Jeremy Borovitz Jeremy Borovitz
Jeremy Borovitz
Democracy and human rights

We need herd immunity against anti-Semitism

A conversation with Jeremy Borovitz

Anti-Semitic crimes and stereotypes have been on a constant rise for years. The Corona pandemic has increased the spread of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. IJAB talked to Berlin-based Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz about the state of German society and the challenges for extracurricular education.

15.04.2021 / Christian Herrmann Jeremy, what brings a rabbi from New Jersey to Berlin?

Jeremy Borovitz: Five years ago, my wife - she is also a rabbi - and I came to Berlin for the first time. I had a fellowship and we wanted to travel in Europe for a few months - among other things, we wanted to go to Berlin. There is a diverse and interesting Jewish life here. We fell in love with the city and wanted to do more. We then spent a second summer here and asked ourselves what we could support here and contribute to something new. Two years ago, we took the opportunity to work with Jewish students here in Berlin for Hillel - a large Jewish student organisation. Base Berlin is a flagship project of Hillel Germany. We provide religious education and spiritual experience, but also deal with all kinds of other topics. Social justice is one of them. A year after you arrived, you were in the synagogue in Halle at the exact moment when an assassin tried to kill everyone inside. What did you think after you got over the initial shock? Did you regret your decision to come to Germany? Did you think, "it's all for nothing, you can't live in Germany as a Jew"?

Jeremy Borovitz: No, my reaction was the opposite. I thought, we have to stay. We have to turn this terrible situation into something good. Anti-Semitism unfortunately exists everywhere in the world. In his hatred, the Halle shooter is no different from the shooters in Pittsburgh or Paris. It doesn't help me to change the place. So what can we do about it?

Halle was not an attack on "all of us" You have publicly been very critical of the way politics and the media have dealt with the Halle attack. Can you explain again what your criticism was?

Jeremy Borovitz: I was actually very unhappy with several things. A standard reaction from politics and the media was that this was an attack "on all of us". It wasn't. It was an attack on Jews, Muslims and migrants. Those who constantly spoke of "all of us" were not shot at. I was also unhappy with the police at the scene. They treated us like suspects and not like survivors of an attack. To the police's credit, I must say that we now have a dialogue about what they can do better in such situations. And I also found the echo of the trial of the assassin quite difficult. Some used the trial to present their own political agenda. They didn't care about the survivors. Is it wrong for politicians to emphasise that an anti-Semitic attack is not only the problem of Jews, but a problem of society as a whole?

Jeremy Borovitz: The situation after the attack says a lot about the German society. We have experienced a lot of solidarity. Here in Berlin, people have gathered in front of the synagogues, signalling that one will not break through here, that they will protect the synagogue and the people inside it. This solidarity is important. This is opposed by the thesis of the "attack on all of us". It claims a victimhood that does not exist. I expect politicians to take action - even when the media cameras are switched off. What can education - in and out of school - contribute to immunising a society against anti-Semitism?

Jeremy Borovitz: I like "immunisation" - especially because we have learned so much about immunisation in recent months. I think we need some kind of herd immunity against racism and anti-Semitism. There will always be some proportion of racists and anti-Semites. But people like the Halle shooter don't really interest me. It has to be about the majority in society. Education must enable people to see it as a shame when others are mobbed or attacked. It must enable them to stand up against it. That is difficult, it takes courage. But you have to make it clear to racists and anti-Semites that their hatred is rejected by the majority of society. Education can contribute to this.

Experiences as a volunteer You have worked with young people yourself - in and out of school. What are your experiences?

Jeremy Borovitz: I was a volunteer in Ukraine for three and a half years as a young man. For a large part of that time I was an American Peace Corps Volunteer in a village in Cherkassy oblast in central Ukraine. In the mornings I taught English at the school, and in the afternoons and evenings I did participatory and leasure time activities as a Youth Development Volunteer. For example, I asked the young people what they would like to improve in their village. This led to a project in which we built and hung up trash cans. Because there are hardly any leisure activities in the village, we organised concerts. Before the war, the village was a typical shtetl, a place where many Jews lived. Together we researched Jewish history and what life was like there in the past. They don't have much opportunity to learn about it at school, and Jews don't live there anymore.
Then I developed a video project with young people for the Joint Distribution Committee - a Jewish aid organisation. We were able to successfully complete three such video projects - one of them in Berezhany in the Ternopil oblast. I worked there with young people from the local orphanage on a video about the Jewish history of the place. Most of the pupils in the orphanage's boarding school are not actually orphans, they come from broken families where the parents drink, for example. It's also true for Berezhany: there are few occasions to learn anything about former Jewish life. We then screened the video publicly when it was finished. That was an important recognition and maybe the young people who made the video and the audience will remember this: Something is missing in our village. You can still watch Berezhany: My City, My Pride on Youtube. What of your Ukrainian experience could be transferred to Germany?

Jeremy Borovitz: The local focus is important. Who used to live here? Oh, Rosa lived here. What happened to her? But you should also keep an eye on the present. Learn from the past and transfer what you learn to the present and to the future. In addition, you have to get out of the previous national narratives and identities. In Germany, people are too often German or not. One would have to discuss the question of what it means to be German in the 21st century. And what does it mean?

Jeremy Borovitz: Germans have to find that out for themselves. All I can say is that new answers are needed.

Questioning new myths According to a representative study conducted by the US market and opinion research institute ComRes in 2018, 40% of young Germans between the ages of 18 and 34 have never heard of Auschwitz. It is very unlikely that the Holocaust and Auschwitz were not talked about in school. Is an education system failing when 40% of young people don't remember anything about it?

Jeremy Borovitz: I know of some really well-done educational projects, especially those that not only talk about Jews, but also with them. Germany is not in such a bad position. Nevertheless, it is helpful to keep in mind how we learn. In non-formal education, for example, we learn from peers. That's how I learn, too. I learn a lot from my good friend Max, with whom I was talking recently about our families and the different experiences associated with them. This is something very personal. Max told me he is afraid of what he will find in his parents' attic once they are gone. Fear of the family's past can be a very productive emotion and you can turn it into something positive. If you approach it honestly, it doesn't create new myths either. For example, 70% of Germans believe that their ancestors were not Nazis, 18% believe that they helped Jews. That is, of course, nonsense. For such educational processes, which have a lot to do with emotions and one's own family history, non-formal education provides good conditions. You then realise that history is not far away and that raises the question of how we want to deal with it. How should we deal with it?

Jeremy Borovitz: We are not to blame for the past, but we have a shared responsibility for the future.

Jeremy Borovitz is the Director of Jewish Education for Base Berlin/Hillel Deutschland. You can learn more about his work at

Ein junger Mann spricht in ein Mikrofon
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