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Germany to Triple Its Funding for Country’s Jewish Community

November 15, 2002
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An agreement has been reached that dramatically increases Germany’s financial support for its Jewish community at a time of increased concern about anti-Semitism here.

For the first time since the end of World War II, the federal government is establishing a contractual relationship with the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

The development was announced at a news conference here Thursday by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Central Council President Paul Spiegel.

According to the contract, Germany will triple its annual budget for the Central Council — to nearly $3 million — to meet the needs of a Jewish population that has grown threefold since 1990 with the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The contract, which will be similar to those with the Protestant and Catholic churches, still must be approved by the Parliament.

“It is a historical situation, and it proves that the German government is not only aware of the new Jewish community here but also supports it and welcomes it,” Spiegel told JTA. “I am very happy.”

The vice president of the Central Council, Michel Friedman, said, “The country now is taking an institutional responsibility toward the welfare of Jewish life in this country.”

Calling the development “extraordinary,” Friedman also told JTA that no Jewish community in Europe has a similar contract.

The details and administration of the contract are to be handled by Interior Minister Otto Schilly, a spokesperson for Schroeder said.

With a recent influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Germany’s Jewish population has risen from about 30,000 in 1990 to about 100,000 today, making it the fastest growing Jewish community worldwide.

Before Hitler came to power in 1933, there were about 500,000 Jews in Germany.

The 83 local Jewish communities here operate under the umbrella of the “Einheitsgemeinde,” or “united community,” which oversees funding for communal needs.

German citizens who wish to belong to a church or synagogue pay a percentage of their annual income tax into a so-called “church tax,” whose funds are then channeled through the federal government to faith communities in proportion to their membership.

With the rapidly expanding Jewish population, the need has grown for language and job training programs, religious education, synagogues and community centers.

The council simply could not meet those needs with its current annual budget of nearly $1 million, Friedman said.

That amount reflected the needs of two decades ago, when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl created an endowment of nearly $20 million whose interest funded the community’s annual budget.

The Central Council has been pushing for more funding for years, Friedman said.

“In the last few weeks it became clear that all the political parties in the federal government and the Parliament are open to this,” he said.

The new allocation will be adjusted annually for inflation, said Friedman, who added that the federal agreement will not replace states’ contracts with their local Jewish communities.

The new contract with the Jewish community was hailed by an official with the Claims Conference, which was created after World War II to oversee restitution and reparations to Holocaust survivors.

On Thursday, the group concluded a two-day symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreements, according to which Germany agreed to pay compensation to Holocaust survivors and to financially support the fledgling Jewish state.

“The German Jewish community needs affirmative action,” Israel Singer told JTA.

Today’s Jewish community is still trying to rebuild institutions “ruptured and broken” during the Nazi years, Singer said. It also faces the challenge of having “grown artificially” through the recent immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Germany’s post-war constitution emphasizes separation of church and state, though it refers to “responsibility before God.”

The Protestant and Catholic churches are considered public corporations with which the government has agreements. Under those agreements, the state covers all or part of the cost of programs such as schools or kindergartens.

The new contract brings the Central Council up to par with the churches in terms of its relations with the state.

Islam is Germany’s largest religious minority, with more than 3 million adherents in the country. Yet Muslims are not included in the church tax, partly because there is no comparable umbrella organization to oversee the distribution of funds to local Muslim communities.

While most Muslims here are of Turkish background, others are of Arab, Yugoslavian or Kurdish origin.

Some critics have suggested that the federal government does not want to support the growth of Islam in Germany.

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