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Monday, September 20, 2021

SCOOP: Interview with Michael Blume

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By Irina Tsukerman

Dr. Michael Blume is the state representative on anti-Semitism in Baden-Württemberg (Germany)

Please tell us a little bit of your personal background and the nature of your interest in religions, politics, and science. What motivated you to take the track that brought you to your current position? You also have a science podcast – is it in some way related to your professional focus – or is there no intersection at all, and it is a completely independent interest?

My parents grew up in the communist state of the GDR, Eastern Germany. As they tried to escape, my father was imprisoned and tortured. They were then freed by Western Germany. So you can imagine that I grew up with a deep gratefulness towards liberty and democracy as well as with a deeply scientific worldview. Among other things, I became chair of the local Junge Union, the youth group of the centrist Christian-Democratic Union (CDU). The region of Stuttgart is economically well-of, but low on birth rates, so there is a constant need for immigration and every school turns out to be a small parliament of World Religions. There I met my later wife Zehra, a liberal Muslim whose parents came from Turkey. As my parents had been secularized by force, I had not been baptized, but became increasingly fascinated by the diverse and dynamic religious live in our region. I accepted Jesus in my life at 18 – with my Muslim fiancee lighting the christening candle –, served as a soldier to our republic and started to become a banker. But as we were faced with Antisemitism by Christians and Muslims alike, the Christian-Muslim dialogue group I was chairing with a friend decided to approach the Jewish Community and to fight this hate together. Many German Jews and especially Holocaust Survivors such as the head of Jewish Community Meinhard Tenne were so grateful that younger people wanted to work with them for a better future and it changed all of our lives for the better.

But although good marks opened my way to University, money was not enough. So I switched from banking to comparative religion and political science. And as trustworthy experts of dialogue were sought after 9/11, I was taken in directly to our State Ministry. In fact, I helped our American and Israeli friends to build bridges between Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Non-Religious people from various nations. So I got an invitation by the USA to the Presidential Inauguration in 2009 and was part of a German-Israeli Presidential exchange program for young leaders. Because I missed science, I started to do a blog in 2007, which turned out to be surprisingly successful. And we started the podcast “Verschwörungsfragen” in 2020, as we realized that Covid19 would push our work even more into the digital realms.

Do you think it’s possible to use a “scientific method” when dealing with human relations, such as the social/religious sphere, and the old controversy about whether politics is a science? What has your experience been?

Even before I became religious, my worldview was shaped by evolutionary theory. Karl Popper is my epistemological hero to this day and I managed to reshape the German word of „Verschwörungstheorie“ / conspiracy theory into „Verschwörungsmythos“ / conspiracy myth, as antisemitic, racist and sexist narratives are not scientific theories in form or function. Just these days, our State President warned against antisemitic „Verschwörungsmythen“!

So, from an evolutionary perspective, it is perfectly obvious that most ranges of life are not „rational“ in a scientific sense. Love and Hate, Art, Music, Paintings and Politics are shaped by emotions and mythologies. I did my doctorate thesis in religion and brain sciences and became for a time an international expert in religious demography, explaining how religious people are having more children on average than their secular peers. You can see that in Northern America i.e. with the Old Order Amish and the Hutterites, in Israel with the Haredim and in Europe throughout all the religions, where Switzerland offered a treasure trove of census data! So I wrote a book about religion with a biologist and a biography of Charles Darwin, who happened to have studied theology in Cambridge. There were very joyfull moments, such as when the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – may his rememberance be a blessing – cited my work approvingly in his groundbreaking „Not in God’s Name. Confronting Religious Violence“. I do think that this book by Rabbi Sacks about evolution, religion and the dangers of extremism stands for the best scholarship at the start of the new millenium.

So for me, there is actually no way to understand religion or politics „without“ evolutionary informed science!

An interest in science is linked with the preference for rationality; but when it comes to religion or politics, people can be unpredictable or not seemingly rational. How do you bridge this cognitive dissonance between pursuing logical reasonable ends and dealing with irrational actors, or actors whose motivations and actions do not seem to align with what is commonly defined as “best interests”?

As I started to study economics at University, I quickly realized that theories about a purported “Homo oeconomicus” did not meet the minimal standards of science. Although the platonic division of the world into a seemingly perfect Market and a dangerous State resonated well with my family history, I followed economists arguing for a truly evolutionary perspective such as Friedrich August von Hayek. Tragically, many of his libertarian-leaning pupils fell into conspiracy myths after the collapse of the Soviet Union, looking out for new „Socialists“. You have had that with QAnon in the United States and with Querdenken in Germany. In my opinion, there can be no Science nor Liberalism without a firm foundation in Popper, checking every assumption repeatedly.

