Is Germany's Merkel Good for the Jews?

The German chancellor's policies sometimes irk Israelis, but the country remains a safe and tolerant haven for the Jews who live there.

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Is Angela Merkel good for the Jews? To answer this question, in the fall of 2013, one should consider what it means. Does "good for Israel" also mean "good for Jews"? Is severe criticism of the policy of Israel’s government "bad for the Jews"? In any case, who are those Jews for whom one can be good or bad in today’s Germany? Are these the religious Jews in Germany who wish to continue circumcising their sons and practising ritual slaughter without state interference? Or are they the thousands of Israelis in Berlin who only want to continue having a good time, benefiting from cheap housing?

Angela Merkel, 59, is first of all good for the German people. She has managed to maintain low unemployment and economic growth, while her neighbors to the south are collapsing. She has turned Germany into the undisputed leader of Europe. She has restored the German people’s pride in being German, with pride in being part of the European family being secondary.

There are currently about 100,000 registered Jews in Germany, living in 106 communities across the country. Twelve thousand live in Berlin. These numbers are negligible in a country of 82 million inhabitants. In comparison, the small Muslim minority numbers 5 million.

The true number of Jews living in Germany is hard to estimate. In Germany, as in many European countries, the census does not enumerate Christians, Jews and Muslims separately. Anyone holding German citizenship is simply German. One’s religion or other nationality is not reported. Nevertheless, the small Jewish community is prominent in Germany, mainly because of the state’s attempts to preserve the memory of the past and its incessant dealing with the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. This involves mainly the erection of memorials and museums that deal with the history of Germany’s Jewish past.

So is Merkel good for the Jews? The proposition was severely tested last year, when a court in Cologne ruled that it was illegal to perform circumcisions in Germany. This ruling was directed mainly at the Muslim community, but it managed to alert the Jewish community as well, mobilizing it in order to fight this injunction. At the same time, there were several minor anti-Semitic incidents across Germany, with attacks directed against pupils in Jewish schools, a rabbi and the head of the Jewish community in Germany. No one was seriously hurt, but the atmosphere turned sombre, leading a Jewish leader to wonder whether Jews were still welcome in Germany.

The words of Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor and one of the senior officials of the Jewish community, reverberated around Germany: “For 60 years, as a Holocaust survivor, I have defended Germany. Now I ask myself if this is justified. I no longer wish to partake in this specious discourse, pretending that there is a new and thriving Jewish community in Germany, only to give Germans the feeling that time can heal such enormous wounds. The fact is that the Jewish community in Germany never overcame the Holocaust. For six decades I’ve had to explain why I remained in Germany, like a sheep among wolves. I always bore this burden, since I thought that this country and its people were worthy of that. For the first time, my belief is shaken. I seriously ask myself if we are still wanted here.”

And then, when things appeared to be getting out of hand, with several hospitals refusing to perform circumcisions out of fear of being prosecuted and with criminal charges laid against a rabbi in southern Germany, the government stepped in. An amendment to the law, initiated by Merkel’s government, restored the situation to the status quo ante. Merkel explained that it’s important to preserve freedom of religion in Germany, and that the state welcomes Jewish life on its soil, particularly 70 years after the Holocaust.

With regard to Israel, things are much more complex. It is no secret that Angela Merkel does not particularly like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whereas in the past there were regular meetings between government representatives on both sides, there is currently an almost complete break in such meetings, with only low-level contacts between the two foreign ministries. The warm relations between Ehud Olmert and Merkel have been replaced by a Berlin chill.

Behind closed doors, Merkel is furious at Israel over its continued occupation of, and construction in, the territories. Government officials predict grim consequences for the Jewish state, which, they say, will soon find itself completely isolated in the world. They cannot understand how Israel doesn’t realize this. Outwardly, at official ceremonies and gatherings, Merkel takes care to repeat Germany’s commitment to Israel, stressing the special relations the two countries enjoy. It is doubtful whether such declarations have any real meaning.

In times of crisis, Germany does not always express this special relationship in supporting Israel. Israel does not forget Germany’s abstention last year in the United Nations vote on establishing a Palestinian state, contrary to Israel’s position. There were some in Jerusalem who hoped that the memory of the Holocaust would add Germany’s name to the honorable list of opponents, which included, alongside the US and Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.

A more recent example was Germany’s failure to support an American attack on Syria, even after it turned out that Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. Israelis wondered how Germany, of all countries, could remain indifferent to the murder of civilians by poison gas. The memory of the Holocaust is alive and well in the streets of Berlin, but appears to be dimmer in the halls of the Chancellor’s bureau, it was felt in Israel. An ironic twist to the affair was the fact that Germany had supplied Syria with chemical agents (for civilian use, according to German sources).

On the other hand, Germany continues to supply Israel with submarines which, according to foreign sources, have nuclear capabilities. It is doing so in contrast to its own official policy, with a nod and a wink, easily repelling criticism from left-wing parties at home.

A few weeks before the elections, Merkel broke off from her busy campaign to pay a visit to the memorial site at the Dachau concentration camp. Her critics said that it was unseemly to mix celebrations and beer with Holocaust memories. Merkel was unfazed by the criticism and became the first German Chancellor to visit the site. Good for the Jews? Decidedly so. For Germans? No less so.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.Credit: AP

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