Around the Jewish World: Berlin’s Jews Go to the Polls to Cast a Vote for Their Future
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Around the Jewish World: Berlin’s Jews Go to the Polls to Cast a Vote for Their Future

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Jewish community elections in Germany are rarely covered in the German media. But the upcoming election in Berlin on June 1 has catapulted the city’s Jewish community into the center of nationwide media attention.

The stories center on real estate scandals, alleged financial mismanagement of community funds, and embittered personal rivalries among community representatives.

The reports, which cast a shadow on the integrity of some leading members of Germany’s largest Jewish community, come just two years before the German government is scheduled to move most of its offices from Bonn to Berlin.

Jewish leaders worry that if the negative publicity continues, it could weaken community structures and damage the political influence of Berlin’s Jewish community in the German capital.

There is also concern that the mudslinging could taint the community’s reputation as a watchdog on issues of tolerance, racism and human rights.

The sensationalist headlines have partially obscured the larger significance of the Berlin elections for the Jewish community.

Many observers expect the outcome to reshape the identity of the fast-growing community of 10,500 members — and to act as a bellwether for the future of Germany’s Jewish community of 60,000.

“The Berlin community today has brought the situation of Jews in Germany at large into sharp focus,” according to Michael Bodemann, a German-Canadian sociologist at the University of Toronto.

He is one of many who believe that the upcoming elections could lead the way to a generational change in power, provide a growing influence for the Russian Jews who now form the majority of Germany’s Jewish community, and create a more public role for the community in German society.

The media attention began last year, when a Berlin newspaper printed charges from the heirs of former Jewish property owners in eastern Germany that a young lawyer on the community’s board of directors had cheated them on restitution claims.

The newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, documented four cases where clients claimed that the lawyer had advised them to sell their property claims far below market value.

In several cases, the buyer was the son-in-law of Jerzy Kanal, the chairman of Berlin’s Jewish community. The lawyer denied improper behavior. Berlin prosecutors launched a fraud investigation, but later dropped the charges.

The lawyer’s supporters launched a counterattack on her opponents in the Jewish parliament, which runs the affairs of the community.

They accused a member of the opposition faction in the parliament of involvement in prostitution and activities linked to the Russian mafia. They never brought evidence of the charges, nor was the woman ever under investigation by city authorities.

The conflict reached its peak when the lawyer involved with Jewish property claims accused the family of a venerated member of the German resistance of being “Aryanizers” for purchasing a house in the 1930s that had once belonged to a Jewish family.

The head of Germany’s Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, apologized personally to the family of Hans von Dohnanyi, who was executed in 1945 for his resistance to the Nazi regime.

Media reports on this incident prompted Kanal to hold a news conference, at which he accused a German reporter of being a “proto-facist crypto-anti- Semite.”

Meanwhile, within the community, critics of Kanal and his supporters accused the board of financial mismanagement, and damage to the community’s public image.

The conflict became so divisive that 40-year-old lawyer Michel Friedman, a nationally respected Jewish community leader from Frankfurt who was expected to run for head of the Berlin community, pulled out of the elections.

But the campaign continues, with 56 candidates vying for 21 seats on the community parliament.

After decades of leadership by Holocaust survivors, more than half of the candidates in the current election are under the age of 45.

Once the parliament is elected, its members will choose a new chairman to lead the Jewish community to replace the 75-year-old Kanal.

Although the position is honorary, the chairman of Berlin’s Jewish community has considerable political influence in Germany.

Another new development is that more than half of the candidates speak Russian as a mother tongue.

Two-thirds of the city’s Jewish community were born in the former Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Russian Jews have moved to Germany, nearly doubling the size of the Berlin community, and close to tripling the size of Germany’s overall Jewish population.

Many of the younger Jews who grew up in Germany, as well as the more recent Russian arrivals, share a more positive attitude about being Jewish in Germany, according to Bodemann and other observers.

He believes the fact that tens of thousands of Jews have voluntarily moved to Germany in recent years will bring new vigor into a community whose members often felt stigmatized by Jews elsewhere for their decision to relaunch Jewish life in Germany after the Holocaust.

In their campaign statements, almost none of the candidates mention either the Holocaust or Israel, the issues that have dominated Jewish life in Germany since World War II.

Instead, election pamphlets reflect a new interest in a stronger Jewish identity, and more connection with German life.

“The community must open up,” writes one candidate, Katja Biek-Czarnyi. “It can not stand on the sidelines — it must participate in the social life of the city. It is part of the society and should be part of the society.”

Says another candidate, Rudiger Mahlo: “We have to change the basis of our Jewish identity. We should move away from the idea of orienting our Jewishness entirely around the Holocaust, away from a negative identity and towards a positive identity in Judaism.”

Another candidate for the parliament who has been active in community affairs is Norma Drimmer. She believes that Berlin’s Jews have an important role to play in connection with the non-Jewish community.

In past decades, many believed the reason for the existence of a Jewish community in Germany was to observe the progress of German democracy and speak out for minority rights.

“Now it is time to reflect on our political role and further strengthen it,” Drimmer said.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, Drimmer is convinced that the community is at a watershed.

Speaking at a conference held at New York University in early May, she said the German Jewish community must decide how it judges and incorporates the memory of historical experience, and what structures it creates to shape Jewish lives.

Only then, she said, can the community maintain its identity.

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