BERLIN (Mar. 26)
Germany’s commitment to Israel and the United States remains strong despite divisions over Iraq, but anti-Americanism on the street is a “worrisome” trend that German leaders should address, American Jewish leaders said after meetings with top German officials.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and other top AJCommittee leaders met on March 24 with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
Harris was with a delegation marking the fifth anniversary of American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office. The two-day visit included an historic meeting with the board of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, an important step “in bringing our two communities even closer,” Deidre Berger, director of the AJCommittee’s Berlin office, told JTA.
“Germany is very important for the United States, for Israel and for the Jewish people,” AJCommittee President Harold Tanner told JTA. “We feel we can better serve our relations by being here, and we are proud this is our fifth anniversary.”
Other events included a round-table discussion with leaders of the Turkish immigrant community and a seminar on transatlantic relations with the Atlantic Bridge organization.
The meetings took place against the backdrop of increasing public anger here about the U.S.-led war on Iraq. There has been some concern about a potential spillover of anger against Jews here, as German Jewish leaders have come out in support of U.S. policy.
Anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment in Europe has been expressed in private boycotts, said delegation member Stanley Bergman.
Some of Bergman’s business clients in the United States and Israel reported that major European customers had cancelled contracts because of the political tensions.
“The strong wave of anti-Americanism in Germany was evident to us even in the few days of our trip,” Harris said, adding that he found anti-war posters comparing President Bush to Hitler “particularly offensive.”
“There is a breezy dismissal” by many Germans of America’s commitment to Germany, “as if the past 50 years didn’t count or as if they can be rewritten as a negative occupation or a subordination of Germany,” Harris said. “These trends are worrisome if they continue.
“It is important that political leaders in Germany, whatever their views on Iraq may be, not let this get out of hand,” Harris said. “If they speak out, they can influence the public. And if they don’t speak out, their silence sends a message.”
In contrast to the mood on the street, both Schroeder and Fischer were “friendly, candid and there was no shortage of conversation topics” during the private meetings, Harris said.
Harris said Schroeder raised the subject of Israel with the delegation.
“Both he and Fischer strongly, unequivocally restated their commitment to Israel’s security at this critical moment,” as well as to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Harris said.
Germany is second only to the United States in terms of economic ties with Israel.
When it came to the most urgent current topic — U.S.-German relations — neither Schroeder nor Fischer “minimized their differences on Iraq, nor did they backpedal on the enduring significance of transatlantic relations,” Harris said. “They made it abundantly clear that this remains a centerpiece of foreign policy.”
But both Schroeder and Fischer were “fully aware that their stock at the White House is probably a bit lower than the Dow Jones Industrial is today.”
Harris said AJCommittee would “do our bit to address the issue” in Washington.
“If the transatlantic community splits, the only beneficiaries will be our common enemies, no one else,” Harris said.
“The friendships we have built over the past 50 years serve us well, particularly in times like these,” Harris added, noting that AJCommittee has worked to support German democracy since the end of World War II.
The meeting with the Central Council of German Jews covered “issues of mutual concern to both Jewish communities,” Berger said.
The Central Council represents some 100,000 Jews, two-thirds of whom are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In January, the council made history, signing the first contract between a Jewish representative body and the German government.
The new contractual relationship, which guarantees $3 million in annual government funding to the council, is similar to that enjoyed by the Catholic and Protestant churches.
At the dinner meeting with Turkish leaders, participants discussed the challenges of integration in German society, and the problem of radical Islam. Some 2.5 million people of Turkish background live in Germany, and most are Muslim.
Some Turkish youths have been drawn to radical Islam because it “gives them a chance to be recognized and accepted” in a society where they often face prejudice, said Lale Akguen, a German legislator.
Mainstream Muslim groups will show the youths that there is a more productive alternative to the radicals, she said.