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Behind the Headlines: Germany’s Jews Weigh Issues Next Government Must Address

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Germany’s Jewish community has mixed feelings about a possible change of power in the Bonn government.

Ironically, the man who started his long term in office 16 years ago by delivering stinging rebuffs to Jewish sensibilities has won respect over the years from Jewish and Israeli leaders.

But should German Chancellor Helmut Kohl lose to Social Democratic candidate Gerhard Schroeder in the Sept. 27 national elections, some Jewish officials expect the new government to improve policy in areas of critical interest to the nation’s Jews.

Kohl, who was first elected in 1982, and who later oversaw the reunification of Germany, is currently trailing in the polls.

Shortly after Kohl became chancellor, he made a much-criticized comment during a trip to Israel that he personally could not be held guilty for the Holocaust due to the “grace of his late date of birth” — he was 15 when World War II ended.

Several years later, the conservative Christian Democratic leader infuriated the international Jewish community by insisting that President Reagan visit a SS cemetery in Bitburg as a sign of U.S.- German reconciliation.

In later years, however, Kohl took a clearer stand on German responsibility for the Holocaust.

In addition, under his government, tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union have been allowed to enter Germany. The influx of immigrants nearly tripled the size of the country’s Jewish community, which now has more than 70,000 members.

Most Jewish leaders think that both Kohl and Schroeder would uphold Germany’s commitment to Israel and to the German Jewish community.

But some think a change in government could make a difference in other areas of importance to the Jewish community: citizenship and minority rights, compensation for Holocaust survivors and measures to combat right-wing extremism.

Unlike their counterparts in the United States, Jewish voters in Germany do not form an influential block that is courted by German politicians. There are too few voters and no studies exist about their voting behavior.

Just the same, Jewish leaders believe that German Jews will be keeping a keen eye on each candidate’s stances on issues of Jewish interest.

Frankfurt lawyer Michel Friedman, deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, believes that one of the most important issues facing the next government is compensation for Holocaust survivors.

He says that the advanced age of the survivors makes it imperative for German lawmakers to work out a comprehensive solution for all, including those living in Eastern Europe.

Opposition candidate Schroeder recently backed the idea of a central compensation foundation financed in part with contributions from German firms that profited from slave labor under the Nazis.

The idea was first proposed by the Green Party, which stands a good chance of entering a government coalition with Schroeder.

Micha Brumlik, an education professor at the University of Heidelberg and cofounder of a Reform Jewish community in Frankfurt, expects a center-left government to take a harder stand against right-wing extremism. Although the current government has initiated numerous programs to fight right-wing extremism, Kohl has never visited the sites of extremist attacks.

Brumlik believes that Social Democratic officials better understand the symbolic value of speaking out against hate attacks.

He also thinks it unlikely that a far-right-wing party will garner the necessary 5 percent of the vote to enter the lower house of Parliament in the fall, in part because of rivalries among far-right parties.

However, after one right-wing party in the eastern German state of Saxony- Anhalt recently captured 13 percent of the vote, he is not ruling out a repeat upset.

Should a far-right-wing party be elected into the Parliament, Brumlik says many young Jews would consider leaving Germany.

Friedman notes that Jewish leaders are “extremely disturbed about the growing success of right-wing parties at a regional level.”

Concerned that voters are no longer embarrassed to vote for such parties, he is particularly worried that the two major political parties are putting so much emphasis on one of the main themes of the far right — law and order.

Both leading parties recently proposed strict new laws to combat crime, a development Friedman finds problematic because he fears such moves give new validity to extremist platforms.

He also criticizes the opposition Social Democrats for turning a proposal for a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin into an election issue.

“It is irresponsible to use this as campaign material,” he says. The designated cultural expert for the opposition Social Democrats, Michael Naumann, provoked a storm of controversy in July when he announced his opposition to the project, which has been mired in controversy for a decade.

Friedman’s concerns are echoed by another board member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Michael Fuerst, a lawyer in Hanover.

“The recent discussion about the monument reflects a more distanced attitude toward the past” among members of the left, Fuerst says.

“With every year that we are further apart from the Holocaust, the past is a topic that will be of less importance. It is the responsibility of the Jewish community to continually make Germans aware of this topic,” Fuerst adds.

Michael Brenner, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Munich, cites citizenship rights as another issue of importance to the Jewish community.

Unlike the United States, France and other countries, Germany continues to define citizenship through a parent’s heritage, not according to place of birth.

“A center-left coalition would probably change the law to allow dual citizenship,” says Brenner. “This is a measure I think the Jewish community should stand behind.”

Brumlik of the University of Heidelberg agrees.

“The liberalization of immigration and citizenship laws could help reduce right-wing extremism in Germany by cutting down on xenophobia,” he says.

Jewish leader Friedman is a member of Kohl’s conservative party. But, unlike the chancellor, he supports liberalized citizenship laws.

“The general societal climate is of prime importance for a Jewish community,” said Friedman. When intolerance begins, he warns, the Jewish minority is one of the first to be affected.

Jewish observers are also eyeing the candidates’ attitudes toward Israel.

The ruling conservative coalition has repeatedly sent high-ranking government officials to Israel, a move that Brenner says has been perceived positively within the Jewish community.

Although politicians from left-wing parties have often held a more critical stance toward Israel, Jewish experts do not expect substantial policy differences toward Israel or toward the continued immigration of Russian Jews under a Social Democratic government.

Whoever wins the fall elections, Jewish leaders hope for more support for the social integration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are unemployed.

And with the lively ongoing discussion in Germany about projects such as a Holocaust memorial, a Holocaust museum and a national German compensation fund for Holocaust survivors and other victims of the Nazis, there is certain to be a growing focus on issues of importance to the Jewish community after the next government and legislature assume office.

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