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East German Officials Upset over Rabbi’s Charge of Anti-semitism

May 6, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The East German Communist authorities admitted Thursday that they were taken aback by Rabbi Isaac Neuman’s accusation that the country’s controlled news media were displaying anti-Semitic tendencies and using “Nazi vocabulary” to denounce Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians.

Neuman is the retired American rabbi who came to East Berlin eight months ago to serve as spiritual leader of East Germany’s tiny Jewish community. He has just quit, expressing frustration and anger.

East German officials, who asked not to be identified, said the timing of Neuman’s accusation was particularly embarrassing since it coincided with the meeting in Washington between Secretary of State George Shultz and Hermann Axen, the highest-ranking East German official ever invited to the United States.

The East Germans regard that meeting as an important step in their recent efforts to improve relations with the United States.

The Communist authorities have made no secret of their belief that reconciliation with the Jews, or at least the public perception of such reconciliation, can help pave the way for a possible visit by Communist Party chief Erich Honecker to Washington next year.

Within hours after Neuman went on the air in West Berlin to denounce anti-Semitism in East Germany, Jewish community officials in East Germany issued counter statements of their own. They were apparently coordinated with Communist Party officials and employed some of the standard phrases used by the East German state.

Hans Rotstein, newly elected chairman of the East German Jewish community, referred to his country as the first and only German state from which “fascism has been uprooted” and whose policies reflected ” anti-fascist traditions” from the very outset.


Rotstein went on East German television Wednesday to rebut Neuman’s charges. He described them as “defamations.”

But Rotstein’s statements contradicted remarks made by Peter Kirchner, chairman of the East Berlin Jewish Community, who in recent months publicly expressed concern over anti-Semitic tendencies. Like Neuman, Kirchner also criticized the media coverage of Israel.

According to West German observers, this episode prompted the East Berlin authorities to get the local Jewish community to “close ranks” behind official policy.

That task has been facilitated because of the friction the local Jewish leaders have had with Neuman, almost from the day he arrived. Neuman complained that his mail was opened, and he also accused Kirchner of editing and shortening some of his sermons.

Kirchner called these charges “nonsense.” He said he had only asked Neuman to delete “superficial attacks’ on the East German regime from his sermons.

Other community leaders have accused Neuman of seeking publicity and neglecting his rabbinic duties.

The East Germans’ concern over possible negative repercussions in Jewish communities in the West, particularly the United States, may have been eased by the announcement by East Berlin Jews that another American, Rabbi Ernst Lorge of Chicago, may be Neuman’s successor.

Lorge, 66, said in a telephone interview from Chicago Thursday that he has not yet received an invitation from the East German Jews, but expected that he might very soon.

Lorge, who spoke with a correspondent of the West German state-owned Deutschlandfunk radio, said he would take the job if he thought he could help the Jewish community in East Berlin, which he is familiar with having visited their several times.

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