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Behind the Headlines: in Germany, Interfaith Groups Grapple with Bothracism and Apathetic Public

At a time of rising nationalism, xenophobia, neo-Nazi violence and Holocaust denial, numerous initiatives are taking place proud Germany aimed at increasing awareness of Jewish heritage and of overcoming anti-Semitism and other forms of racism here.

While these are seen as important, even people involved admit that their influence on society is limited.

“Some of us younger members of the board of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation are trying to make our work more political,” said Ralf Meister- Karanikas, a minister who is an active member of the society in Hamburg.

“We want to have more controversial debates in public and bring what we are doing to the attention of the media, to put pressure on politicians,” he said. “It can’t be that we just work for a small group who are interested in Jewish matters, and who look back into the post.”

In Hamburg, there are numerous groups – such as the Society for Christian- Jewish Cooperation and a German-Israeli friendship organization – that attempt to deal with interfaith relations.

“But in all the societies, at all the events, we see the same faces,” said one Christian engaged in interfaith dialogue.

“The problem is that the population stands aside,” the German Jewish leader, Ignatz Bubis, told a 12-member U.S. Christian-Jewish group in a meeting in Frankfurt last November on the eve of the Kristallnacht anniversary.

“Churches have lost influence,” Bubis said.

In a series of meetings in a half-dozen German cities, the American group from the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was told repeatedly that outside pressure was needed to encourage German authorities to crack down on extremism and to support homegrown, non-governmental efforts to combat hate.

“Germans are still dangerous,” said Ralph Giordano, a Holocaust survivor and leading German author.

“Not the whole people,” he said, “but the Nazi period has not been worked out – you can still feel it.”

But he added: “It is also important to watch the positive things that are going on here. Many Germans are very anxious about what is happening and they ask what to do. A great part of the German Population is prepared to do something against the old-new danger.”

Part of that is violence that has been attributed to young people.

“In view of the political situation, it is not astonishing that young people do what they do, including violence,” he said. “As long a we have politicians who play the nationalist card at the cost of hurting minorities in order to win votes, then I am very, much afraid that situation will not change.”

Next to a shopping mall in Poppensbuttel, a prosperous neighborhood in the northern part of Hamburg, a monument marks the site of a Nazi concentration camp for women. “We must remember – never again,” it says.

“But look when it was erected, 1989,” said a Holocaust survivor who is one of the 1,500 or so Jews now living in Hamburg. “If that’s when they began remembering, who can be surprised that there are young neo-Nazis today?”

Two non-violent trends also concern many Germans trying to fight right-wing extremism and nationalism: historical revisionism and the “relativizing” of the Holocaust – omparing it to other atrocities – and an increasingly open resentment among Germans at the perception that they should be ashamed of being Germans and of their heritage.

“After 1945 there was a shame in saying, I am proud to be German. This was understandable,” Bubis said.

“Today you have a generation that is saying: `Why should others say that I’m proud to be this or proud to be that and only we Germans are not allowed to say it?’ The right-wing parties have zeroed in on this vacuum,” he said.

The wave of Holocaust denial thrives on these feeling.

“Increasingly, over the past 10 years, there has been a stronger tendency to deny the Holocaust, to try to do so by way of so-called science,” Bubis said.

“These people are a small number, but there is almost a huge number of people who are trying to relativize the Holocaust.”

People, including politicians, he said, make statements such as “the Holocaust was unique, but there have been many unique occurrences in history.”

“People say, `It was in the past; we are not to be blamed for this history,'” said Dr. Martin Stohr, president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

“People say, `It was a historical event, let’s study it as a historical event, something that is not part of our time.’

“Politicians say, `Let us leave the shadow of Hitler, to be a normal people like other nations,'” Stohr said.

“These are the roots of revisionism,” he said. “It is very important to see this field of non-Nazi attitudes which promote neo-Nazi attitudes and thinking.”

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