BERLIN (JTA) – German Jewish leaders are considering turning to government officials in Berlin for protection against what they see as a destabilizing threat – from a group run by the Israeli government.At issue is the future of Nativ, founded as an arm of Israeli intelligence in the early 1950s to serve as a covert liaison to Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union.Now under control of Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Nativ is attempting to set up operations in Germany to work with the country’s 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews.The group’s supporters reportedly assert that the needs of Russian speakers in Germany, most of whom immigrated since the country’s unification in 1990, are being neglected by the communal establishment.Jewish communal leaders counter that Nativ would duplicate services already provided by their organizations and the Jewish Agency for Israel, undermine the stability of a community slowly rebuilt since 1945 and drive a wedge between those who meet the strict religious definition of who is a Jew – those who have a Jewish mother or underwent a traditional conversion – and those who do not.Two top communal leaders – Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Benni Bloch, director of the Central Welfare Council of Jews in Germany – sent a letter last week to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calling Nativ’s plans “a sign of mistrust” from the Israeli government “that personally insults us.”Jewish community leaders also recently issued an ultimatum: Either Nativ works in Germany under the auspices of the Jewish Agency or not at all.The mounting feud represents a potentially explosive power struggle between the Israeli government and a Diaspora community. It’s a startling development magnified by the possibility that more than 60 years after the end of the Holocaust, Germany could be called on to defend Jewish interests against Israel.Such a turn of events is possible, Jewish communal leaders say, as they threaten to bring in the likes of Chancellor Angela Merkel and other political allies.”I would love all of us to spare me that,” said Kramer, his umbrella body’s top appointee. “But I will take any action necessary to make sure that the Jewish communities in Germany, and not outside organizations, are the important ones.”Kramer, who has been shuttling between Germany and Israel for meetings, said he is not fighting against the State of Israel or its support for his community in educational courses.”Support is vital, and we need and want and welcome it,” he said. “What we don’t welcome is an unfriendly takeover by some organization outside the existing Jewish structure.”Nativ director Nomi Ben Ami did not respond to repeated telephone calls to her office in Jerusalem.An Israeli official recently told The Jerusalem Post that Germany needs Nativ because existing Jewish organizations are not doing enough to counter assimilation and to foster Zionism.The German Jewish community has some 120,000 members, including about 75 percent from the former Soviet Union. Another 100,000 people do not meet the traditional criteria for membership in the official Jewish community but would qualify to immigrate to Israel under the less stringent standards of the “Law of Return.” It is this population, an insider told JTA, that Nativ “wants to work with.”The matter heated up when Lieberman was given control of Nativ and provided a budget of more than $7 million. Observers say Lieberman wants to score points with Russian Jewish immigrants in Israel.Reportedly, Lieberman even wants to replace the Jewish Agency with Nativ, whose attempts to gain a foothold in the United States have been thwarted. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reportedly rejected such a move as potentially damaging to U.S.-Israel relations.Israeli officials and German Jewish leaders have met several times in Jerusalem in recent weeks hoping to reach a compromise.Tensions have been high. Instead of sending a representative to the July 4 meeting, Lieberman’s office reportedly sent a document delineating how Nativ would work in Germany, including a plan to send two emissaries to the country. Neither the Central Council nor the Central Welfare Council were mentioned by name in the document.In response, those two organizations and the Jewish Agency issued a joint statement announcing that Nativ had no place to operate independently in Germany. Their proposal places Nativ squarely under the oversight of the Jewish Agency, which has run programs in Germany at least since 1990. It was unclear whether the terms would be accepted.”We don’t see why we should be the first Jewish community in the West to give up its work to Lishkat Hakesher,” Kramer and Bloch said in their letter to Olmert, referring to Nativ. They added: “We hope that a solution can be found to this internal Jewish issue without the intervention of a non-Jewish entity, such as the German government.”There has been no official Israeli response to the letter.This tempest is one of several developments bearing witness to the enormous changes in Germany’s Jewish community since the country’s unification. Encouraged by the German government and the German Jewish community, former Soviet Jews began to immigrate here by the thousands each year.The boom made Germany’s Jewish community the fastest growing in the world per capita. Numerous Jewish organizations leapt at the chance to create new programs, including Chabad Lubavitch, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the Conservative Movement. The World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews also set up shop in Berlin, running cultural programs. And the Jewish Agency changed its orientation several years ago, focusing on Jewish education first and immigration second, after more Jews from the former Soviet Union started coming to Germany than to Israel.Now, Nativ is looking to jump in – apparently with no support from groups already on the ground.”I am not sure why it is necessary for Nativ to be here,” said Rabbi Josh Spinner, vice president of the Lauder Foundation and head of its yeshiva in Berlin. “The Jewish Agency has made smart decisions in the last couple of years in Germany, recognizing that it needs to use its FSU expertise more than its European expertise.”Kramer acknowledged that the Central Council “has deficits,” particularly in dealing with those who are excluded from the Jewish communities as a result of the strict definition used to determine Jewish status.”But we don’t need competition financed by the State of Israel building co-structures,” he said. “The Jewish communities in Germany are a vital pillar of lobbyists in Germany for the State of Israel. And if you weaken that, you are weakening the Jewish voice in the major player in Europe supporting the State of Israel.”
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.