BERLIN, Sept. 19 (JTA) — German Jewish leader Paul Spiegel looks forward to working with Germany’s next chancellor — whoever that may be. Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, applauded both the incumbent Social Democratic Party and the challenging Christian Democratic Party at the close of an election Sunday that was so tight that it might have to be held again. As the secular body representing Jews in Germany, the Central Council must work closely with whatever administration is at hand. With the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats both claiming victory, Spiegel said the Jewish community can’t lose either way: Both parties applaud the growth of Jewish life in Germany and support strong ties with the United States and Israel, even if they oppose the war in Iraq. For many Jews in Germany, the pro-U.S. and pro-Israel stances offer reassurance of Germany’s strength as a democracy. But Germany’s economic woes are of great concern, said Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin. “While this election seemed inconclusive, it did make clear that for many voters reform was the main issue,” Berger told JTA. “The tremendous last-minute gains of the Social Democrats demonstrated that there is a commitment among many voters to continuing the badly needed social and economic reforms in Germany.” “From a Jewish perspective, it seems important that a coalition solution be found that creates a stable foundation for further reforms,” she added. “We also hope that potential coalitions will consider integrating a commitment to combating anti-Semitism within their coalition platform.” German Jewish journalist Richard Chaim Schneider said the question is not whether the new government is good or bad for the Jews, but whether it will be able to make significant progress on the country’s main problems within the next four years. “If there’s no light at the end of the tunnel the fringes will be strengthened, left and right equally,” Schneider told JTA. “Then it will be bad for every minority in Germany, most of all Turks and other foreigners.” Conversations with German Jews indicated that most voted for parties on the left — the Social Democrats or their coalition partners, the Green Party — while few voted for the Christian Democrats. In general, they said, they appreciated the economic and social reforms Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has begun implementing, his support for Jewish immigration and the strong backing for Israel shown by both Schroeder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer of the Greens. Uriel, a Jewish man in his late 20s, voted for the Social Democrats on the local level and the Greens at the national level. This governing coalition “has started difficult economic reforms that the previous government of [former Chancellor] Helmut Kohl had put off for way too long. The current government has more or less accepted that Germany is a nation of immigration,” he said. He added, “I support the Mideast politics of Fischer and believe that the health and pension reforms as well as liberalization of gay marriage represent a step in the right direction.” Esther, a woman in her 30s, said she voted for the Social Democrats because she feels the party is more committed to social causes and because of what she considers Schroeder’s “remarkable” opposition to the war in Iraq. “The economy is not the only answer to problems,” she said. “I think generosity, culture and social-minded thinking are the basis for the moral survival of every society.” Irene Runge, head of the independent Jewish Cultural Association in the former East Berlin, wrote that Jewish voters in Germany reflect the country’s mainstream political spectrum, but that most Jews in Germany can’t vote, as they’re not yet citizens. There are some 106,000 Jews in Germany today, a fourfold increase since 1990 due to immigration from the former Soviet Union. For Spiegel, a clear sign that Jews should be living in Germany was the contract he signed in 2003 with Schroeder, which placed the Jewish community on the same legal level with the Protestant and Catholic churches. “That’s an historic achievement,” Spiegel said. But Spiegel also respects the party of challenger Angela Merkel, the East German-born protege of Kohl, the former chancellor. “I have complete confidence that” Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party “pursues a correct political course for this country,” Spiegel said. “I have problems with some politicians, but never with the party itself.” In 2003, Merkel was slow to distance the party from Martin Hohmann, an ultra-conservative party member who referred to Jews as a “nation of perpetrators” because of the role some Jews played in the Russian revolution. The comments were made in the context of efforts to deflect ordinary Germans’ responsibility for the actions of the Nazis. The Central Council tried to sue Hohmann, but the courts determined that his remarks were not a statutory offense. Spiegel has had his differences with Schroeder, too, particularly Schroeder’s blanket opposition to the Iraq war. “The concentration camps were not liberated by peace demonstrations, but by the Red Army,” Spiegel said. The mainstream parties now are competing to form coalitions with smaller parties so they can lay final claim to the election victory. Both have ruled out cooperation with the new Left Wing party, leaving the free-market Free Democratic Party and the Green Party up for grabs.
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.