Please share a little bit about your mandate as the representative of the state government for antisemitism. What does it encompass? For those who are not familiar with the German institutional approach to this issue, how does it fit in with the federal response to antisemitism? (i.e. what is the “vision” and the “mission”?)

In 2015 and 2016, I led a humanitarian mission in Iraq to evacuate 1.100 Yazidi women and children to our State, who had suffered traumatizing violence by Daesh. But I was shocked about the massive, antisemitic conspiracy myths even among our allies in the region! Many Kurdish and especially Arab, Turkish and Persian people believed ISIS had been established by the Israeli Mossad and ISIS-„Caliph“ Baghdadi being a jewish CIA-agents named Shimon Elliot. Of course, I had read about „Antisemitism without Jews“, but it was shocking to deal with it. And soon after our return from Iraq, a new right-wing party, the AfD, became elected into our State Parliament (the Landtag), with one of its legislators claiming the antisemitic forgery of the „Protocols of the Elders of Zion“ to be accurate!

So, I began to warn, to lecture and to write about the new, digital rise in Antisemitism, for example devoting a chapter to the dangers of Islamic Antisemitism in my book “Islam in der Krise” (Islam in Crisis) in 2017 and publishing a book on the global dangers of Antisemitism in 2019.

As an expert group advised Germany to enlist State Commissioners against Antisemitism, the two big Jewish communities of our State asked Ministerpresident Kretschmann and the Landtag to name me – without having me asked in advance. But of course, having faced Islamist extremists in Iraq, I would not hesitate to face all kinds of Antisemites in our State, too. All factions in our Parliament with the exception of the AfD agreed.

In 2018, I became the first State Commissioner against Antisemitism in Germany, with my colleague Dr. Felix Klein on the federal level and more colleagues to follow. I assembled a council of experts and we worked out 74 recommendations to our Parliament in our first report, ranging from Education and Security, fighting the anti-Semitic BDS-movement, more youth exchange with Israel and program funding to the installment of the first police rabbis in the European Union. There remains so much to be done, but our work is quite often attacked by various extremist groups and trolls.

What are your objectives in assuming this position and how have you pursued them? What do you see as metrics for “success” and how far have they been reached, from your perspective?

Of course, my first goal has been the security of Jewish live. So I warned our Government about digital radicalization and we were able to set up a Security congress with the police forces at the Stuttgart Jewish Centre weeks “before” an anti-Semitic terrorist attack was carried out in Halle. But then, we have to prevent people from believing in conspiracy myths and becoming Anti-Semitic in the first place, so my team & I are putting a lot of effort in informing the public and reforming education. Remember that we are having and needing a lot of immigration from all parts oft he world – and many of them have been raised with Antisemitism! Finally, I want people to understand that we should support Israel as the single liberal democracy in the region against boycott movements and against the threats by Iran. We managed to reach out to thousands and I am getting hundreds of invitations to cities, schools and various associations. I do know that we will never be able to get conspiracy myths and Antisemitism out of every human heart, but I do believe that we should try nevertheless. And I do hope that we will see a day where all Jewish communities and the State of Israel are accepted by all major groups and States. As you can imagine, we are actively supporting every Muslim State and Group that is ready for real peace.

What do you see as the greatest challenges/obstacles?

I see the ongoing danger of digital radicalization and subsequent anti-Semitic terror. There is a digital globalization of right-wing, left-wing and Islamist Antisemitism, for example in Rap Music. And on the international level, I am very concerned about the Iranian regime trying to get Atomic bombs before breaking down.

Who are some of the “partners” – whether in government, organizational/institutional, or private world – that you have had a chance to work with? What are your goals for collaborations in the future?

Our State of Baden-Württemberg encompasses almost 11 million people, more than 4.000 schools, successful scientific institutions such as the KIT in Karlsruhe and various Universities, Dozens of places and associations of remembrance, various political parties, media and a lot of Churches and religious Communities. I try to work with as much democratic partners as possible and also to address communities who do have to address anti-Semitic traditions. For example, the Anthroposophy and the Waldorf Schools originated in Baden-Württemberg. Although their founder Rudolf Steiner became active against Antisemitism in his later years, some of his older esoteric texts include anti-Semitic and racist content. So my duty is not only to partner with those already on our side, but also to push for reform and self-criticism in many associations that would prefer not to talk about it. If you do your job as a State Commissioner against Antisemitism, you have to live with a lot of backlash and sometimes even hatred.

Can you tell us about the events related to antisemitism you have organized since assuming this position, and share a few of the most memorable ones? How did you deal with obstacles in pursuing them? What were some of the most rewarding outcomes? What mistakes do you think you’ve made and what lessons overall have been learned from these diverse experiences? Are there types of people or organizations you would not work with?

