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Jewish Groups Remain Noncommittal Toward New German President Herzog

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Jewish community leaders remained somewhat noncommittal regarding the election this week of conservative Judge Roman Herzog to succeed Richard von Weizsacker as Germany’s seventh president.

Comments from both Jerzy Kanal, head of Berlin’s Jewish community and Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, showed that Herzog was not their first choice.

“I don’t take it as a tragedy,” Kanal told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Tuesday.

The Berlin leader said he was not sure what Herzog’s views were toward Israel. But he added that “they are surely not negative. He has some Jewish acquaintances.”

Kanal noted that Herzog’s chief opponent, Social Democratic leader Johannes Rau “is maybe a bit more liberal and is more involved in political life.”

Public opinion polls showed that if voters had elected the president directly — rather than by the electoral college system currently in use — Rau would have won.

But the election was seen as a test of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union. Kohl strongly backed Herzog, and warned Christian Democratic delegates to the special assembly that if Herzog lost, the party’s chances in this fall’s elections would suffer.

The role of president in Germany is largely ceremonial. But von Weizsacker, with his aristocratic elegance and his efforts on behalf of minorities, gave the position a certain flair during his 10 years at the post.

Von Weizsacker also won over Jewish groups by using his position to remind Germans time and again not to forget their wartime past and to warn against a resurgence of xenophobia in the country.

In a radio interview Monday, Bubis called Herzog’s election “a good choice, but it would have been equally good for me if Rau or (Free Democratic Party candidate) Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher had been elected.”

HERZOG ELECTED IN THIRD ROUND OF VOTING

It was unclear whether Bubis had voted for Herzog. As a long-time member of the centrist Free Democratic Party, he cast a vote during Monday’s election, and his party had a key role in the voting.

Herzog was elected in the third round of voting with 696 votes to Rau’s 605. This followed the withdrawal of Hamm-Bruecher’s candidacy before the third round and a 69-40 decision by the Free Democratic Party to support Herzog.

A candidate proposed at the last minute by the radical right-wing Republicans received 11 votes in the final round.

Herzog, chief justice of Germany’s highest court and relatively unknown to the German public, had created some controversy before his election.

Earlier this month, he irritated even members of his own party when, in the course of a newspaper interview, he said that foreigners living here for the second or third generation should be faced with the choice of becoming German citizens or leaving Germany.

The remark, which he later retracted, prompted protests from the Free Democratic Party, the junior coalition partner whose support was crucial for Herzog’s election.

Herzog’s attitudes toward anti-Semitism and xenophobia were put to a test when he responded last week to a question put to him at a televised debate by a young Jew from Dusseldorf.

The man referred emotionally to the recent wave of neo-Nazi violence in Germany and to the recent firebomb attack on a synagogue in the northern German city of Lubeck. But he got no specific answer other than a general remark about the fact that “some old Nazis” were still around.

But with the election now over, the country as a whole is giving the new, largely unknown president the chance to clarify his positions on such crucial matters as the growing wave of right-wing extremism and how Germany should deal with its Nazi past. (Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent David Kantor in Bonn.)

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