Archive | August, 2014

Five reforms to bring Germany out of the Middle Ages

27 Aug


John Riceburg is currently lying on a beach somewhere in crisis-ridden Southern Europe. Before he left, he sent us this letter…

Ask any member of the American expat community what we like about Germany, and most of us won’t have to think for long: Health care, public transport and science education all seem to work (give or take).

But having settled in, one starts to notice things that seem downright medieval. Here’s my list of Germany’s top five legal anachronisms. In the tradition of Mark Twain’s suggestions for improving The Awful German Language, I’d like to think of this as some more friendly American advice.

1. Stop giving tax money to the church

Every modern country is based on the separation of church and state, right? Well, the German state collects a Kirchensteuer (a church tax) from every member of the the Katholische or the Evangelische Kirchen. They take an amount equivalent to 8-9 percent of your income tax right out of your paycheck. Theoretically this is all voluntary, but many people are signed up at birth. If you want to get out of this racket, you might be forced to pay up to €60! In this way, the Catholics get €5.2 billion a year and the protestants €4.6 billion (2012 statistics).

It’s no problem if the churches need cash (“God is all-powerful, he just can’t handle money!” – George Carlin), but they should have to collect it themselves!

2. Drop the multi-tiered school system

Most of Germany’s universities are mostly free (which is great). But to go to university, you need the Abitur or an equivalent. Students are sorted into different kinds of schools when they’re only 10, 11 or 12 years old. Only those that get selected for the vaunted Gymnasium have a real chance to go to college – all others have at best a rocky road to higher education. Now this might have made sense when the Gymnasium taught the children of the landed gentry Ancient Greek and Latin. But now it means that Germany’s school system shows a particularly high correlation between social status and education level in comparison to other OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). In other words, poor kids are less likely to get a decent schooling.

Send all kids to schools with the same quality!

3. Give people citizenship

My friend at university had been born in Germany. Her parents had been born in Germany. Her grandparents had come here from Turkey in the 1950s. She spoke some Turkish, but German was her mother tongue, and she had never lived outside the German borders. So her passport? Turkish. At the same time, Russians who have no connection to Germany except for some distant ancestors who lived in Germany centuries ago can get a German passport relatively easily. This Blut und Boden concept of citizenship has to go! Now the Große Koalition has plans to give people born in Germany the option of double citizenship. But why not just introduce the tried-and-true American system? Anyone born here is a citizen. Period.

So just give people who live here citizenship. And don’t even get me started about the need to just let the refugees stay!

4. Introduce bilingual education

The banker’s toddler has to go to a Kita with a Chinese immersion program. And Berlin has a score of Europaschulen offering classes in German in combination with another European language. This is a great thing: not only does everyone benefit from learning multiple languages, scientific research shows that kids who speak one language at home and start school in a different language have long term disadvantages. So why is bilingual education mostly restricted to the elite? Kids who speak Turkish, Arabic or other languages in their families need a chance to learn that language at school alongside German. Anything else means they will be way behind their German-speaking peers.

Let every child learn in their language and German!

5. Again, stop giving tax money to the church

Now the €10 billion the two churches get from the “church tax” every year is surely enough, right? Well… Back in 1803, Napoleon expropriated certain church properties on this side of the Rhine. Cities and states paid compensation: a city might agree to give the local bishop six cows each year. This wasn’t intended to go on forever, but it has been 211 years and counting. All these payments add up: The state gave the churches €480 million in 2012 with no sign of stopping. This is tax money, paid by everyone in Germany regardless of their religious beliefs, to finance the luxurious salaries and houses of bishops and other religious functionaries.

Have the church pay for itself! Then all those Berlin churches, which are mostly empty anyway could finally be turned into dance clubs.

Now I’ll be gone for the next few weeks. Any chance of getting this done by early September?

P.S. What reforms do you think Germany needs? Let me know in the comments.



Partitioned positions: Israelis in Berlin

20 Aug


It’s not easy being an Israeli in Berlin these days. Many are unhappy about the war in Gaza and the right-wing government in Jerusalem and at the same feel the sting from other Israelis about not supporting the Jewish state, while at the same time anti-Semitic attitudes have sporadically popped up from Germans who can’t make a distinction between the state and its people. John Riceburg spoke to a few cultural and political activists…

It was supposed to be a “peace party”, but the reactions weren’t unanimously peaceful. The Meschugge party in early August at the Sophienclub in Mitte featured DJs from Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Iran, united in saying “Khalas!” (Enough!) to war and conflict. The Meschugge parties are an institution for both the local “Oriental party scene” and Israeli émigrés.

