Jews in Germany

A Chance for Renaissance

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Jewish people have contributed much to German industry, science and arts over the years.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German and Jewish communities have a long history together – it’s important to not let the shadows of the Holocaust or an equation of Jews with Israel take over the current relations.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The overall situation in Germany is considered good by many Jewish people.
    • Some incidences of anti-Semitism have flared up and spread fear.
    • German Jews don’t like being held responsible for Israeli policies; neither do they want their history reduced to the Holocaust.
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    Audio

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In general, Germany’s Jews are very well. Since the country’s reunification, their number almost quadrupled to slightly more than 100,000 people. Hebrews enjoy “special” protection: anti-Semitic statements are punished severely in Germany. The Jewish community’s legal and financial conditions are laid out in a treaty between the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the federal government. Newly built or painstakingly renovated synagogues and community centers are guarded by police officers and security personnel. Jewish people partake in German prosperity.

The designated president of the Central Council, Josef Schuster, a physician from Würzburg, will take over a well-ordered legacy.

Israelis have condensed the positive situation of Jewry in Germany into a joke: “How does a smart Jew talk to a dumb one? By phone from Berlin to Jerusalem!” Objectively speaking, the Israelis are right. Compared to the tense situation in Zion – marked by wars, terrorist attacks, high food prices, exorbitant rents, a continuously growing social imbalance and a prime minister whose diplomatic tact evokes memories of German Emperor William II rather than Germany’s former Jewish Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau – the situation in Germany seems idyllic.

Is it surprising therefore that a young Israeli’s Facebook post on cheap chocolate pudding in Berlin and his invitation to immediately emigrate to Germany became a hit in Zion?

Despite these facts, I notice discomfort in talks with other Jews. It exceeds the usual degree of latent fear of the future. The insecurity is not unfounded. Despite continuous education on the Holocaust and the abjection of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise for a while in Germany. The new supporters of this hostility toward Jews oftentimes are Muslims.

Jews are being denigrated, threatened, abused. Hebrews are insulted as pigs, threatened to be sent into the “gas chamber.” Initially, police have reacted rather helplessly. In Berlin and Frankfurt, rabbis ended up in hospital after brutal beatings. Hinting at the perpetrators’ immigrant background and at similar assaults in other European countries is not helping the situation though.

How does a smart Jew talk to a dumb one? By phone from Berlin to Jerusalem!

This  uncomfortable situation for Jews isn’t confined to insults by stirred-up youngsters. What I experience as unpleasant is the role of the “archetypical Jew” imposed on me by the educated classes.

At almost every reception, at every party, I am held responsible for Israeli politics. The most frequent greeting I receive sounds something like this: “Do your fellow countrymen have to react so fiercely to the helpless acts of violence committed by desperate Palestinians?” What am I supposed to reply to that? Maybe: “I’m not Israeli.” “But you’re Jewish. You surely have family in Israel…” We Jews try to avoid such interrogations. But our conversation partners are so happy to have an actual Jewish person in front of them that they want to catch up on the situation in the Middle East and at the same time ask me to “not take these questions personally.” How should that work if I’m equated with Israel?

A popular request is to clarify my attitude toward Zionism. Do I ask Catholics for their view on sexual morals? Most of the time I manage to keep a straight face. But I lose it as soon as someone asks the question whether “Jews didn’t learn the lesson in Auschwitz that violence isn’t the answer.” This statement strikes me right in the heart and the mind and virtually forces me to make myself clear.

The only reason it was “easily” possible to deport Jews into extermination camps and kill them was that they were defenseless. I can’t begin to understand how one could ask Israelis for nonviolence considering the threats they’re facing, while at the same time arming the Kurds under fire. It’s a good thing the German government has chosen a pragmatic approach here.

German politicians, the churches and associations ostracize anti-Semitism. At the nationwide demonstration of the Central Council of Jews against anti-Semitism held in Berlin, the German chancellor and representatives of the churches explicitly condemned hostility against Jews. But why was the organization of the protests left solely to the Jewish umbrella organization? My queries to the party chairmen and the Confederation of German Trade Unions as to why their groups did not actively participate in the call for the demonstration were largely left unanswered.

That’s why only a mere 5,000 people protested against anti-Semitism in Germany. A demonstration against animal experiments or speed limits would have drawn ten times this crowd to the streets.

I can't begin to understand how one could ask Israelis for nonviolence considering the threats they’re facing, while at the same time arming the Kurds under fire.

The subjective impressions and the evidence hint at the same cause: the German-Jewish relationship is rooted so deeply in both communities that it is not severable anymore. The fact that even after the Nazi’s genocide a lively Jewish community has developed in Germany again and is welcomed and fostered by Germans shows that both groups are interwoven. They can’t do without each other – and they don’t want to. That’s not surprising after a common history that had already been characterized by numerous persecutions of the Jews even before the Shoah.

No other country, not even Israel, has as long and continuous a Jewish history as Germany. That has left lasting marks. More than 80 percent of the Yiddish language consists of German words; Yiddish is written in Hebrew script and is currently experiencing a worldwide renaissance. There is no better example for the success of the German-Jewish symbiosis, which the Berlin-born Israeli philosopher Gershom Scholem ridiculed as “Jewish wishful thinking.”

Hebrew expressions have even found their way into the everyday usage of German. The German New Year’s greeting “Guter Rutsch,” for example, which is derived from the Hebrew Rosh Hashana for New Year, or “beschickert” for tipsy.

Jews have played an important role in German culture, economy, science and politics. Personalities like Albert Einstein, Max Liebermann, the founder of the German Democratic Party (SPD) Ferdinand Lassalle, sociologist Georg Simmel, chemist Fritz Haber, the publishers Mosse und Ullstein, the founder of Dresdner Bank Eugen Gutmann and many more are part of the German legacy. Even by burning books the Nazis were unable to erase Heinrich Heine’s poem “Lorelei.” Its famous first line “I know not whence it rises, This thought so full of woe” [original: “Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin”] accurately reflects the German-Jewish melancholy.

There’s hardly any point in highlighting only past accomplishments of the German-Jewish relation. The Holocaust remembrance and the grief for its victims cannot diminish the current German Jewry’s vitality and limit its prospects. A German-Jewish renaissance is possible. But it can only succeed if the German majority realizes that the local Jewry is part of their own history and future – and not a representative of Israel or an admonisher against anti-Semitism. The Jews shall live in Germany.

 

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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