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Berlin Jews concerned about refugees

Charlotte Chelsom-Pill December 15, 2015

Jews in Germany are concerned that the country's open-door refugee policy could lead to a rise in anti-Semitism and cost the country its hard-earned position as a safe haven. Charlotte Chelsom-Pill reports from Berlin.

A giant menorah stands in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Image: DW/C. Chelsom-Pill

For Jewish communities, becoming an integral part of German society has been a long and difficult road. In the preceding decades, in the words of Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal of the Jewish community of Berlin, German authorities and members of the public have done an "enormous amount to create a situation where Jews once again feel comfortable living in Germany" in the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War. Now, he says, that could all be in "jeopardy."

This year alone, Germany estimates that around one million asylum-seekers will arrive in the country. Some 70,000 of those are estimated to be living in Germany's chronically broke capital, Berlin. The city has made international headlines for largely embracing Germany's open door policy, but there are many who are concerned, and Germany's Jewish community is among the most vocal.

Last month the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, called for a limit on the number arriving in the country. In an interview with Germany's Die Welt newspaper he said intolerance of Jews and Israel is innate in parts of the Middle East, warning a rise in anti-Semitism is a likely by-product of Germany's refugee policy. It is a fear that has struck a chord with many Jews in Berlin.

Though anti-Semitism of any kind is comparatively rare here, one needs only go to a synagogue in Berlin to see that the fear of attack is ever present. Most have armed guards standing outside, though few are as secure as the synagogue on Münstersche Strasse, home to Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, an American Jew.

Arriving at the synagogue is like arriving at an international airport. First, all bags, jewelry and coats must be put through a scanner. Next, under the watchful eye of two guards, guests are asked to walk through a full-body scanner. The less fortunate may be asked to go through several times, as various items of clothing trigger the proverbial alarm, before being granted entry. For many here these measures are more necessary now than any other time in living memory, the rabbi says.

The synagoge on Münstersche Strasse
As with all Jewish institutions in Germany, special security measures are taken to protect the Münsterische Strasse synagogueImage: DW/C. Chelsom-Pill

"The fact of the matter is that in recent weeks I have been more often than in the past cursed at or screamed at from passing cars, even in this very area here in the center of Berlin," he says.

"It is sad and painful, especially when you are walking on the street with your nine-year-old daughter who is literally shocked to see such a thing and asks, 'Daddy, what is that?'"

Though he makes clear that we should not immediately "connect the dots" and put the blame on Germany's newest arrivals, he says incidents like this only add to fears within the Jewish community that their position in society is at risk. Worst case scenario, he says, Jews will no longer see Germany as the new safe haven it has worked tireless to become.

"Jews living here can only be guaranteed if Jewish people feel safe, if Jewish people don't have to worry about walking around on the streets when they can be identified as Jews."

These are fears which are putting many in Germany - a nation proud of standing up to help refugees where others have sat back - in a moral quandary. Politicians ranging from German President Joachim Gauck to Chancellor Angela Merkel herself have spoken publicly on multiple occasions to reiterate Germany's fierce defense of Jewish communities and make clear that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated. Equally, however, Merkel is a chancellor who believes strongly in Germany's moral obligation towards people fleeing conflict and persecution, something many are quick to point out that Jews living in this country are more than familiar with themselves.

'All Jews living in Germany are refugees'

A large proportion of the Jews living in Germany are originally from the former Soviet Union. In a foreshadowing of its policy towards refugees today, Germany distinguished itself from much of the rest of Europe by accepting a vast number of Jewish refugees.

Thus, people like Judith Kessler, a member of the organized Jewish Community of Berlin, are perplexed by those within the German Jewish community who call for a refugee cap when a previous open-door policy allowed in many of them.

"All Jews in this country are refugees of some description," Kessler, who herself fled Poland in 1972, says.

"I don't understand how we can't help people who are in exactly the same situation, who are fleeing war or being murdered. I wouldn't be alive if some country hadn't taken us in.

Kessler volunteers at refugee shelters and clothes collection sites across Berlin. She and her husband regularly take large groups of refugee children on excursions to zoos, films and parks. They have helped one Syrian family of five in particular, finding them a home, helping them decorate, and paying for their German lessons. The seven of them recently celebrated Hanukkah together.

Judith Kessler's family and the Syrian family they have taken in
Kessler and her husband have opened their home to a family of refugees from SyriaImage: Privat

Never, she says, has she experienced any ill feeling from those she helps.

If anything, the only bigotry she has witnessed flows in the other direction. She says her vocal defense of refugees arriving in the city has cost her a number of friends in the Jewish community. Those who are willing to help often prefer not to draw attention to their actions.

"The Jewish community is totally polarized between people who want to help and people who hate the influx and fear Islamization," she says.

Her major concern when it comes to hate crimes is not whether Muslims will perpetrate them, but whether they will become the victim of them. Indeed a four-fold rise in attacks on refugee hostels has been recorded in Germany this year.

Refugees like us

So why is it that people who were refugees themselves may be skeptical of the ability of another group to integrate into society?

Sergey Lagodinsky, who is running for president of the Jewish Community of Berlin and hails from the former Soviet Union, says the answer is clear: Having been there themselves, they know how hard it can be to adjust to a new country and new environment.

"There is a first-hand experience of how difficult it is to change yourself and adapt to the new situation," he says. "Migration experiences can be sobering."

"There is a sense of realism regarding what you can expect from other people."