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Behind the Headlines: Germans Rally Against Racism, but Comments Stir Some Division

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There were high expectations in Germany for the big rally held here last week to commemorate Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9-10, 1938, anti-Jewish riots that heralded the Holocaust.

But comments from a conservative politician and a Jewish leader caused some division during what had been billed as a time for the country to unite against racism.

This year, Nov. 9 was also an important date in the new Germany. A recent wave of right-wing attacks and killings of foreigners, mainly in the eastern part of the country, has prompted a public discussion about the right way to fight neo- Nazism.

In the last few weeks there have been attacks against synagogues in Erfurt, Berlin and Dusseldorf. At a news conference in Dusseldorf recently, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for an “uprising of the righteous” in Germany to fight Nazism.

Earlier, reacting to the arson of his synagogue and other anti-Semitic attacks, Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said, emotionally, “Maybe it was a mistake that we re-established Jewish communities in Germany after the war.”

The Nov. 9 rally against racism was meant as a demonstration to the world that there is another Germany.

At the same time, though, conservative Parliament member Friedrich Merz started a controversial discussion about German immigration policy.

“The immigrants have to be integrated but they have to accept the `primacy of German culture,'” he said. Other Parliament members attacked Merz for using that term, which they say could be used by members of the extreme right wing who are anti-immigrant.

Two hundred thousand people gathered at the Brandenburg Gate in the center of Berlin.

In a speech before the crowd, Jewish leader Spiegel attacked the discussion about “Leitkultur,” accusing conservative politicians of inciting the public and asking, “Is it” the primacy of German culture “to persecute and kill foreigners and arson synagogues?”

Conservative politicians reacted angrily to the speech, accusing Spiegel of “provoking a polarization” in Germany’s society.

“The Central Council will not withdraw its criticism,” Spiegel told JTA. “We say clearly we do believe in German democracy and we do understand and accept the necessity of a public discussion on immigration politics for Germany. There is no doubt that immigrants have to learn German and accept German law. But any kind of incitement of racism and xenophia will not be accepted by us.”

Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, made it very clear what he thinks of the term. “I do not want anymore to be permitted (“gelitten”) or to be led (“geleitet”) by anyone,” using a wordplay on forms of the German word for “lead.”

Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu-Antonio Foundation, an anti-neo-Nazi nongovernmental organization named after the first victim of racism after unification, accused the government of mainly paying lip service to fighting the far right.

“We have been warning for many years that we do know that right-extremist structures are getting more and more complex and stronger, but very often the politicians do not listen.”

Meanwhile, as the political debate goes on, more incidents have been reported.

In Ueckermuende, a town in eastern Germany, a banner with anti-Semitic slogans was unfurled in the Jewish cemetery. In Eberswalde, a stronghold of right-wing extremists, vandals desecrated a memorial for Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

In the eastern German city of Weida, a group of skinheads beat up a 36-year-old Tunisian man.

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