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Germany

Germany's Jewish Groups Quarrel Over State Funds

A row between the Central Council of Jews and the Union for Progressive Judaism over disbursement of government funds has deepened after Chancellor Schröder refused to intervene. The union threatens to sue Berlin.

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Around 100,000 Jews live in Germany today.

Wednesday's meeting between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Paul Spiegel, the chairman of Germany's officially recognized Jewish body, the government-funded Central Council of Jews, failed to come up with a solution to the ongoing dispute between the two Jewish groups.

Chancellery spokesman Thomas Steg said that the government would not intervene in internal Jewish affairs, reiterating that the government was bound by ideological neutrality to stay out of such issues.

Schröder Regierungserklärung

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder

He added, however, that the government welcomed Spiegel's assurance to Schröder that he would "shortly" meet with the Union for Progressive Judaism to iron out the conflict.

Contract at the heart of dispute

At the heart of the row, which has been simmering for years between the two groups, is a historic contract signed between the German government and the largely traditional-orthodox Central Council of Jews in January 2003 that placed the Central Council on an equal footing with the country's Protestant and Catholic churches.

The contract also commits the German government to pay €3 million ($3.55 million) to the Central Council every year to "preserve and cultivate the German-Jewish cultural legacy, build a Jewish community and contribute towards the political, integration and social duties of the Central Council."

But the Union for Progressive Judaism (UPG), which claims it has 3,000 members, says the government is legally required to support all streams of Judaism and, thus, it shouldn't be excluded from the funds. Katarina Seidler, deputy president of the UPJ told the JTA news service last month that they receive only minimal sums from the Central Council for events co-sponsored with a Central Council congregation.

The UPJ also says the Central Council, which represents the majority of Jews in Germany, refuses to recognize the reform Jewish communities.

UPJ threatens to sue

On Wednesday, UPJ Chairman Jan Mühlstein criticized Schröder's stance and said the dispute was in no way an internal Jewish affair, but rather involved the implementation of the 2003 contract.

"We consider it the duty of the German government to include the Union for Progressive Judaism in the government funds," Mühlstein told AP. He said he was ready to meet with the Central Council for talks but stressed that the UPJ would resort to legal means if necessary.

"If there's no solution, we'll turn to the government again," Mühlstein said. "It's bound by duty. As a last resort, we'll sue it in court."

Central Council questions UPJ's significance

For its part, the Central Council, which represents 84 communities in Germany, says its doors are open to diversity, but has raised questions over the UPJ's role in German Judaism.

"It becomes a strange argument when, in the face of 2,000 members in the reform communities and more than 100,000 organized Jews in the Central Council, one speaks of a growing importance of the progressive Jews," Spiegel (photo) told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel shortly before his meeting with Schröder.

Paul Spiegel - Präsident des Zentralrats der Juden in Deutschland

Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews

He also added that the contract signed with the government involved funds to be "used exclusively for the statutory duties of the Central Council on a national level. A promotion of local individual Jewish communities or state associations, irrespective of their religious stream, is fundamentally excluded from these funds," he added.

Alternative traditions

Germany's progressive Jews, whose numbers were greatly strengthened by migrants from eastern Europe after 1989, founded the UPJ in 1990. Today the organization represents 14 communities.

The progressive Jews, who view the famous Rabbi Leo Baeck as one of the most important representatives of progressive Judaism, consider themselves an alternative to the Central Council. The progressive Jews stress the further development of their faith in the present, which includes the continued writing of their prayer books as well as their prayers not only in Hebrew but also in their respective national language. A further important point for them is women's participation in religious ceremonies.

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