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Jews in Germany Feel Winds of Change

Jennifer Abramsohn, DW-WORLD.DEJanuary 11, 2005

As the World Jewish Congress wraps up its annual meeting in Brussels this week, lively debate continues among Germany's Jewish leaders on anti-Semitism, immigration and the future of German Jewry.

The influx of Jews means new synagogues have been openedImage: AP

Anti-Semitism in Europe and the strengthening of the inter-religious dialogue were at the forefront of the two-day meeting of the World Jewish Congress. But not long after the conference opened with a call for a multifaceted approach to fighting anti-Semitism in Europe, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, used a different venue to criticize what he perceives as a "new quality" of anti-Semitism in Germany.

Paul Spiegel - Präsident des Zentralrats der Juden in Deutschland
Paul Spiegel, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.Image: AP

During a speech in Wuppertal, Germany, Spiegel (photo) said many Jews in Germany are feeling insecure. He cited greater success of the radical right-wing NPD and DVU parties, increased attacks on Jewish cemeteries, and worrisome comments by public officials such the Catholic Archbishop Joachim Meisner, who recently compared abortion to the Holocaust.

Influx from the East

Another issue creating a stir in German political circles is Jewish immigration. Berlin has proposed new laws restricting the immigration of eastern European Jews, who have been moving to Germany in large numbers in the past decade. Each year for the past three years, more Jews have immigrated to Germany than to Israel.

The influx came as a result of an East German law, passed in 1990 right before German reunification. The legislation allowed Russian Jews to enter East Germany simply by proving Jewish ancestry. The law stayed in effect after Germany was reunited in 1991. Since then, 70,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Germany, giving it the third-largest population of Eastern European Jews after Israel and the United States.

More Jews, more synagogues

In many ways, the influx was an immense boon for German Jewry. It brought about a significant rise in the number of synagogues in the country, and there are now 104,000 members of the Jewish community in 83 different communities around the country.

When the Nazis came to power, there were 503,000 Jews living in Germany; in 1950, following World War II, that number was down to 15,000.

But the change has been far from problem-free. Many of the Jewish immigrants never practiced the religion in the former USSR, and there have been complaints from the Jewish community in Berlin -- where the lion's share of the immigrants settle -- that newcomers make use of the community's social services without actually participating in the religious aspects.

In addition, some 80 percent of the immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), many of whom have failed to find work in the country's depressed economy, rely on the already strained social welfare system, a recent report in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper claimed.

Bundesinnenminister Otto Schily
Interior Minister Otto SchilyImage: dpa

In reaction to this, German Interior Minister Otto Schily (photo) recently put forth a plan to limit the immigration of ex-Soviet Jews, and last week the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported that the German states had given it their approval.

Read more about plans to regulate Jewish immigration

Juden in Deutschland Rabbiner in Regensburg
Many of the recent Russian Jewish immigrants have only a thin grasp of either Hebrew or the Torah.Image: AP

New regulations

While no official information has been released, news reports say the regulations would likely require the immigrants to have knowledge of German and the skills to get a job in Germany, be under the age of 45 -- and have a certificate of membership from the Jewish community in their home country.

In a late-December interview with Reuters news service, the Central Council said it was opposed to the immigration restriction plan.

The new rules are "ready for discussion in some areas, and in others fully unacceptable," Spiegel said. "If one compares how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and how many have immigrated and could still come -- the relations speak for themselves," Spiegel said.

'Fraud should be stopped'

Michael Lawton, who founded the Gescher Lamassoret liberal synagogue in Cologne, noted that there is "general agreement, even in Jewish community, that there is fraud in the application process, and that this fraud should be stopped."

The difficulty, though, is "coming to an agreement on who should be allowed in."

Making applicants prove that they are currently involved in a Jewish community in the CIS presents a double standard, Lawton explained. Many non-practicing Jews were killed in the Holocaust, when the standard of proof was simply whether one had Jewish forebears.

"If the idea is to provide restitution for the Holocaust or protect people from anti-Semitism, then the same standard that applied during the Holocaust should apply today," he noted.

Meanwhile, Israel has spent the last decade urging the former Soviet Jews to apply for residency in the Jewish state rather than Germany.

A future for Jews in Germany?

Juden in Deutschland Schüler Regensburg
David Denysenko participates in the ceremony marking the anniversary of the nationwide Nazi pogrom of 1938, in the synagogue in the city of Regensburg.Image: AP

David Gall, who until recently published Hagalil, an Internet newspaper aimed at combating anti-Semitism, agrees with the Israelis. Eastern European Jews should move to Israel instead of Germany because "there is no future for Jews in Germany. The history of Jews in Germany should come to an end."

On the outside, Gall said, Germany appears to have become open to Judaism, with the government funding various initiatives to fight anti-Semitism. But for the most part, these are ineffective and empty, he said. "This country doesn't really want Jews here. There are signs of that everywhere," he said bluntly.

But his personal opinion aside, Gall says he understands why immigrants are choosing Germany over Israel. "First of all, it is similar – the weather, the food, the culture. Look at a picture of St. Petersburg and Berlin, they're not so different. On the other hand, Tel Aviv is completely different. Also, the financial situation is more upbeat in Germany," he said.

Finally, Gall said, "there's the question of security – in Israel there are bombs going off in supermarkets. That doesn't really sound so appealing to people."