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Scholar warns of globalization of anti-Semitism
German's road to Jewish studies prompted by Anne Frank's diary
By Tom Tugend
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 11, 2001
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 11 (JTA) The globalization of trade and
communications may soon be joined by a
new globalization of anti-Semitism, according to a German scholar.
``The anti-Semitic virus may now be less virulent in Western Europe,
it is taking hold in new places,
like Japan, and spreading in South America and throughout the Islamic
says Johannes 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
The center's academics and graduate students investigate the roots and
permutations of anti-Semitism
across the centuries -- including the Holocaust -- but they are adding a key
``You cannot fully understand anti-Semitism unless you compare it with
other forms of prejudice and
group hatred," says Heil. ``We look at anti-Semitism as a paradigm for
discrimination and persecution,
genocide, forced migrations, nationalistic exploitation of racist beliefs
The center maintains close ties with other targets of prejudice in
Germany, among them organizations
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.
A medieval historian by training, Heil is accustomed to taking the long
view, and his special interests
include anti-Semitic ``conspiracy theories" of the 14th to 17th centuries,
forerunners of the infamous ``Protocols of
the Elders of Zion," a 19th-century forgery that purports to detail an
international Jewish conspiracy to rule the
``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
this his interest in Jews began when
his father gave the 9-year old boy a copy of ``The Diary of Anne Frank."
Later on, ``by chance," he took a
university course on the history of Jews in Frankfurt, Germany, Anne Frank's
Now fully engaged in Jewish study, he went to Israel and, after taking
Hebrew-language crash course,
enrolled in classes at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa, on
and off, over a five-year period.
While there, he met and married Deborah, an Israeli architect. The
couple's two young daughters attend the
Berlin Jewish day school, where they stand out because of their fluent
The center, the only one of its kind in Europe, was founded in 1982,
with the financial support of the
Berlin municipality. The Technical University, of which the center is a
focuses on the sciences and
engineering, but each student is required -- under an old Allied occupation
rule -- to take two humanities courses.
In this way, the center attracts students from other disciplines, as
well as from other universities.
Currently, there are five Americans studying for a doctorate at the
center, and at any time scholars and
post-doctoral students from foreign countries are enrolled under research
grants and scholarships.
These recently included Russians doing a comparison study of their
country's historic anti-Semitism and
ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Japanese researchers for a project on the
``politics of memory" to help their fellow
citizens accept responsibility for Japan's transgressions in the 20th
The center's archives include collections of anti-Semitic newspapers
Jewish community periodicals in
Germany, beginning in the 18th century. A clipping service scans 10
contemporary 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" -- Gentile Berliners who aided Jewish citizens.
Along similar lines, the center has become a major resource for the
German media, whose preoccupation
with the 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
there'll be front-page headlines in
every German paper and the German chancellor will visit the scene of the
crime the next day.''
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced
without written permission.