For centuries, Jews have debated what it means to be one. One thing all Jews can probably agree on is that a connection to extremists with antisemitic views and aims to overthrow the German republic is a disqualifier.
But that hasn't stopped some from trying.
At least 10 associations calling themselves Jewish received official, nonprofit status, only to be revealed to have links to Germany's "Reichsbürger" (literally, "citizens of the German Empire") scene.
ARD, the German public broadcaster that first reported the story, spoke to self-proclaimed "chief rabbi" Iwan Götz, a known fraudster with Reichsbürger links. The 75-year-old from the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania appears to be behind several of the so-called Jewish associations, according to the report.
Götz claims to have converted to Judaism decades ago in Russia. Jewish community leaders have their doubts, and it is unlikely that other initiators of the associations in question are Jewish, or have anything to do with Jewish life or Jewish communities in Germany.
On the contrary, people who identify as Reichsbürger reject the German republic founded in 1949 and thus its Basic Law, which serves as Germany's constitution. In their minds, the German Empire, which existed in various forms and which victorious Allied powers legally ended following their defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, is the only legitimate form of German statehood.
Germany's domestic intelligence describes the Reichsbürger as conspiracy theorists, who often spread antisemitic tropes. The more extreme and violent among them faces charges related to plotting to overthrow the government.
The role of the 'Verein' in Germany
According to ARD, some of the questionable associations have since disbanded. That leaves just a handful still on the books.
The nonprofit association, known as Verein in German, is popular in Germany. They can be religious organizations, social welfare groups or community activists of all sizes and kinds. Anyone can form a Verein and apply for official recognition as one. If it fulfills certain regulations, local authorities grant the group nonprofit status, which means they can collect tax-deductible donations. It also boosts a group's chances for funding from both public and philanthropic sources.
Nonprofit registers, overseen at the state level but centralized online, maintain a list of such groups. In order to be listed on the register, the key is demonstrating a Verein's intent to serve the "public good." As such, having the Verein status confers a sense of respect and credibility upon those running it.
"We are familiar with the problems of these groups and individuals," Saskia Benter Ortega, spokesperson for the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told DW, referring to Reichsbürger sympathizers. "It is important to ensure that the Jewish community is not misused for political or extremist purposes."
Neither actual Jewish organizations, such as the Central Council, nor state authorities can do much to prevent such abuse. They can only take legal action after the fact, which Ortega said the Council is doing.
Under Nazi rule, Germany had strict definitions for categorizing Jews and other groups, as a means of controlling and persecuting them. In its democratic form today, Germany protects freedom of religion and "does not regulate whether and under what conditions an association may or may not describe itself as belonging to a religious or ideological confession," an interior ministry spokesperson told DW.
"The assessment is the responsibility of the religious and ideological communities themselves," she added.
That can lead to the unintended consequence of allowing charlatans to claim they are someone they are not. Determining one's Jewish affiliation can be especially tricky, as Judaism is not only a religion but also takes on cultural and ethnic attributes. Ultra-conservative orthodox men to atheist socialist feminists can all stake legitimate claims to Jewish identity.
Or, in the case of Iwan Götz, you can get away with anointing yourself "chief rabbi" of nothing. Despite harboring the baseless conspiracy that the Jews financed Adolf Hitler — a lie deeply offensive to Jews, especially in the country that orchestrated the Holocaust of 6 million Jews — Götz told ARD he considers himself a representative of "real Judaism."
It is unclear if those behind the fake "Jewish" groups can be prosecuted for any illegal behavior as the "extent to which the designation as a 'Jewish' association is misused here cannot be assessed on the basis of the reporting mentioned," the interior ministry spokesperson said.
It is just as unclear what the Reichsbürger sympathizers had in mind, though the Central Council's Ortega expressed a general concern about the "threat to society as a whole posed by the concealment of their true intentions."
A Verein can lose its nonprofit status if, in the process of regular financial and tax reporting, they are determined to be noncompliant with relevant regulations. Such groups can also be disbanded if they turn out to violate criminal law, engage in unconstitutional behavior or undermine what the interior ministry calls "international understanding."
Beyond that, the options are limited. The term "Jewish Community" (Jüdische Gemeinde) is not legally protected, so while it may raise eyebrows to have conspiratorial Reichsbürger calling themselves a "Jewish community" there is no legal way to prevent them from doing so.
Edited by Rina Goldenberg and Kyra Levine
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