"The anti-Semitic virus may now be less virulent in Western Europe, but it is taking hold in new places, like Japan, and spreading in South America and throughout the Islamic world," said Dr. Johannes E. Heil.
The 39-year-old historian is one of a small core of scholars who are expanding the boundaries of their field at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin.
The center's academicians and their graduate students investigate the roots and permutations of anti-Semitism across the centuries, including the Holocaust, and are adding a key factor.
"You cannot fully understand anti-Semitism unless you compare it with other forms of prejudice and group hatred," Heil said. "We look at anti-Semitism as a paradigm for ethnic discrimination and persecution, genocide, forced migrations, nationalistic exploitation of racist beliefs and xenophobia."
Putting theory into practice, the center maintains close ties with other targets of prejudice in Germany, among them groups representing Turkish and other foreign workers, Gypsies and gays.
While Heil endorses anti-Semitism's usefulness as a "comparative tool" of study, he acknowledges its uniqueness, if only for its tenacious durability.
As a medieval historian by training, Heil is accustomed to taking the long view, and his special interests include Jewish conspiracy theories of the 14th to 17th centuries, forerunners of the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
"We are still asking why anti-Semitism has lasted as long as it has, why it represents such a historical continuum," he says.
Heil, who grew up in a Catholic family in a Frankfurt suburb, suspects that his interest in Jews began when he was 9, when his father gave him a copy of "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank. Later on, by chance, he said, he took a university course on the history of Jews in Frankfurt.
Now fully interested, he went to Israel and, after taking a crash course in Hebrew, began taking classes at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa. In Israel, he met and married Deborah, an Israeli architect. The couple's two young daughters attend the Berlin Jewish day school and stand out because of their fluent Hebrew.
The center, the only one of its kind in Europe, was founded in 1982 with the financial support of the Berlin municipality. Although the Technical University, of which the center is a part, focuses on sciences and engineering, each student is required to take two humanities courses. In this way, the center attracts students from other disciplines as well as from other universities.
Scholars and post-doctoral students from foreign countries are enrolled at the center under research grants and scholarships. Currently, there are five Americans preparing for their Ph.D.s Russians were recently doing a comparison study on their country's historic anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Japanese researchers were studying the "politics of memory" to help their fellow-citizens accept responsibility for Japan's transgressions during the 20th century.
The center's archives include collections of anti-Semitic newspapers and Jewish community periodicals in Germany from the 18th century on. A current clipping service scans 10 major German newspapers for articles on neo-Nazi and right-wing propaganda.
The center also collects memoirs by Berlin Jews during the Nazi period and houses a project on "Unsung Heroes" -- Berlin gentiles who aided their fellow Jewish citizens.
Along similar lines, the center has become a major resource for the German media, whose preoccupation with their country's Jewish past and present seems to increase with the years.
In a perverse way, says Heil, the media focus encourages publicity-hungry neo-Nazis and skinheads.
"They know that if they kill a foreign worker, they'll get an inside story in the local paper," he says. "But if they vandalize a Jewish cemetery or lob a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue, there'll be front-page headlines in every German paper, and the German chancellor will visit the scene of the crime the next day."
Tom Tugend recently visited Germany as guest of the European Academy Berlin.