BERLIN, June 17 (JTA) — It could hardly be a seedier combination: Drugs and prostitution are threatening to bring down one of Germany´s most prominent Jewish figures. To some extent, the troubles of Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and president of the European Jewish Congress, mean trouble for Germany´s Jews. Observers are watching anxiously as the story unfolds in the media, where reports reflect and amplify the public´s fascination both with celebrity downfall and with the demise of a prominent Jewish leader. Some see the Friedman episode as the biggest test yet of postwar Germany´s readiness to eschew anti-Semitic stereotypes. So far, reviews are mixed. German media quickly picked up and highlighted the story, which involves one of the best-known and most controversial Jewish public figures in Germany. Some media outlets used old photos of Friedman smiling broadly, or receiving Germany´s highest medal of honor, to illustrate the seamy news. "There are, of course, anti-Semitic undertones" in coverage of this story, Henryk Broder, a columnist for the German news weekly Der Spiegel, told JTA. "The shameless expression of schadenfreude is very, very strong," Broder said, using a German word that means taking delight in the misfortunes of others. "I myself have no connection to Friedman, but I get nasty anti-Semitic e-mail just because of the coincidence of him and me being Jews." Winston Pickett, director of external relations at the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, said, "When something like this happens, the higher someone is the farther they fall, and it captures the imagination, regardless of religion and ethnic background. "When you add that Jewish context, it makes it even more painful," he continued. "It can´t help but reflect negatively upon Jews, because they have invested in this person. He represents us." Alexander Brenner, head of Berlin´s Jewish community, said, "This kind of thing does not cause anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism is there to begin with, whether aimed at a Friedman or a Brenner." With few exceptions, German media have been all over the story, relishing the details as they have slowly emerged. On June 11, drug-sniffing dogs were set loose in Friedman´s Frankfurt home and law office; evidence was confiscated that police say turned out to be cocaine. Friedman offered up hair samples for testing. Soon, hints of involvement with prostitutes appeared in the media, together with humiliating details about an alias Friedman allegedly used— Paolo Pinkel, the English equivalent of which would be, roughly, "Paulie Pee- Pee." Friedman later suspended production of his two TV talk shows. His girlfriend, a prominent TV personality herself, expressed shock and withdrew to her mother´s home. Old dirt also has been dredged up. Two years ago, a cocaine dealer in Frankfurt reportedly named Friedman as a customer during a police interrogation, but an inquiry was dropped due to lack of evidence. That case now may be reopened. In the minds of many, Friedman´s free fall is paired with that of Jurgen Mollemann, Friedman´s political nemesis, who literally free fell recently in a plunge to his death. Mollemann, a sky-diving enthusiast, refrained from opening his parachute in a June 5 jump that is being considered a suicide. Mollemann sullied the 2002 national election campaign by blaming Friedman for causing anti-Semitism. Mollemann´s statements elicited general public outrage, and they contributed to the election failure of Mollemann´s Free Democratic Party and to the politician´s own political isolation. The links between the Friedman and Mollemann stories are too great to be ignored. "If there hadn´t been the Mollemann scandal with the suicide, I don´t think people would have bothered" to finger Friedman, said Elisa Klapheck, editor of Juedisches Berlin, the monthly magazine of Berlin´s Jewish community. "I am sure it has to do with revenge." Stephan Kramer, the Central Council´s executive director, said he has received a significant amount of mail blaming Friedman and the council for Mollemann´s death and wishing that Mollemann had lived to see his rival´s disgrace. One person wrote that the group´s name should be changed to the Central Council of Cocaine Abusers of Germany, Kramer said. If Friedman turns out to be guilty, he could face the loss of his positions on the Central Council and the European Jewish Congress, his two TV talk shows, his membership in the Christian Democratic Union Party and his law practice. Additionally, Friedman, considered by many to be a gifted public speaker on anti-Semitism and an outspoken supporter of Israel, would likely be seen as a liability to the Jewish community. Still, there is little official talk of Friedman´s dropping out of Jewish public life — yet. Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council, insists on standing by his deputy unless he´s proven guilty. The European Jewish Congress has refused to comment on the developing story. Predictably, right-wing groups have jumped on the story. The far-right National Democratic Party of Germany featured reports on the Friedman incident on its Web site, under the headline, "This news can not be emphasized enough." "There will definitely be a spillover to the collective level, which is a familiar pattern," said Michael Wolffsohn, an expert on German Jewish history and politics at the German Armed Forces University. "The tendency must be combated because whatever Friedman has done or not done, this was his personal, individual decision and way of life. It does not concern the Jewish collective." The scandal comes in the midst of a renaissance in Germany´s Jewish community. In the last 12 years, the community´s size, which had been fairly static since the end of World War II, tripled to 100,000 due to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Many ordinary Germans are demonstrating a newfound interest in Jewish life and culture. In January, the Central Council signed a historic contract with the Federal Republic of Germany, putting it on a legal par with the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Friedman´s signature is on the contract, together with those of Spiegel; Charlotte Knobloch, co-vice president of the Council; and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The Friedman case "is a litmus test for the political capital that has been built up by German Jews throughout the postwar years," Pickett said. "The case will show — and I hate to say it — how far beneath the surface prejudices may be."
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.