Germany Combats Antisemitism with New 'Rent-a-Jew' Program

Do we have horns? Do we all know each other? Why do we control Hollywood, the media, and the banking industry?

Curious Germans might find answers to these questions through a new program designed to combat antisemitism called “Rent-A-Jew.” Many Germans “have never met a Jewish person,” writes Deutsche Welle, and the new program wants to change that.

There is a reason many of us “Jews” aren’t milling about Germany anymore.

How many of you have met a Jew?” At a technical college in Solingen, Western Germany, 15 out of 20 cautious teenagers answer with just as many variations of no.

“I’ve most likely crossed paths with one,” says one student. “But I wouldn’t necessarily know.”

We are stereotyped as sneaky, after all.

“You never forget your first,” the project’s tagline reads. The initiative – with its admittedly provocative name – was launched by the Munich-based European Janusz Korczak Academy.

The idea behind the “Rent-A-Jew” program is that Germans can socialize with the Jewish community and “break down prejudices” by interacting with the 50 members who lead “Jew” seminars at educational institutions.

So what is up with that name? “We know it’s questionable. It’s there to provoke, to promote conversation,” one of the members, Moscow-born Mascha Schmerling, told Deutsche Welle.

“People don’t trust themselves to say ‘Jew,'” member Monty Aviel Zeev Ott said.

“But it’s all about context,” Schmerling added. “We want to give people the chance to talk to the Jewish community. We want them to see that we’re completely normal people.We don’t want to be defined purely by history and we don’t want to always be seen through this Holocaust lens.”

“But we also want to show an open and colorful Judaism,” Ott told DW. “Judaism is so diverse.”

Antisemitism is on the rise in Germany. But is that because Germans are becoming increasingly antisemitic, or is it because Germany has been letting in refugees from cultures that celebrate, encourage, and teach antisemitism?

In March, the Berlin-based Department for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism reported that there were 34 percent more anti-Semitic incidents reported in 2015, compared with the previous year.

Anti-Semitism in Germany also made international headlines earlier this year after a 21-year-old Jewish man wearing a kippah was beaten. [by three men of Arabic appearance.]

Ott himself was previously targeted by three men who, on noticing his Kippah, surrounded him and began chanting Palestine.

“There are small parts of Berlin where I no longer wear my Kippah,” Ott said. “Your personal safety takes priority in those situations.”

“But it isn’t all bad,” he added. “I’ve have some great conversations where people have been curious enough to approach me.”

“That’s encouraging to see that people can be so open,” he said.

The seminar allows Germans to ask questions about Jews, their culture, and their religious practices. What do Germans know about Jews?

Apprehensive at first, someone answers: “Educated.”

“Not always a bad thing,” Schmerling replies. “But certainly not true for everyone.”

“Money,” says another, prompting a mixture of tiny gasps and uneasy laughs from the group.

“Well, it’s certainly an old prejudice,” Schmerling says. “But, unfortunately it isn’t true. At least it wasn’t passed on if there was any in my family,” she jokes.

“Wouldn’t that be nice if you were given a bag of money if you converted,” Ott quips. “Where do I sign?”

One interesting perspective was that of Justin, a 17-year-old, who had never met anyone from the Jewish community.

“They live alongside us, although you don’t always know it,” he told DW. “It’s important to know how others live and not only people from your own religion.”

And here’s some feedback from Mohamed: “Not only have I learnt about day-to-day life in Judaism, but I’ve also learnt that many things I’ve heard about Jews aren’t actually true,” the 17-year-old said.

I wonder where he heard those things.

Will this program be successful? I doubt it. A good way to start reducing the antisemitism in Germany and Europe is to rethink letting in immigrants who come from a culture that demonizes and attacks Jews. I’m sure the organizers mean well, but the problems in Europe go far beyond learning that all Jewish people aren’t rich and over-educated.  One doesn’t need to learn all about different religions to respect its practitioners as fellow human beings.