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Germans Debate Anti-semitism in Unique Parliamentary Session

December 12, 2003
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Seventy years ago, Germany was concerned with the “Jewish problem.” Today, Germany is concerned with the country’s anti-Semitism problem.

In a wide-ranging, two hour debate on anti-Semitism in Germany’s Parliament on Thursday, legislators agreed that the country must combat both anti-Semitism on society’s fringes and antipathy toward Jews among Germans generally.

Their solution: education.

The debate, co-sponsored by all the major political parties, was prompted by the recent scandal over an anti-Semitic speech made by Parliament member Martin Hohmann, a member of the Christian Democratic Party.

In an Oct. 3 speech, Hohmann said Jews could be a “nation of perpetrators” because of the role some Jews played in the Russian Revolution. Hohmann since has been thrown out of the party.

At the debate, some lambasted Christian Democratic representatives for not coming down harder in Hohmann during the controversy.

Wolfgang Thierse, a member of the Social Democratic Party and the president of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, said it is important for Germans to fight against anti-Semitism because of Germany’s World War II history and because anti-Semitism “is undemocratic and damages basic human rights.”

It has nothing to do with “the passing along of guilt from generation to generation,” Thierse added.

Legislator Norbert Lammert said the debate is necessary because “there still is anti-Semitism in Germany,” though Germany actually has fewer problems with anti-Semitism than many other European countries.

Many others echoed that last point.

Jewish life in Germany is blooming, said Wolfgang Boetsch, noting the signing of an official agreement between Germany’s government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the imminent construction of a new community center in Munich.

But “there is also another reality,” Boetsch said. “The start of open anti-Semitism.”

“School classes must hear about Jewish culture and life,” he said, “to support this new chapter with our fellow citizens of the Jewish faith.”

Volker Beck of the Green Party noted that many Germans believe Jews are the primary beneficiaries of a compensation fund for victims of Nazi slave labor, when in fact 80 percent of the beneficiaries are not Jewish.

“Israel has become the collective Jew of the nations,” noted legislator Gert Weisskirchen, referring to criticism of the Jewish state. While criticism of Israel is legitimate, he said, comparing Israel to the Nazi regime reawakens the “nightmare of anti-Semitism.”

Weisskirchen called the demonizing of Israel “the most dangerous development,” and said warning signs can be seen in places like Paris, where extremists promote hatred of Jews.

“These are the warning signs,” he said of the extremism.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said those signs are not taken seriously enough.

Testifying in October before the European subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Harris said that with the exception of Germany, requests to persuade European leaders to focus on anti-Semitism “had fallen on deaf ears.”

At the end of the two-hour debate, legislators voted unanimously to condemn anti-Semitism.

But some legislators were upset that the debate did not explicitly condemn Hohmann and his remarks.

A 27-year-old police officer from Ratzeburg who attended the parliamentary session with a group of fellow officers said the subject of anti-Semitism is often discussed among police “because sometimes we have to deal with right-wing extremists.”

Another observer, Christian Cetoyefiz, a student from a high school in Halle, said the debate was “good, because it is important to look into the future and not always at the past.”

Several speakers at the parliamentary session made note of the widespread lack of interest among young Germans in the history of the Holocaust. Some feel resentment about being reminded of the crimes of the past, they said.

“We are responsible for what is learned from the past,” Lammert said, “and I have no doubt that German youth take that responsibility very seriously.”

“No one from my generation is guilty of the Holocaust,” said Claudia Roth of the Green Party, “but we are responsible for the future.”

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