One of the most horrible propaganda movies of all time has been the defaming „Jud Süß“ by the German Nazis about the Jewish State reformer Joseph Süß Oppenheimer in Stuttgart. In order to counter this antisemitic tradition, we established a prize awarded jointly by our Parliament and the Jewish Community. In this year, the first two police rabbis in all of Europe are about to join this event and our regional media will report about a Christian and Jewish scholar, fighting hate together. This is something truly special.

But there are also Islamist and right wing extremist groups attacking me and recently even my family. A German racist labeled me on Twitter as a „false Jew“ worthy of being killed and our Police got him. But the State Prosecutors of Saxony decided that they would not bring him to court. It is hard to explain this decision to the public and to the Jewish communities. I think that our State should be less lenient against Hate Crimes, but it will take years to change more Laws and traditions. 

Let’s get a little controversial. You’ve taken some flack for doing a sister city program between Freiburg and Isfahan, an Iranian city with a great cultural heritage but also known for its anti-Semitic mayor. Are there other cities that Freiburg has partnered with? How are they generally chosen and by whom? Why did Isfahan stand out? What happens with “sister cities”? What has been your experience with this particular mayor? Do you see any opportunities to use this occasion for a positive effect in terms of combating antisemitism and outreach to the Iranian people? Do you think engaging with a publicly known anti-Semitic politician undermines your mission? How can you address the seeming paradox between your overall efforts and what some may take as an “endorsement” of an aspect of the Iranian regime?

In fact, I have never been „doing a sister city program“, because our federal democracy is working exactly like the US: City programs are decided by the directly elected city councils alone. Neither your president nor any serious governor would try to dismantle local democracy.

As to my personal position, I do hope that the Iranian autocratic and anti-Semitic regime will come down in the near future, being replaced by a true and secular republic. I have written and talked a lot about this subject and worked together with the Bahai and Iranian-born German-Israelis such as Arye Shalicar to raise awareness. Having worked in the region, I have seen the drastic consequences of the climate crisis firsthand, with more and more regions of the Eurasian Belt becoming inhabitable. The Iranian Karun river already went dry and people are fleeing in the cities, as they did before the war in Syria, protesting against their government wasting their money in crazy terror campaigns such as in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. I proposed a murder-by-heat-thesis, in German: “Hitzemord-These”, whereby the increase in droughts and temperature already contributed to violence especially against minorities such as the Yazidi or the Afghan Hazara. In my scientific perspective, the time for „nation-building“ has gone – we will see a major heat crisis in whole regions of the Eurasian belt, including major cities such as Baghdad. Any sane person should reach out to Israel and to the West for cooperation to survive those next decades. But as you know, Antisemitism is leading to insanity.

Staying on the topic of Iran, you’ve recently described the regime as “anti-Semitic”. Yet Germany retains political and economic relations with the country. How can you use your position to address Iran’s antisemitism, including propaganda and lobbying efforts inside Germany? Have you had any issues with Iranian agents of influence, online disinformation, or other ideological outreach efforts?

Although external politics are done by the federal State and the European Union, I am addressing the pressing issue of the dangerous regime of Iran in any way possible. I have not been happy with the „North Stream 2“-pipeline, in fact supporting Iran’s ally Russia against the young and struggling democracies of Eastern Europe. But I do have to accept that my current office is part of a State Government in a federal democracy. Some people on Twitter might address me as if I were an emperor, but I am not and I am cherishing and defending our federal order by heart.

From a security perspective, do you engage with any public or private security institutions? German intelligence reports in recent years have identified a growing number of Hezbullah operatives inside the country, including some who have targeted Israelis for surveillance. While some of these operatives have been arrested and removed, others remain. Have there been any issues in your region? Is there an issue with mosque control/infiltration by extremists, such as Hezbullah, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and others? Have you had an opportunity to engage with Muslim communities and religious leaders to that effect? Please share any insights from addressing these issues.

Yes, I work closely with various Western security organizations and I have been an expert on court cases against ISIS-terrorists. And of course, I am talking with a lot of Muslim scholars and leaders, too. In my opinion, our State should be enforcing more bans on groups related to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Hezbollah and the Turkish Grey Wolves. But on the other hand, we should strengthen reform movements against Antisemitism and we have to protect the basic human right of religious freedom. Unfortunately, my book about „Islam in Crisis“ has yet not been translated into English. In Germany, it contributed to a lively debate!

You’ve taken a very public position against the BDS movement, which originated with Omar Barghouti, but now encompasses activism and operations from a diversity of extreme political positions. Please tell us about your experiences with BDS. You’ve done various podcasts and academic lectures on the subject. Have there been efforts to “cancel” your participation in these events or your programming related to anti-BDS activity? Also, are there any laws and regulations related to BDS & suppression of free speech & economic endeavors in Germany on the federal, regional, or municipal levels?

