German Music Award Canceled Amid Anti-Semitism Controversy

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Rap prize to duo whose tracks refer to Auschwitz and Jewish moneylenders prompts annual event’s demise

The organizers of Germany’s version of the Grammys, the Echo, said on Wednesday they would no longer bestow the high-profile awards, two weeks after one of this year’s prizes went to a rap duo that peppers its lyrics and videos with anti-Semitic words and images.

The decision came after several past Echo laureates, including Argentine-born conductor Daniel Barenboim, the musical director of the Berlin State Opera, said they were returning their awards in protest at the accolade granted to German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang at a high-profile televised ceremony on April 12, which happened to be Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Pressure had risen on Germany’s Federal Association of the Music Industry, the group of recording companies behind the Echo event, to respond after a string of suspected anti-Semitic attacks fanned concern about the return of widespread anti-Jewish sentiment to the country that under Hitler’s rule planned and executed the Holocaust.

“What happened around this year’s Echo…cannot be undone, but we will make sure that such a mistake is never repeated again,” the BVMI said in a statement Wednesday.

For several leaders of Germany’s Jewish community, however, the decision to cancel future awards was too little too late. They saw the move as serving only to underline a troubling reluctance of the country’s establishment to push back against what many say is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism growing more widespread among young people and migrants.

“Today’s decision to end the award was neither brave nor proactive,” said Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, suggesting it should have never gone to the duo in the first place. He called for more non-Jews in Germany to speak up and act against anti-Semitism.

The issue has become a political one. “We must win the fight against anti-Semitic offenses,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week. She was speaking after a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, who was later arrested, was filmed assaulting a yarmulke-wearing Israeli in central Berlin in broad daylight. The victim later identified himself as an Israeli Arab who said he was testing a friend’s assertion that it was too dangerous to wear a skullcap in Germany.

A jury of musicians and industry insiders selected Kollegah and Farid Bang, a wildly popular rap duo, as the winner of this year’s Echo in the urban category. The jury cited artistic freedom in choosing the duo from among Germany’s five best-selling rap acts of 2017, despite their having long faced accusations of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes. The two’s “0815” track on their recent album “Young, Brutal and Good-Looking 3” earned particular criticism from Jewish leaders and politicians for the line “my body more defined than that of an Auschwitz inmate.” One track says, “I’ll lend you money but never without a fiery Jewish interest rate.“

The two rappers say they aren’t anti-Semitic. Kollegah-the professional name of 33-year-old Felix Blume, who converted to Islam as a teenager-posted a video message to Jews on YouTube, saying he was critical of Israel and of its politics, not of the Jewish people.

In Germany and elsewhere, other rap artists have been criticized for glorifying misogyny, violence and crime, as well as for anti-Semitism.

For Ben Salomo, until recently Germany’s only notable Jewish rapper, the Echo award was the last straw. Mr. Salomo, who also manages Germany’s biggest rap event, said the Echo ceremony confirmed the rap scene’s anti-Semitism problem.

“I’ve been part of the scene for 20 years and I have experienced a lot of anti-Semitism both onstage and behind it,” said the 41-year old, who grew up in Berlin. “But this was the last straw-giving our highest accolade to Jew-hatred.”

Many other Jews in Germany say they feel abandoned by a society-from schoolteachers and music managers to politicians-that struggles to condemn anti-Semitism when it comes from migrants or Germans with Turkish or Arabic roots who often occupy the lower rungs of the class ladder.

As a result, critics say, dark jokes about Auschwitz survivors, anti-Jewish stereotypes, and anti-Semitic insults traded on schoolyards too often go unchallenged.

Ahmad Mansour, a German psychologist of Palestinian origin who runs an anti-radicalization project for immigrant youths, said mainstream German politicians are reluctant to confront anti-Semitism among Muslims and migrants because they don’t want to give further anti-migrant ammunition to the Alternative for Germany, a party harshly critical of Islam that won nearly 13% of votes at last year’s election.

“Politicians don’t have the motivation or determination to take the radical steps needed to confront this evil,” Mr. Mansour said.

Cases of harassment of Jewish pupils by Muslim children, while rarely as violent, have become more frequent, but community leaders say they rarely lead to consequences for the perpetrators.

“Children are beaten up at school for being Jewish, people wearing yarmulkes on the street are being attacked…in Germany,” Mr. Salomo said. “Anti-Semitic narratives are spread by mosques, by rappers, by internet platforms and media in Arabic and Turkish, and German politicians do nothing.”

Josef Schuster, head of Germany’s largest Jewish organization, said the recent refugee crisis, which brought well over a million mostly Middle Eastern migrants into the country, had made matters worse.

“People from the Middle East who have been imbued with anti-Semitism have been coming to Germany, and we warned this problem would get much worse with the recent migration crisis, but politicians didn’t listen,” he said.

Mr. Schuster has warned Jews not to wear yarmulkes in areas with a large Muslim populations and called for the government to do much more to raise awareness-including deporting refugees who commit anti-Semitic offenses.

But Mr. Schuster has also faced criticism from within the Jewish community.

“Yes, it’s really dangerous to wear a kippah in German cities today,” said Levi Salomon, another Jewish leader, using the Yiddish word for the traditional skull cap. “But if we start hiding ourselves in new ghettos, life for Jews will be over here.”

In reaction to the mounting unease, the government last month created the first-ever position of commissioner for combating anti-Semitism.

Felix Klein, the career diplomat set to assume the position next week, said anti-Semitism in Muslim communities was an acute problem. He is contemplating a nationwide campaign including in schools, using Turkish and Arabic celebrities to reach the two most populous migrant communities.

But Julian Reichelt, publisher of Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid Bild, whose relentless campaign contributed to the decision to abolish the Echo award, says the real problem is the “indifference” of Germans to the rise of anti-Semitism in their own country, even though generations of political leaders have seen protecting Jews the world over as a fundamental duty of post-Holocaust Germany.

“The liberal establishment, which sees the Muslim minority as discriminated against, is unable to deal with the fact that some Muslims are now discriminating against Jews,” Mr. Reichelt said.