Around the Jewish World German Jews: Immigration Law May End Community’s Rapid Growth

German Jewish leaders are protesting a pending immigration law that they say leaves 27,000 Jewish applicants in the lurch. According to documents obtained by JTA, the new law, expected to take effect Jan. 1, will make it much more difficult to immigrate to Germany. It also will mean that 27,000 Jewish applicants who have been waiting for permission to immigrate — some for more than six years — would have to start the process again under the new rules.

That’s unfair, say representatives of Germany’s Jewish population. Writing Wednesday to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, called the situation “completely unacceptable” and urged the ministry to “design an appropriate temporary arrangement” for those caught in the middle.

“There is no question that Germany will go on letting Jews from the former Soviet Union emigrate,” Kramer told JTA. “This is not going to be taken back.”

He added, “But we made it clear that we could not accept the way they treated this issue.”

The Jewish Cultural Association of Berlin, a private organization with roots in former East Germany, also expressed dismay in a statement Wednesday.

The lack of a loophole for applicants who have been waiting “sheds a fatal light on the plan,” the statement said.

However, the Union for Progressive Jews in Germany, as the Reform movement is known here, issued a statement Thursday calling the new regulations “justifiable,” expressing gratitude that the union was consulted, that applicants can approach Progressive congregations to get immigration certificates, and that immigrants would continue to be accepted on the basis of Jewish “nationality” rather than solely on the basis of halacha, which recognizes only matrilineal descent.

Until now, Germany has not had a general immigration law, but has had special regulations permitting the repatriation of people of German origin and the immigration of Jews. The liberal regulation allowed Germany’s Jewish population to triple to more than 105,000 with the arrival of tens of thousands of former Soviet Jews since 1989.

The new law, which is expected to be announced Dec. 30, imposes strict new requirements.

All those with permission already in their hands would have a year to act on it. But new applicants would have to prove financial independence, demonstrate basic fluency in German and receive a certificate from one of Germany’s approximately 85 Jewish congregations stating that the applicant would be accepted as a member.

Previously, Germany said yes to Jewish applicants rather indiscriminately, essentially placing them on the Jewish community’s doorstep.

For years, the Central Council has thrown up its hands in dismay at the enormous challenge of absorbing immigrants, not all of whom are enthusiastic members. Funding still fails to meet the demand for job training, language classes and Jewish integration programs.

Some observers predict that immigration will drop drastically as a result of the new measures — which might please Israel, sources told JTA.

Israel has tolerated Germany’s previous policy, understanding that Germany dared not refuse Jewish applicants out of a sense of responsibility vis-a-vis the Holocaust. But when slightly more Jews moved to Germany than to Israel in 2002, Israeli officials were dismayed.

Under the new law, German Jewish communities themselves would play the key role in deciding an applicant’s acceptability, sparing German authorities the awkward situation of “selecting” Jews.

One complication is that some former Soviet Jews who made aliyah are returning from Israel to Russia and then applying for German citizenship, said Irene Runge, head of the Jewish Cultural Association. Such applicants might be asked to prove that they are not Israeli, Runge told JTA.

Recognizing the chances for corruption — such as applicants trying to bribe a congregation or use nepotism to get a certificate, or a congregation trying to boost its membership to gain public funds — some have suggested that applications should be processed by a central, representative Jewish committee.

In the works for years, the new law would turn Germany officially into an “immigration country.” Political conservatives have strongly resisted that definition, insisting that the definition of German is a racial one.

In an unusual twist, the federal government apparently met separately with representatives of the Progressive Union and the Central Council to discuss the impending law — even though the Central Council is the official representative of the country’s Jewish community.

Germany signed an historic contract with the Central Council in 2003, giving it the same legal status as the Catholic and Protestant Churches. The progressive group has been angling for similar recognition.

In its statement on the new law, the Progressive Union expressed satisfaction that applicants’ Jewishness would not be judged according to halacha. Though the European Reform movement does not accept members of patrilineal descent, German Progressive congregations generally welcome attendance by non-Jewish family members in hopes that one day they will choose a liberal conversion to Judaism.

Still, one insider told JTA that this aspect of the law is hardly likely to result in ballooning Progressive congregations. Rather, the source said, the new rules likely will bring to a close an historic, 15-year boom in Germany’s Jewish community.

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