BERLIN, Feb. 20 (JTA) — As German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping put it, last week was something of a “Jewish week” for him.
He hosted a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, U.S. Jewry’s main umbrella group. He met with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee’s Board of Governors. And he took part in a “German-Jewish Dialogue” seminar sponsored by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation.
More than half a century after the Holocaust, Jewish organizations are flocking to Germany to meet senior officials, discuss issues and demonstrate support for the country now viewed as Israel’s staunchest ally in Europe.
In addition to the Conference of Presidents, at least half a dozen major Diaspora Jewish organizations have already scheduled visits to Berlin this year.
These include B’nai B’rith USA and International, the North American Boards of Rabbis, the United Jewish Communities and the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
These missions come in addition to visits by numerous individuals and representatives of academic institutions and other bodies.
“There is a growing willingness to recognize the vast strides made by Germany in facing its past, building a democratic society based on the rule of law, serving as an anchor of NATO, seeking to create a European Germany rather than a German Europe and reaching out to the Jewish world and Israel,” David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director, said in a speech in January at the University of the German Armed Forces.
The AJCommittee was the first U.S. Jewish group to make a permanent commitment to fostering relations with Germany and promoting the development of pluralism and democracy.
It began sponsoring exchanges, seminars and other activities in Germany in the postwar decades, and in 1998 it opened an office in Berlin, the Lawrence and Lee Ramer Center for German-Jewish Relations.
Last May, German President Johannes Rau presented the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit to Harris, Lawrence Ramer and Bruce Ramer, the AJCommittee’s president, for their work in promoting German-Jewish understanding.
The high-level access accorded visiting Jewish groups is indicative of the so-called “special relationship” between Germany and Israel that has developed during the past four decades as a cornerstone of German foreign policy, and of the importance Germany gives to its relationship with the Jewish world in light of its history.
Germany is Israel’s biggest trading partner in Europe. There are cultural, tourist, scientific, educational and youth exchanges.
Germany also has undertaken several quiet diplomatic initiatives to support Israel, including behind-the-scenes efforts to help 10 Iranian Jews convicted last year for alleged espionage, and three Israeli soldiers seized in October by Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon.
Germany is also now close to ending unresolved issues of Holocaust-era compensation and restitution.
Payments to Jewish and non-Jewish survivors of the Nazis slave and forced labor system could begin this spring, once an outstanding class-action lawsuit on the matter pending in a U.S. court is resolved.
Last week, the Conference of Presidents delegation meet with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Defense Minister Scharping and Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, as well as other senior political leaders from both the government and the opposition.
All of them assured the group of Germany’s commitment to maintaining its special relationship with Israel, fighting racism at home and working toward strengthening both European integration and strong links with the United States.
“There was a real dialogue with everyone we saw,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
“We were reassured by everything we heard that our decision to visit Berlin was right.”
It was the first time that a Presidents Conference delegation made an official visit to Germany, and some members of the group said they had been hesitant to come.
“I was reluctant to come, but Israel needs all the friends it can get,” said Norma Holzer, past president of AMIT Women.
“I feel that is was the right thing to come here and to tell the Germans that we expect them to continue their support for Israel.”
Contacts with German officials are viewed by Jewish groups as increasingly important, given the erosion of support for Israel in Europe, the United Nations and in other international bodies since the outbreak of Palestinian violence last fall.
There is also concern that Germany’s support for Israel may be weakened as the European Union works to forge a common foreign policy and political agenda.
The media in most European countries has displayed what many believe is an anti-Israel bias, and there has been a wave of vandalism against synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites that has been attributed to the violence in the Middle East.
In Germany, for example, there were more than 290 anti-Semitic crimes reported in the third quarter of 2000, about twice the number for the same period in 1999.
There is also concern of links between Muslim extremists and neo-Nazi groups in Europe.
The new interest in Germany by international Jewish groups has prompted words of caution from local Jews and also on occasion prompted friction.
Germany has the only growing Jewish population in Europe, thanks to tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union during the past decade.
There are an estimated 100,000 Jews now living in Germany. Many of the newcomers know little or nothing about Judaism and Jewish tradition, and the dramatic influx has led to social, educational and cultural problems.
The influx created an intense need for new infrastructure of synagogues, schools, rabbis and community centers.
International Jewish groups, such as Chabad Lubavitch and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which opened a Jewish teacher-training school in Berlin two years ago, are working to fill the gap.
Nonetheless, local Jewish leaders have complained that some of the incoming foreign groups visit government leaders but fail to engage or consult adequately with local Jewish bodies.
Even on the educational level, an initiative to establish a reform rabbinical seminary near Berlin, the Abraham Geiger College, has drawn criticism from some local Jews as organizers of the seminary chose to work outside official Jewish communal structures.
Local Jews also caution that German politicians should be judged by their actions, not their words.
“Politicians are not as engaged as they say they are,” Michel Friedman, vice chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Presidents Conference delegation.
And a local rabbi also cautioned, “Don’t overestimate Germany and don’t underestimate the rest of Europe.”