German government adopts international anti-Semitism definition

Per a government cabinet decision, Germany now has an official standard description for anti-Semitic statements and acts. The definition should make it easier to identify and combat instances of anti-Semitism.

The official definition of anti-Semitism was drawn up by the government's conservative Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Social Democratic Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. It is almost identical to the one proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) used by countries around the world, including, for instance, Britain and Austria.

The IHRA definition reads: "Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

The definition was adopted after the government's regular Wednesday morning cabinet meeting. De Maiziere stressed the importance of consensus on the term in Germany, which is still plagued by various manifestations of anti-Semitism.

"We Germans are particularly vigilant when our country is threatened by an increase in anti-Semitism," said the interior minister. "History made clear to us, in the most terrible way, the horrors to which anti-Semitism can lead."

Deutschland Symbolbild Hackenkreuz

Neo-Nazism is only one form of present day anti-Semitism

Defining anti-Semitism may seem to be self-evident, but it took considerable time and effort for Germany to agree to a specific wording. Other countries were quicker take up this definition.

"I very much welcome the adoption of the working definition of anti-Semitism by the German government," said Felix Klein, head of the German delegation to the IHRA and the Foreign Ministry's special representative for relations with Jewish organizations. "In order to address the problem of anti-Semitism, it is very important to define it first, and this working definition can provide guidance on how antisemitism can manifest itself. We are proud to join Austria, Israel, Romania, Scotland and the United Kingdom in affirming that there is no place for anti-Semitism in any society and we call on other states to follow."

The cabinet has recommended that law-enforcement and other public officials use the official definition.

A first step and framework

The adoption of the IHRA definition fulfills one of the recommendations of an independent expert commission on anti-Semitism issued in April. Commission member and Green parliamentarian Volker Beck called it "a first step."

"The adoption of the definition sets out a framework," Beck said in a statement. "Government action on various levels – from legal prosecution to educational measures to the sensitization of the judicial system – is now more binding. We can create a common understanding in government of the problems and challenges and a evaluation framework for preventing and combating [anti-Semitism]."

Al-Kuds Berlin Pro-Israel Demonstration 25.07.2014

Critics of the IHRA definition say it fails to distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel

Beck had previously criticized the government for failing to act on the commission's recommendations. A definition, the commission argued, was essential for classifying and prosecuting anti-Semitic crimes and for distributing money to prevention programs. In the past, the task of cataloging anti-Semitic crimes as such has fallen to private organizations like the Antonio Amadeu Foundation.

Related Subjects

As the commission detailed in its report, today's anti-Semitism takes forms as different as extreme-right xenophobic fears of a global Jewish conspiracy and Israel-focused hostility toward Jews among Arabs and other Muslims. Other government cabinet members stressed that anti-Semitism in Germany could not be reduced to any single group.

"Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is pervasive throughout this society," said Minister for Family Affairs Katarina Barley in Berlin.

That sentiment was seconded by the director of the Anne Frank Education Center in Hessen, Meron Mendel, who warned against reducing modern-day anti-Semitism to Muslim migrants and refugees.

Arson against a synagogue as 'non-anti-Semitic'

Critics of the IHRA definition say it fails to distinguish adequately between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel. But Jewish groups in Germany welcomed the cabinet's decision precisely because its description of anti-Semitism also applies to excessive criticism of Israel as a "Jewish collective" and not a nation like many others.

Josef Schuster Präsident des Zentralrats der Juden in Deutschland

Jewish Council President Schuster hailed the government's decision

"It's as important to combat anti-Semitism dressed up as putative criticism of Israel as to fight against the old stereotypes about Jews," said the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Joseph Schuster.

Schuster added that Wednesday's decision would be of help to police – a sentiment seconded by Deidre Berger, the director of the Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations of the American Jewish Committee.

"The lack of a unified definition has led to anti-Semitic incidents being all too often ignored in recent years," Berger said. "The fact, for example, that the courts considered an arson attack on a synagogue in Wuppertal as non-anti-Semitic illustrates the necessity of a definition."

Berger called for police training on the subject and for the next government to appoint a permanent anti-Semitism commissioner to ensure that the commission's recommendations were implemented.


Anti-Semitism in 16th-century Prague

One of Germany's most famous silent films, "The Golem: How He Came Into the World," was made in 1920. Paul Wegener directed and played a leading role in the film set in 16th-century Prague. The Jewish ghetto is in danger and the emperor order the Jews to leave the city. Only the mythical Golem can help. It's one of the earliest films to address the persecution of Jews.


Persecution of Jews in 1920s Vienna

Based on a novel by Hugo Bettauer, "The City Without Jews," is an important example of how films have taken on anti-Semitism. The Austrian-made film is set in Vienna in the 1920s and shows how the residents held Jews responsible for all social ills. Critics, however, have lamented the film's use of anti-Semitic cilches.


