BERLIN, June 28 (JTA) — Germany has modified a tough new immigration law introduced last December, averting a feared clampdown on immigration by Jews from the former Soviet Union. People with a Jewish mother or father once again are eligible to apply for immigration, with their spouses and minor children, it was announced last Friday. The key is their acceptance into a Jewish community in Germany, and — in a move that grants increased authority to liberal German Jewish movements — both the Progressive movement and the nondenominational Central Council of Jews in Germany are empowered to extend an invitation. Heike von Basewitz, spokesperson for the Central Welfare Council of Jews in Germany, which deals with policy and budget issues, told JTA that it will share responsibility with the Central Council — which deals with infrastructure and other matters — and the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany in determining who is eligible to emigrate as a Jew. But she said it still was too soon to say how this would work technically. Jewish leaders reacted positively to the changes, made after months of negotiations with the German federal and state interior ministers and the Central Council. The Progressive Union was informed regularly of the proceedings, according to a spokesperson. There was no Israeli representation in the talks, though reportedly there was input in the original law last year from Israel’s former minister for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, reflecting Israel’s concern that too many Jews from the former Soviet Union were choosing to move to Germany over Israel. The relaxing of the new regulations responds to the wish of German Jewish leaders here that immigration to Germany continue. In a statement issued last Friday, Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council, said that while he still disagreed with some aspects of the new law, the changes were “a fair compromise.” The Central Council’s general secretary, Stephan Kramer, told JTA that “we were all disappointed that there were restrictions on the process” of immigration, particularly in terms of economic need. “But we have managed to include hardship cases and particularly to have the entire family picture considered,” he said. “So the prognosis for integration will take into consideration not only the economic status of the applicant but also of the entire family.” Without a compromise, the slowdown of immigration since Jan. 1 would have continued, Kramer said. Spiegel’s chief negotiator, Central Council member Dieter Graumann of Frankfurt, said the new agreement “made one thing above all certain, and that is that the process will continue, meaning the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, which is so important for the existence and future of the Jewish communities.” The Central Council’s vice president, Charlotte Knobloch, told JTA she could “easily live with the compromise we reached, because it is a substantial improvement over the original” law. Knobloch, who also heads the Jewish community of Munich and is a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said the new regulations would help strengthen the future of Jewish life in Germany. “The reestablishment of Jewish life in Germany — particularly in rural areas — is far from finished,” she said in an e-mail to JTA. “I see this as a great advance, in the sense that a pluralistic solution has been found,” Jan Muehlstein, president of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, said in a telephone interview. “And I think that both the Central Council and we have won important improvements for hardship cases.” The German federal and state governments indicated their satisfaction with the compromise as well. Ralf Stegner, interior minister for the state of Schleswig Holstein, which coordinated the discussions, told JTA in a telephone interview that the adjusted laws relate only to Jewish immigrants, due to Germany’s responsibility to rebuild the Jewish community destroyed under the Nazis. Details of the agreement will be formalized within the next few weeks, he said. Germany’s openness to Jewish emigration long has been a sore point with the Israeli government, though there was an unofficial tolerance for German policy as an expression of reconciliation. Without commenting on the compromise regulations, outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor applauded both Germany’s refusal to classify Jews from the former Soviet Union as refugees and the reduction in social benefits as a sign of Germany’s “consideration for the interests of the Jewish people and Israel.” In December, Jewish leaders here had reacted with dismay to details of the new law, which forbade people over age 45 or who would be an economic burden to the state from immigrating. The age limit now has been removed and a more reasonable standard for evaluating a potential immigrant’s economic standing has been introduced, observers said. The door also is open to Jews persecuted under the Nazi regime. The question of who is a Jew is decided according to old Soviet practice: Anyone with one Jewish parent, and that person’s spouse and minor children, may apply to the Central Welfare Council for the requisite invitation to join the Jewish community. If the council rejects an applicant because he or she does not have a Jewish mother, the person may apply via the Reform group, but only as a potential convert, Muehlstein said. The European Reform movement does not accept patrilineal descent, but has a welcoming approach to those aiming to convert. The adjusted regulations cover the former Soviet Union with the exception of the Baltic states. The process will be monitored for a year, and further adjustments are possible. The independent Jewish Cultural Association of Berlin called it unacceptable that applicants must apply to the Central Welfare Council to approve their invitation to join a Jewish congregation. This, it said, would negate the legislation accepting applicants with a Jewish father or mother. In fact, there is a built-in loophole, Muehlstein explained: A committee including the Central Council and the Progressive Union will evaluate applications, he said, and the union can accept as members those who seriously plan to convert. Stegner of Schleswig Holstein said that the Welfare Council makes the final determination on Jewish status, while the Interior Ministry decides on other matters, including language ability and job skills. Of prime importance to many is that Germany’s Jewish population continue to grow. The postwar Jewish population in Germany has quadrupled to about 105,000 through Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union since 1990. The increase is a boon and bane: On the one hand, Jewish life in Germany is far more visible and vibrant today than 15 years ago. On the other hand, existing communal structures and funding have been stretched to the breaking point. The new laws announced last year were part of Germany’s first immigration legislation aimed at regulating the flow of newcomers. German Jewish leaders said in December that the strict new measures took them by surprise. Of particular concern was the fate of some 27,000 applications stuck in the German state bureaucracy, which it seemed might have to be resubmitted under new, stricter conditions. Under the amended law, applications submitted by July 1, 2001, will be considered according to the earlier regulations.
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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.
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