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'Jewish institutions still need police protection'

Interview: Diana Hodali / sgbJuly 20, 2015

The Central Council of Jews in Germany was founded 65 years ago to give Jews a political voice after the Holocaust. Its president, Josef Schuster, warns in an interview about anti-Semitism from the mainstream of society.

Dedication of Cottbus synagogue (Photo: Jörg Carstensen/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

The role of the Central Council of Jews in Germany has changed since its inception 65 years ago - from being a community of interests for Jewish residents to providing the political voice of Germany's Jewish communities. But the struggle against anti-Semitism, which manifests itself in ever new forms, has remained. DW spoke with Council Chairman Josef Schuster.

DW: How has your life changed since you became president of the Central Council of Jews?

Josef Schuster: Life has become a little turbulent, a bit more hectic. I have a little less time for my family, but they're dealing with it well.

Has it also become more dangerous?

The security agencies say the presidency of the Central Council of Jews in Germany is a hazardous occupation. So the police take steps to protect me. I myself do not feel it is dangerous and do not personally feel directly threatened.

After your election, you said that the Jewish community was part of German society. "We want to help shape life in Germany in the future," you said. What initiatives would you like to start in society?

I think we've just started one. Together with our counterpart in Switzerland, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, we've published a book on ethics in Judaism. In it, we illuminate a number of ethical issues from a Jewish point of view - from euthanasia to sexuality, but also questions concerning the general conduct of life.

Josef Schuster (Photo: Daniel Karmann/dpa)
Josef Schuster has headed Germany's main Jewish organization since October 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

And I believe this book also makes clear once again that Jewish life is not only about the Holocaust. The Jewish community has once again put down roots in Germany, and it was time to look at issues that concern the whole of society.

What's the difference between the confrontations and problems facing the Central Council today and those of 65 years ago?

The Council was founded on entirely different reasoning. It was a community of interests of the Jewish people who had settled again in Germany for the time being. Most had no intention of establishing a Jewish community over the long term or staying in Germany. In the mid-1970s there was a wide-ranging shift in attitude, and people dared to say that they deliberately wanted to live in Germany again, because that was anything but clear.

Based on this paradigm shift, people began to take an active role in the establishment of Jewish communities. And that that became the top priority - especially through immigration from the former Soviet Union after 1990, and alongside integration measures.

Heinz Galinski, the first president of the Central Council of Jews, said at the foundation in 1950 that he wished Jews could speak with one voice. Has that changed over the course of the paradigm shift you mentioned?

No, it has not. That's because the Central Council is the umbrella organization for all Jewish communities in Germany. Under this umbrella, there are many different communities. And the main task of the Central Council is to represent the Jewish communities politically, regardless of their religious orientation. We speak with one voice, so we represent the common interests loud and clear to the outside.

About 250,000 Jews live in Germany. Around half belong to one of the total 108 congregations. Germany is the only country in Europe to record a growing Jewish population, even though Jewish congregations still face external threats.

We are delighted that our communities have grown as they have. In addition, many Israelis are drawn to Berlin, which we also warmly welcome, of course. But the fact is, Jewish institutions still need police protection. There is a potential threat. My biggest wish would be that this police protection would someday no longer be necessary.

Would you say that the nature of anti-Semitism has changed over the years?

Ceremonies marking 70th anniversary of liberation of Dachau concentration camp (Photo: Bundesregierung/Bergmann/dpa)
In May, Chancellor Angela Merkel led ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau concentration campImage: Bundesregierung/Bergmann/dpa

Yes, it has changed. Even if we set aside the new anti-Semitism of Arab immigrant families, it's today striking that we have an anti-Semitism that is at home not only with political extremists, but also in the middle of society. It often tends to take the guise of anti-Zionism. This is nothing new, but today, many are willing to say what they may already have long thought, but had not dared to utter.

The Central Council of Jews represents the survivors of the incomprehensible mass murder of the Jews. It endeavors to unearth racism and anti-Semitism. How can you combat anti-Semitism effectively?

There is only one way and that is through education. Part of this involves getting people to know Jewish communities and Judaism, so that it is not perceived as something alien. Above all, it's important to work with young people. We must be clear about one thing: No child or young person in Germany or anywhere else in the world is born an anti-Semite or racist.

In this education work, how do you convey the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of the government in Israel?

That's not difficult. The fact is, objective criticism of Israeli policies is absolutely legitimate. In a democracy, there is freedom of expression. That also means criticism, and criticism of the Israeli government also exists in Israel itself.

But if this criticism is used to immediately tar all Jews in the world, then that goes beyond what I mean by an objective criticism of Israeli policy. When we experience that the Central Council is blamed for Israeli policies, you have to say clearly: Here German citizens are being held responsible for things that are happening in another country.

What did you think when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on European Jews to come to Israel after the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris in January?

A call by an Israeli prime minister to emigrate to Israel for Zionist reasons is completely legitimate. A call to immigrate to Israel out of fear of terror, I think makes little sense. We have a worldwide terrorist threat and must not capitulate to it.

Although this might sound presumptuous, would you wish that a Central Council of Jews in Germany could become superfluous at some point?

If you ask this question, I'll now answer it just as presumptuously: No, I do not wish that. Because that would imply that the Central Council only had the task of warning against anti-Semitism and taking action against it and against racism. If you see that as the task of the Central Council, then I would agree with you.

Our main task, however, is to represent Jewish communities in Germany politically and to support them in their diverse development. Even if there were no anti-Semitism, which would make me very happy, I'm sure that the Central Council would not be without a purpose.

Josef Schuster is the eighth President of the Central Council of Jews. He took office in October 2014, replacing Dieter Graumann. Schuster was born in Haifa, Israel in 1954. His parents returned to Germany when he was two. He studied medicine and became an internist, and continues to work as a doctor today. Like Graumann, Schuster, who is the father of two grown children, belongs to the first generation who did not experience Nazism and the mass murder of European Jews themselves.