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Despite Community’s Small Size, German Jews Courted by Politicians

September 16, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Who cares what German Jewish voters think?

The answer, on the eve of national elections here, is that all the major candidates do.

Some 67 million Germans — among them only 30,000 Jews — are eligible to vote on Sept. 22.

Polls indicate that the incumbent, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party, has a slight edge over his challenger, Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union.

But that edge was hard-won, and the race remains too close to call.

So it may be surprising that the leaders of Germany’s top parties took the time recently to answer questions posed by Germany’s main Jewish newspaper, the Judische-Allgemeine Wochenzeitung.

But some observers say it should not be shocking at all. The small Jewish population has a large moral voice, whether they want to or not, they add.

The very presence of Jews here — there are 100,000 in all, two-thirds of whom emigrated from the former Soviet Union since 1990 — reminds non-Jewish Germans of a role that some willingly embrace, others begrudgingly accept, still others vehemently reject and virtually no one can ignore: the duty to remember the crimes of the Nazi era.

And though many Jews resent being turned into symbols, this special relationship can pay off.

Judith Hart, editor in chief of the Judische-Allgemeine Wochenzeitung, was virtually assured of getting a response to her query, despite the closeness of election day.

“I am not sure that all of the politicians were so interested in answering our questions, but it is hard for them to say no,” said Hart. “And I have to say, in general, we have a good relationship with them.”

Among the questions She asked:

Why should Jews vote for your party?

What would you do for the Jewish community in Germany if you win the election?

Was the pre-summer “anti-Semitism debate” — in which the vice president of the Free Democratic Party, Jurgen Mollemann, was accused of using one-sided, anti-Israel rhetoric to win votes — useful or damaging to relations between Jews and non-Jews in Germany?

The responses were predictable. From the conservatives to the communists, all condemned anti-Semitism, pledged to help in the integration of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and swore loyalty to Israel while supporting the Palestinians’ right to a homeland.

Ultimately, the Jewish vote will be neither monolithic nor influential, said German Jewish journalist Richard Chaim Schneider, who nevertheless enjoyed speculating on “What is ‘good for the Jews’ on Sept. 22” in a recent column for the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Definitely not the Free Democratic Party, he said, because of Mollemann’s controversial statements.

Schroeder, he added, is problematic for Jewish voters.

The chancellor, playing to anti-war sentiments, refuses to stand with the United States on Iraq, yet is willing to consider sending German peacekeepers to the Middle East, regardless of how this might resonate with Holocaust survivors, according to Schneider.

Then again, he added, Jewish voters remember how Schroeder “rushed to Dusseldorf after the arson attack on the synagogue” in the summer of 2000.

Ultimately, Jewish voters have come to the same conclusion as everyone else, Schneider said: “Our parties are all incompetent.”

Does it really matter to the Jewish community who wins?

“It turns out not to be so dramatic,” said Henryk Broder, columnist for Der Spiegel and a member of the Jewish community.

“Schroeder told me the world will not fall apart if he is not elected,” he quipped.

And as far as Jews are concerned, “I don’t believe in special interests, except on the communal level, if there is a need for a new synagogue,” Broder said.

Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Berlin, had a slightly different view.

Jewish voters are naturally more concerned than the average German about protecting Israel, Holocaust remembrance, compensation for survivors, and fighting anti-Semitism and xenophobia, she said.

“Whatever government is elected, it is likely that these issues will remain central” to the Jewish community’s agenda, Berger said.

She, like Broder, expects no major changes should a new party come into power.

“The larger issue is the gap that sometimes exist between public opinion and the actions of policy makers on issues of Jewish interest,” said Berger.

“The increasing distance of younger voters from the Nazi era” is one of several “areas to watch in terms of their impact on important Jewish issues.”

Another issue of concern is the persistence of stereotypes about Jews.

According to a poll of 1,000 Germans commissioned last spring by Der Spiegel magazine, 44 percent of those older than 60 believed that “Jews have too much influence in the world.” Only 16 percent of those aged 18 to 29 agreed.

Whether they think the influence is too great or not, German politicians clearly do court Jewish votes.

And when they do, “it impresses people abroad,” wrote Schneider.

“In Germany, one plays politics with Jews or against them, but never without them,” he added.

Jewish voters certainly will not make or break the election.

But in at least one sense their influence may be greater than their numbers seem to warrant: Jewish confidence in Germany builds world confidence in Germany.

And no mainstream politician wants to rock that boat.

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