Germany: Youth Teaching Tolerance to Youth

In Germany, not only neo-Nazis are behind anti-Semitic attacks, young radical Islamists are often also to blame. One project is trying to do something about it by using young people to fight racism among the young.

The final bell has rung at the Walter Gropius School in the Berlin district of Neuk├Âlln and most students are outside playing soccer or eating ice cream. But four young women, Yasmina, Ezgi, Sarah and Tugba, have chosen to stay in a stifling classroom for the afternoon where they're leafing through history books and talking about what they find there.

On a chalkboard, someone has written extremist right-wing slogans such as "The Holocaust never happened" that the women have crossed out. Next to the offending statements they've written facts about the persecution of the Jews and put up photographs of Holocaust victims and concentration camps.

It's all part of the training the four have been undergoing for a year now to become Youth Leaders.

Young mediators

Increasingly, teachers have watched anti-Semitic attitudes develop among immigrant children who are connected with the conflict in the Middle East. To counter this tendency, Youth Leaders are being trained to act as conflict-resolution mediators.

A small group of students are being given two years of training so that they can share their knowledge about anti-Semitism with their peers. This Anglo-American concept is based on the fact that young people have more credibility when communicating with their own peer group than teachers or other adults do.

Yasmina, a 17-year-old German-Algerian, has been a Youth Leader from the program's beginning and in the course of her training, has come to see anti-Semitism as a form of racism. In her view, if neo-Nazis use negative words to refer to Jews one day, soon they will use epithets to talk about Turks.

"We want to do something about that," she said. The Youth Leaders' strategy is not to just yell back, but to use factual arguments to counter their outbursts and untruths.

"We basically want to expose their stupidity," she said.

Religion as a bridge

Youth Leader is a nationwide project, which has its origins in five schools around Berlin and Potsdam. Isabell Enzenbach is one of the project's heads who focuses particularly on Muslim students, such as those at the Walter Gropius School. Religion has proven itself to be a "good bridge" between the two cultures, she said.

"Take eating kosher, for example. Muslims have similar dietary requirements even though they call it halal," she said. "It's the same with clothing customs and religious services. Muslim youth are able to easily understand that from the very beginning."

All the four young women in this training course wear fashionable shirts, low-slung pants and colorful shoes. They don headscarves only in the mosque or when they want a fashionable accessory. At the same time, they describe themselves as religious and as being closely connected with Islam.

Because they know how it feels to be attacked because of their religion, they are also more sensitive to anti-Semitic language, which is apparently fairly widespread among people in their age group. It often takes the form of anti-Semitic jokes in the schoolyard or on the bus.

Youth Leaders learn facts about the Holocaust and receive training in logical reasoning and role play. They visit Jewish community centers and talk with Holocaust survivors and Jewish youth of their own age.

Parental support

Most parents are supportive of their daughters' engagement, even though at the beginning there was some skepticism, for example, from Ezgi's mother.

"She didn't like it so much that I was participating in the program," Ezgi said. "She had made anti-Semitic comments herself before and blamed the Jews for the conflict in the Middle East."

But Ezgi was able to use reason and facts to convince of her mother otherwise, and to see the conflict from another perspective. Now her mother is more sensitive when it comes to such comments.

In a few weeks, Ezgi and Yasmina are going to become trainers themselves, since they've organized a project at their school for students in lower grades. They want to pass on their arguments against anti-Semitism and help instill a sense of justice and tolerance in the younger students. And that, they think, can't start early enough.


Source: Deutsche Welle (English)

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