Our national parliament – the Bundestag – and our Baden-Württemberg State Parliament – the Landtag – condemned the BDS-movement as being anti-Semitic; and rightly so. But of course, these people have not lost their basic rights and some of them are organizing demonstrations, attacking my positions and harassing my office repeatedly. According to my perception, the BDS-movement in Germany is comprised primarily by an odd alliance of older, left-leaning Germans with younger, most often Islamist children of migrants. They are trying to depict Judaism and the State of Israel as being „racist“ and „colonialist“. Although they claim to be active for the sake of human rights, they are seldom addressing the atrocities of the Hamas regime in Gaza or even the attacks of the Chinese government on Uighurs and Tibetans. What is binding them together is Antisemitism, pure and simple.

Please tell us more about your experiences with the extreme left and the extreme right. What are the similarities and differences between the activities, methods, and ideologies of these groups? What are the most effective ways of dealing with them? Are there specific distinctions that present a challenge in confronting them the same way? Which do you think gets more media exposure and support? Which do you think is better financed in Germany/Freiburg, and by whom?

In fact, I do think that left, right, religious and libertarian anti-Semites are connecting themselves on a daily basis via the Internet. Today, you are finding left-leaning BDS-supporters allying with nationalist anti-vaxxers and Islamist groups against a fictional Jewish World conspiracy. Our German Querdenken-groups are operating like a QAnon-franchise. German and Islamist Antisemitism is deeply connected to Anti-Americanism, so that anyone ranting about a „deep state“ in Washington is gaining a lot of support here.

You’ve openly condemned the antisemitism stemming from the Islamist camp. How active is the Muslim Brotherhood in Freiburg? Have the Brothers taken measures to “integrate” into the political sphere  – i.e. how open are they about their ideology, and how well do you think the public understands their dangerous program? Do you see MB representatives becoming more active over time? Are there any laws that can be applied to their institutions similar to what Austria has done and France has attempted to do? Is there a separate education, and what degree of oversight is granted to any such efforts by the government? Have the efforts to engage the non-Islamist Muslim community members on antisemitism been successful in preventing the MB outreach? It is believed that expats from Turkey, Syria, and other immigrant communities have been targeted by Islamist fiinancing in recent years, with antisemitic incitement being part of the ideological outreach package. What, if anything, can you do in addressing this problem when dealing with other institutions and actors?

Among the Muslims in Germany, religious practice and birth rates are plummeting quickly. Secularization is gaining speed with a strong social State and with a tax-funded educational system. But this also means, that mainstream Muslims are turning their backs on most mosques, leaving them to religious fundamentalists or even radicals. As most Muslims in Germany came from a Turkish background and many Turks are rather skeptical about Arabic Islamists, there is not a single Islamist group dominating all the others. We are having regional centers such as the Iranian-backed Shiites in Hamburg and Turkish rocker groups in Baden-Württemberg. And of course, many Islamist groups are using Germany as a region to get donations and to do money laundering. As a consequence of our history, we are having a strong legal tradition of privacy towards police organizations. Criminal, Islamist and Anti-Semitic organizations are using this.

Tell us about your engagement with the Yazidi community and rescue efforts. Following their genocide by ISIS, the Yazidi community has forged strong ties with many Jewish communities around the world, as well as with Israeli groups and organizations. Have you done any joint programming in that regard? Do you think such ties have been helpful in fighting bigotry, fanaticism, and hatred in general, and antisemitism in particular? What other vulnerable minority groups are you considering working with?

Even in Iraq, Yazidi children told me that they learned about Jews being devils with horns in Iraqi-Arab schools. So we began to work with Jewish communities immediately and Nobel peace laureate Nadia Murad, who has been one of the women we evacuated to Baden-Württemberg, spoke to Holocaust survivors and visited Israel, including the Knesset. Actually, I presented my Hitzemord-murder-by-heat-thesis at the remembrance day for the genocide against the Yazidis.

As an avid science enthusiast, have you tried to use science to build bridges between Jewish and other communities, and to fight bigotry & antisemitism? When do such efforts work best, and what should be avoided?

Yes, I have done a lot of work with psychologists, teachers and therapists. We are developing and testing a four-level system of conspiracy psychology. But I do fear that this could be a little much for a single interview. Currently, I am looking forward to my next travel to Israel to work with our colleagues there. Covid19 took a toll on science, too.

What are your aspirations in terms of combating antisemitism, relationship building, and project enhancement for the near and long term future? What kind of public engagement do you think will be helpful? Can the international community play a role?

I do believe that Antisemitism is rooted in media systems and could only be defeated globally. But we will have to do our tasks at home. Although I am trying to work internationally as a scientist, my duty is to my State, to our democracy and to our Jewish communities. Thanks for the chance to offer a small contribution to our English-speaking friends.

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