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Another German ‘mess’ has some crying foul and others keeping quiet

By Orit Arfa

(JNS) “Deutschland 2021,” Germany 2021. That was the final, chilling line of German-Jewish rock singer Gil Ofarim, whose personal Instagram testimony about being discriminated against by a Westin hotel in Leipzig because he was wearing a Star of David pendant virally shocked the Jewish world.

The Zentralrat (Central Council of Jews in Germany) led the immediate, outraged calls for an apology. The American Jewish Committee in Berlin spoke of the need for educational programs to combat antisemitism. A protest was held in front of the hotel, with hotel staff holding solidarity banners with Jewish and Muslim symbols alike (to some criticism). The employee in question was immediately put on leave.

The problem was, Ofarim’s testimony was proven exaggerated at best and falsified at worst when hotel video cameras showed that he wasn’t wearing the star during check-in. Judicial proceedings to get to the bottom of the “incident” are currently underway.

Half a year later, a very similar refrain, “Germany 2022,” is sounding on social media, this time by a Lufthansa passenger who filmed an airline employee saying that it was “Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems” when he questioned why he and more than 100 other Jews were prevented from embarking on their connecting flight to Hungary from New York when only a handful of “problematic” Jews refused to comply with the European mask requirement. Lufthansa issued an apology on May 10, which didn’t satisfy Jewish groups. The AJC, for example, expressed dismay that it “makes no mention of the fact that it was Jews specifically who were denied boarding the plane.”

What is different this time around is this misdeed wasn’t based on one-sided testimony or hearsay. If the Gil Ofarim incident was one of exaggerated or falsified antisemitism with an overwhelming reaction, the Lufthansa affair is transpiring to be an authentic case of antisemitism with an underwhelming reaction, at least on the part of the accused, the German government and the official German-Jewish body.

This time, the Zentralrat—widely viewed as an arm of the German government—is decidedly not commenting on the affair. Until now, the office of Germany’s antisemitism commissioner Felix Klein has likewise not issued a statement on the matter, although he had weighed in on the Ofarim affair and initially supported the singer.

Prominent Jewish-German writer Henryk Broder wrote a query to Klein with the satirical question: “Is such an ‘incident’ included in the official statistics and to which category is it assigned: the right, the left or the politically diverse?” The insinuation: Government officials react to anti-Semtisim when politically or socially expedient. (His query and a JNS query have until now gone unanswered.)

All this begs questions: Are Jewish groups being more cautious this time after their leap to conclusions after Ofarim’s testimony? What incidents are deemed worthy of outrage and demand an apology? And did the Ofarim incident spur those accused of antisemitism to proceed with less chest-beating when confronted with claims of antisemitism?

“Gil Ofarim, despite the fact that the story is still not over, the story created a big uproar that has backfired. He did a lot of harm for all of us,” said Sacha Stawski, head of the pro-Israel watchdog group Honestly Concerned. But he thinks the Lufthansa case is clear-cut.

“I have not heard voices that insinuate that their actions or criticisms of their actions are being exaggerated,” said Stawski. “I think Lufthansa generalized here, and the media reports I’ve read and stories I’ve read and postings, etc., all reflect the fact that Lufthansa punished all Jews for the wrongdoing of some, and there is no way to apologize for that.”

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, head rabbi of Chabad headquarters in Berlin, on a video call with Lufthansa CEO Carlson Spohr, who pledged to fight antisemitism within the company and to initiate “sensitivity training” among its employees, May 11, 2022. 
Credit: Courtesy of Chabad Berlin.

Against the backdrop of the mild or lack of official German-Jewish response, the Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, addressed its grievances directly with a letter to Lufthansa’s CEO, Carlson Spohr, expressing dissatisfaction with its generic apology. Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, head rabbi of Chabad headquarters in Berlin, engaged Spohr with a video call on May 11 in which the Lufthansa head pledged to fight antisemitism within the company and to initiate “sensitivity training” to avoid such incidents.

“If an employee in a Lufthansa uniform behaves wrongly, concerns and allegations of antisemitism are quite legitimate. More sensitivity is expected from a German company,” said Teichtal in a statement. “I am pleased that the CEO of Lufthansa reacted so quickly, took a clear position and apologized.”

Still, his office is waiting to see what actions will follow.

One Lufthansa employee has been suspended, but many Jews still wonder if the decision to bar the passengers came from the higher-ups.

“In order for a stewardess to kick 150 people off a flight and for her to call up this much police, with machine guns, she must have had backing from one person,” said Stawski.

Andreas Boldt, a non-Jewish pro-Israel activist and founder of the Israel-German friendship page, thinks the Lufthansa case and its reactions are disconnected to the fallout of the Gil Ofarim scandal.

“In general, he did harm the Jewish cause, but not in a big style that now many people think all Jews are like that,” said Boldt. “I simply don’t see that, but maybe I’m wrong.”

He suspected that Ofarim’s truthfulness from the start and did not come to his defense, but this time, he clearly took a side.

“You cannot forbid people to fly just because they don’t wear a mask or didn’t wear them properly, so I think the reason was that they were Jews,” said Boldt. “I didn’t read about such a thing for any other group, and I’m sure other people didn’t wear masks. That’s weird to me.”

The silence of the Zentralrat, on the other hand, could be attributed to politics, particularly COVID-19 politics enshrined by the establishment.

“I don’t trust the story, and I don’t believe it was just about their masks. But because it’s about masks officially, the Zentralrat won’t say anything because masks are holy to the Zentralrat.”

Other German-Jewish leaders interviewed could not explain the German silence on the federal level to an incident much more egregious and authentic than the Gil Ofarim affair.

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