But with the current war going on, “I didn’t feel like doing an Israeli party”, says party organiser and DJ Aviv Netter, (photo) who’s been organising the legendary “un-kosher Jewish” parties in Berlin for the last seven years. So he cancelled one date. And as the next date rolled around, and the war still raging, he decided to host a peace party instead.

At a Meschugge party, an international mix of beatseekers throw their hands up to the throbbing sounds of Oriental dance music and traditional Jewish music. It’s likely the only party where people of Arabic origin will dance under blue and white Israeli flags in Berlin. And while the “peace party” was a sign of genuine multikulti harmony, Netter (who tellingly DJs under “Aviv without the Tel”) also got angry reactions.

“Dirty pig” wrote “Ibrahim” via Facebook. Netter responded that his uncle was also named Ibrahim, and wished his harasser “peace” in Arabic. “No matter what, one shouldn’t hit back,” he explains. “I learned that in high school!” Two years ago, the plucky promoter brought his party to the southwestern town of Heidelberg. When Palestinians demonstrated in front of one of his parties and handed out cookies with the Palestinian flag, he invited them to distribute the cookies inside.

But resistance from outside the Jewish community wasn’t all Netter got. “Traitor!” also appeared on Facebook.

For Netter, the Meschugge parties are intended as cultural celebrations. But “everything in our day is political,” he laments. Like most Israelis here, Netter wants to be a Berliner… yet he often finds himself forced to deal with a conflict thousands of kilometres away.

Diaspora in Berlin

According to official data the Israeli community has grown from 2849 in 2008 to 3578, a 25 percent jump. From leftist and anarchist Israelis dissatisfied with the political climate back home, to young professionals with children taking advantage of the Berlin tech-industry buzz, while the cost of living back in Israel skyrockets, it’s hard to pinpoint one precise cause for the influx.

Berlin’s Israeli community now reflects the full spectrum of political opinion. The Facebook group for Israelis in Berlin, several thousand strong, might feature a convocation for demonstration against the war in Gaza, but also plenty of unfriendly responses. And even when some try to ignore Israeli politics, Israeli politics (and its critics) won’t ignore them.

Taking to the streets

On July 27, half a dozen Israelis sat down at the bar Südblock at Kottbusser Tor for an ad-hoc meeting. They had just been at a demonstration with a few hundred leftists against the Israeli attacks on Gaza, as well as the ISIS attacks on the Kurdish regions of Iraq. They couldn’t agree on much – “We’re still discussing about whether we’re post-Zionists or anti-Zionists,” one participant recalls – but as 34-year-old Iris Shahar explained, there was consensus that an Israeli voice against the war was urgently needed. Shahar has been studying history in Berlin for just a year now and didn’t have much street protest action under her belt. But when Israelis called for a demonstration against the war at Heinrichplatz on July 30, she was the one to read out their communique, looking both angry and nervous. Nearly 500 people marched to Kotti that day, chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” in Hebrew and a handful of other languages as well.

With his long black dreadlocks, 27-year-old programmer and musician David Nelband, looks the part of Berlin protester. In comparison to the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, Nelband is a relative veteran to Palestinian-organised demonstrations in Berlin. At Adenauer Platz he heard a man shouting slogans against “Judenschweine”, with several dozen people chiming in. “A devastating moment,” he says, but he also emphasises that most demonstrations he’d been to clearly reject anti-Semitism.

For Shahar, Israel’s claim to be a Jewish democratic state is oxymoronic: “De facto, it’s mostly Jewish and hardly democratic.” That’s why she objects to anti-Zionism being equated to anti-Semitism: “Israel claims to represent all Jewish people, even in the diaspora, but it’s not true.”

Israel’s impact

“My friends in Israel are in a state of despair,” says Etay Naor, a copy editor and musician. Demonstrations against the war in different cities in Israel have been regularly attacked by right-wing thugs, with the police looking away. In the month of July alone, there were 33 different right-wing attacks. “It’s much more dangerous to be an Arab or a leftist in Israel than to be an Israeli Jew in Berlin,” he explains.

The four-year Berliner doesn’t minimise the danger of anti-Semitism in history or today. But despite all the talk of a new wave of anti-Semitism on Germany’s streets, he can’t recall a single bad experience.

