Cologne, Germany - Several thousand people gathered on October 26 in Cologne to demonstrate against the violence of Muslim extremists in the Middle East. The rally, organised by a group called "Hooligans against Salafists", quickly deteriorated. Protesters started rioting and shouting anti-Muslim and neo-Nazi slogans, such as "Germany for the Germans, foreigners out!"

Three months earlier, thousands of Berliners took part in a series of protests against the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. Their stated aim was to show solidarity with Palestinians and express criticism of Israel's actions. But anti-Semitic slogans were also vocalised by hundreds of protesters.

In a society still very much shaped by the horrors of World War II, this reappearance of racist rhetoric in Germany's public sphere has touched a nerve. Authorities were quick to respond. Berlin's senator for interior affairs, Frank Henkel, said last week he would do whatever he can to ban a large, far-right demonstration planned for November 15 in the German capital. In September, Chancellor Angela Merkel participated in a rally organised by the Central Council of Jews, and vowed that fighting anti-Semitism is a national and civic duty.

But the situation has remained tense, especially in diverse metropolises such as Berlin. In August, a mosque was set on fire. And a Muslim religious institution is under police investigation after a visiting imam was filmed preaching inflammatory remarks against Jews.

We deal with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the same time. They are simply too strongly connected to deal with them apart.

- Armin Langer, co-founder of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative

These tensions should be viewed in the context of world events, said Dr Ralf Melzer, who monitors extremism for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German non-profit organisation. Melzer said xenophobic right-wing groups, such as Hooligans against Salafists and the Pro Movement, are holding more events because they recognise the public's resentment of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is fertile ground for spreading anti-Muslim sentiment.

"Islamic radicalism is used by German right-wing groups in order to devaluate Islam and Muslims in general," Melzer said. "What these right-wing extremists are doing - like in this manifestation in Cologne - is trying to use the threat of militant, radical, terroristic Islam for their purposes."

A similar wave of anti-Muslim racism in Germany took place after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, according to Carsten Koschmieder, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

Koschmieder said prejudice towards Muslims in Germany is not limited to the far right, but exists across all social classes and backgrounds. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 33 percent of Germans have an unfavourable view of Muslims in Germany, a rate higher than those recorded in France and the United Kingdom.

"The numbers show this is really a problem," Koschmieder said. "Many people think Muslims are all dangerous, they are not belonging to us and so on. You have even more prejudices against Muslims than, for example, against Jews."

Breaking a taboo

Muslims in Germany make up about five percent of the country's total population of 82 million, making them Germany's largest religious minority. Jews account for a little more than 0.1 percent of the country's population. Koschmieder, whose field of research includes both right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism, explained that public hate speech towards Jews is taboo in German society, or at least it was - until this summer.

"They don't know or they don't care for this taboo," said Koschmieder of the pro-Palestinian protesters who shouted anti-Semitic slogans on the streets of Berlin. "This taboo is more often challenged these days."

The boundary between legitimate political criticism and projection of Jewish hatred are very narrow and easily crossed, according to Daniel Alter, a prominent rabbi in Berlin's Jewish community. Alter said most anti-Semitic acts were carried out by people with a Christian background - which was confirmed by Berlin police spokesperson Stefan Redlich. However, Alter added, the anti-Semitism of young Muslims much more openly perpetrates acts of hatred against Jews.

"There are areas in Berlin in which it is definitely not wise if you are identifiable as a Jew," Alter said. "Unfortunately, it is in the regions where young Muslim people congregate and hang out. If I pass by there, and if somebody can identify me as a Jew, I get at least verbally harassed."

Two years ago, Alter was a victim of anti-Semitic violence. A group of young men of Arab descent attacked the rabbi on the street as he was walking with his seven-year-old daughter. They asked him if he was Jewish, and when he replied yes, they beat him up and threatened his daughter. He was hospitalised that evening with a fractured cheekbone.

'No-go areas' in Berlin

Armin Langer (right) co-founded the Salaam-Schalom Initiative [Yermi Brenner/Al Jazeera]

Berlin police recorded eight other instances of anti-Semitic violence in 2013, and five since the beginning of 2014.

In an interview last year with a German newspaper, Alter suggested that parts of Neukoelln, a Berlin district with a large Muslim population, are "no-go areas" for Jews wearing visible religious symbols like the kippah because they would be under threat.

That statement triggered Armin Langer, a 24-year-old Jewish resident of Neukoelln, to reach out to others in his neighbourhood. Langer co-founded the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, an inter-religious dialogue group whose members include Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.

The group meets on a regular basis in Neukoelln and organises community events, panels and open discussions - all aimed at creating direct communication between people from different religions and backgrounds. Langer is convinced the best way to eliminate racism is to take on all sorts of it at once.

"We deal with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at the same time," he said. "They are simply too strongly connected to deal with them apart."

Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner

Source: Al Jazeera