German music award scrapped as national anti-Semitism row rages

A protester holds a placard during a "Berlin wears kippa" demo in Berlin (AFP Photo/Tobias SCHWARZ) (AFP)

Berlin (AFP) - Organisers of a major German music prize scrapped their main award Wednesday due to an anti-Semitism row as thousands of Germans rallied in solidarity with Jews after a spate of shocking hate crimes.

A cascade of recent scandals, including the "Echo" prize-winning rap duo making light of Nazi death camp prisoners, has raised pointed questions about Germany's ability to protect its burgeoning Jewish community seven decades after the Holocaust.

In the latest ugly incident, a tiny Berlin rally against anti-Semitism with just three demonstrators was marred Wednesday when angry counter-protesters shouted "terrorists", spat at them and snatched their Israeli flag, organisers said.

Police said the event in Neukoelln district, the heart of the capital's Muslim immigrant community, ended early after the trio were shouted down by "loud and emotional" opponents and feared for their safety.

Elsewhere in Berlin, some 2,000 demonstrators rallied at a "Berlin Wears Kippa" event where Jews and non-Jews wore the traditional skullcap in a shared show of defiance.

Speaking at the rally, Berlin's Jewish community chairman Gideon Joffe warned that the growing threat meant "it's five minutes to midnight", adding that "we have to be careful".

The head of the country's Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, demanded "100 percent respect" for Jews as well as for Muslims, homosexuals and people of "all skin colours".

- Belt attack -

The previous day, Schuster had set off shockwaves with a warning that Jews who wear the kippa or the Star of David could be courting danger on German streets.

The remarks sparked outrage, with the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center accusing authorities of disappointing Jews' faith in German democracy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel had on Sunday denounced the emergence of "another form of anti-Semitism", beyond that of right-wing extremist groups, from Muslim refugees, in an interview with Israeli television.

She reaffirmed that the security of Jews and of the state of Israel was a central concern for Germany because of its "eternal responsibility" for the Holocaust in which the Nazis murdered six million European Jews.

Last week Germans were stunned after a 19-year-old Syrian refugee attacked two young men wearing kippas with his belt in a trendy district of the capital, shouting "yahudi" -- Jew in Arabic -- and lashing out at his victim with a belt.

A video of the assault, filmed by one of the Israeli victims, went viral on social media and sparked widespread revulsion.

Earlier this month, two rappers raised hackles by winning the Echo music prize after selling more than 200,000 copies of their album which features a lyric boasting that their bodies are "more defined than Auschwitz prisoners".

Amid the anguished national debate, organisers of the Echo prize said Wednesday they would axe the award because they did not want it to be "seen as a platform for anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia or the playing down of violence".

Minutes later the rappers' music label, BMG, announced that it was dropping the duo, Farid Bang and Kollegah.

- 'Culture of remembrance' -

Ahead of the Berlin rally, the chairman of the Turkish community in Germany, Gokay Sofuoglu, also called for the kippa to be worn, telling the Berliner Zeitung that "if you want to stop Islamophobia, then you also can't tolerate anti-Semitism".

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Israeli political party Yesh Atid, said Jews from Germany should go out "with a kippa and a big baton in their hands and protect themselves".

"We thought the days of anxiety for the Jews in Germany were over. That is clearly not the case," he told German news agency DPA in Berlin.

Demonstrations in support of Jews with hundreds of people were also held in the cities of Cologne, Potsdam, Magdeburg and Erfurt, where politicians, Christian and Jewish leaders wore kippas and marched to the main local synagogue.

Newspapers had offered paper cutouts of skullcaps for readers to wear.

The issue of anti-Semitism is particularly fraught in Germany, which has gone to great lengths to atone for its Nazi past and whose political class takes deep pride in the growth of the now 200,000-strong Jewish community.

However, the high-profile incidents in recent months have stoked fears of a possible resurgence of anti-Semitism from both the far-right and a large influx of predominantly Muslim asylum-seekers since 2015.

In March, the Central Council of Jews urged schools to keep track of religious bullying following reports that a young Jewish girl was allegedly harassed and threatened by Muslim fellow pupils at a Berlin primary school.

The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which captured nearly 13 percent of the vote in September's general election, has also not shied away from questioning Germany's cherished "remembrance culture".

Party member Bjoern Hoecke last year called Berlin's Holocaust memorial a "monument of shame" and said Germany should take a "180-degree" turn away from its guilt over World War II crimes.