David Nelband can recall one incident in a döner shop in Wedding. When asked where he came from, he replied, “Russia.” But that was his choice. “I felt bad about it afterwards,” he regretfully says.

For Shahar, Israel’s wars “encourage anti-Semitism in the world” and even “endanger Jews in the diaspora”. That’s why she feels a responsibility to protest – to show that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

“I understand the German public is scared to touch this subject,” says Naor, but he knows one thing for certain: Israelis who are against the war need support. Especially because Germany isn’t some kind of neutral observer in the conflict: “Germany supports Israel both diplomatically and by sending weapons.” Nelband adds that Israelis participating in anti-war actions can help de-legitimise anti-Semitic arguments, showing that not all Jews support the state’s policies.

Conflict belongs to the politicians

“Being Jewish has never been easy,” Netter says, but he hasn’t had many problems in eight years in Berlin – except once, when an enormous and inebriated Chechen on the subway saw him reading a book in Hebrew and things got a little ugly. Netter thinks people in Berlin see the conflict “from a distance”, since it really “belongs to the politicians”.

He also doesn’t believe the pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Berlin were anti-Semitic. He remembers his first gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2001: “The media coverage focused on people in extreme S&M gear and drag garb, even though the majority of people hadn’t put much thought into their outfits.” In the same way, the media at Berlin demonstrations focus on the few individuals with anti-Semitic slogans, since that attracts the most attention.

Berlin, at end of the day, is a city where young Egyptians can dance to the latest Israeli pop hits. Netter might not go to demonstrations – he thinks that these days political protest, just like party promotion, is more effective via Facebook and other social media. But he is still a strong believer in peace. And a basement party, just like a street demonstration, can sow the seeds.


Photo: Michal Andrysiak

Let us stay on Tempelhofer Feld!

13 Aug


The security guard in the puffy black jacket was shining his flashlight in my eyes. I had turned on my iPhone’s flashlight and was shining right back at him. We held this pose for at least a minute. If this were a Western, I’m sure I’d be in the John Wayne role. But to an impartial observer, our flashlight standoff might have looked rather silly. How did we end up here?

Night was falling on Tempelhof Park and a group of friends had just finished their Grillfest. We were gathering up the grill and the blankets – the beer bottles had long since been snatched up by Flaschensammler – when security came to tell us that it was one hour after sunset and we had to leave. We said we were already on our way, but the bulky young man insisted on illuminating us while we worked. The only way I could explain to him that he was being annoying was a practical demonstration.

I won that standoff – he moved on – but it got me thinking: Why, exactly, does Tempelhof Park have to close at night? Over 700,000 Berliners voted to reject the construction of luxury apartments and keep the field open. But why does that only apply during the day?

I asked the PR agency – the brave souls in charge of spreading the lies of the construction mafia – but they couldn’t give me a straight answer. They also wouldn’t tell me how much the city spends on the nightly evictions.

The park needs to close at night because of “Sicherheitsaspekte” (security issues) apparently. But whose security is in danger? The neighboring Hasenheide is open 24 hours a day, and I’ve walked through at night without being murdered even one single time. Or are they worried that people will damage things? What, exactly, on that giant empty field?

The decision was made by Grün Berlin GmbH, a company that belongs to the Berliner Senat. Grün manager Christoph Schmidt and his team get to decide which gardens, which parties and which demonstrations are allowed – and how much they have to pay.

The field isn’t a public space – that’s why they can throw us out whenever they want. Grün isn’t really accountable to anyone – they don’t even have to answer to the Senat, let alone to park visitors. The Pirate Party, for one, demands that the parks stay open at night. The private company should be replaced by a public institution under at least some democratic control.

But still, why kick us out? An architect friend explained that there’s a whole science of making people think a certain way about a certain urban space. When Grün kicks us out every night, they’re letting us know it’s not our space – we can only enter their space with their permission. That way, the next time they try to sell the land to their realty speculator friends (and that’s just a question of time) it won’t feel like the robbery it is.

To summarize: Your tax dollars are being used to kick you off your field. And the reason, it seems, is to make it easier to steal the whole thing from you.

Does anyone else find this displeasing? The field was only opened to the public after massive protests and attempts to squat it back in 2009 (“Did you ever squat an airport?”). Now I think it’s time to squat the park at night too.