Fine line between tolerance and clichés

Four years earlier in 1916, the American director DW Griffith had created the monumental historical film,"Intolerance." The story explains historical events over the course of four episodes, taking intolerance to task. Yet in a scene showing the crucifixion of Jesus, Griffith employed Jewish stereotypes. As a result, critics have also accused "Intolerance" of demonstrating anti-Semitic tendencies.


Ben Hur through the decades

"Ben Hur" was first made in 1925, but has been reinvented many time since then. It tells the story of a conflict betweet Jews and Christians at the beginning of the 1st century. Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur lives in Roman-occupied Jerusalem as a contemporary of Jesus Christ. The way the Jewish-Christian relationship is showed in the Ben Hur films remains a topic of discussion today.


A trial and pogrom in 1880s Hungary

Although hardly known today, GW Pabst's "The Trial" (1948) is an astounding early example of how the cinema reacted to the Holocaust. Filmed in Austria just three years after the end of the war, Pabst tells a true story set in 1882 in Hungary. A young girl disappears from her village and Jews are blamed. Tragically, a pogrom follows.


Broaching the truth

"The Trial" remained an exception. After the war, it took the film industry in Europe quite some time to deal with the subject. The French director Alain Resnais was the first to address the Nazi genocide in 1956, in the unsparing 30-minute documentary "Night and Fog."


Bringing the Holocaust to TV

It wasn't until the 1978 television mini-series "Holocaust" was made that the genocide was brought to the broader public. The four-part US production directed by Marvin J. Chomsky tells the story of a Jewish family that gets caught in the cogs of the Nazis' genocidal policies.


Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List'

Fifteen years later, American director Steven Spielberg was able to accomplish on the big screen what "Holocaust" had done for television audiences. "Schindler's List" portrayed the brutal reality of the Nazis' anti-Semitism in Germany, but also in Eastern Europe, spotlighting the unscrupulous SS offcer Amon Göth.


Claude Lanzmann and 'Shoah'

French director Claude Lanzmann harshly criticized Spielberg's drama. "He did not really reflect on the Holocaust and cinema. The Holocaust cannot be portrayed," he said in an interview. Lanzmann himself took up the subjects of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in a completely different way - through long documentaries and essay films such as "Shoah" and "Sobibor."


Humor and the Holocaust

Italian comedian and filmmaker Roberto Bengini took a daring approach in his film on anti-Semitism and the Holocuast. In 1997, "Life is Beautiful" premiered, telling the fictional story of Jews suffering in a concentration camps. The humor he wove throughout had a liberating effect.


Roman Polanski's 'The Pianist'

An equally moving film by Polish-French director Roman Polanski was released in 2002. In "The Pianist," the fate of Jewish-Polish musician Władysław Szpilman during the war years of 1943-44 was brought to the big screen. The project allowed the director, whose mother and other relatives were deported and murdered by the Nazis, to work through his own family's past.


Anti-Semitism and Jesus the Jew

Films about the life of Jesus Christ often come up in discussions about anti-Semitism in cinema. Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), for example, has been accused of reinforcing anti-Semitic clichés, particularly in scenes in which Jews are indirectly associated with greed.


Mel Gibson's scandalous 'The Passion of the Christ'

Much more controversial was the film that Australian Mel Gibson released two years later. Both Christians and Jews accused Gibson of explicit anti-Semitism in the film, saying he didn't counter the implications in the New Testament that Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus (who himself was Jewish). In public, Gibson likewise used anti-Semitic speech.


Turkish anti-Semitism

Audiences and critics alike decried the anti-Semitism in the Turkish film, "Valley of the Wolves." The action-packed movie version of a TV series of the same name showed a battle between Turkish soldiers and Israel. The film employed "anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic stereotypes and was inciteful," according to several organizations.


WWII still a challenge for filmmakers

Just how difficult it can still be to address the subject matter of World War II is evident in the response to a three-part German TV series from 2013, "Generation War." The series follows a handful of German soldiers fighting on the eastern front. It was criticized in Poland for anti-Semitism and was said to have represented the Polish resistance.


Hannah Arendt and 'the banality of evil'

Margarethe von Trotta's film about Hannah Arendt was well received in 2012. The director sketched a balanced portrait of the philosopher and publicist who, in the 1960s, grappled with a figure who was largely responsible for the Nazi genocide: Adolf Eichmann. Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to explain anti-Semitism clothed in seemingly harmless bureaucracy.


The 'Wonder Woman' controversy

Because the protagonist of the current Hollywood super hero hit "Wonder Woman" is played by Israeli Gal Gado, the film was not shown in a number of Arab countries. Gado herself had served in the Israeli army and defended her experience. Not showing "Wonder Woman" is anti-Semitic, according to the public sentiment in Israel.