Opinion

Jews in Germany Don't Need Special Treatment Any More

Germany’s relationship with Jews and with Israel is understandably shaped by the Holocaust. But this has caused it to be ritualized, abnormal – and, sometimes, actively harmful

David Ranan
David Ranan
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for the Ohel Jakob award ceremony on the 10th anniversary of the Munich synagogue's rededication. Nov. 9, 2016
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for the Ohel Jakob award ceremony on the 10th anniversary of the Munich synagogue's rededication. Nov. 9, 2016Credit: Matthias Schrader,AP
David Ranan
David Ranan

Germany is going through difficult times, and not only because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Angela Merkel, the embodiment of German, even European, common-sense and stability, and a staunch supporter of Germany's post-war special relationship with Israel, is on her way out, whilst the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany party is the third strongest political force in the Bundestag, and is consolidating its support regionally.

What does all this mean for the Jews? Is it possible to lead a "normal" post-Holocaust Jewish life in Germany? Which political trends really present a threat to the free choice of Jews in Germany to speak, act and identify as they wish? Is Germany’s post-war political elite consensus – being for "Jews and Israel, right or wrong" – as solid as it once was? Should it? Do Jews have a future in Germany? And if so, what kind of future?

To understand where Germany and its Jews are today, one needs to go back to the beginnings of Jewish life in the newly established Federal Republic. It started with a small group of some 15,000 Jews, mainly Eastern European, who chose not to leave the interim displaced persons camps established after the war, to make their way to Israel or the U.S., but to stay in Germany.   

These displaced Jews, who decided to stay in a country still full of Nazis, and the few thousand German Jews returning after the war, were considered pariahs in the Jewish world. For years, those that stayed, and their representative bodies, were boycotted by the Jewish world. 

A youth stands on one of the charcoal-coloured concrete slabs of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, May 12, 2005
A youth stands on one of the charcoal-coloured concrete slabs of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, May 12, 2005Credit: AP

For most Jews around the world, it was way too early for normalization: they needed to see Germany punished. That a small number of Jews chose to live in the land of the perpetrators, amongst the perpetrators, was an affront: they were considered to lack dignity, actively tarnishing the name and standing of the Jewish people.

For decades after the Holocaust, many Jews refused to visit Germany, to buy German goods, even rejecting German reparations – Israel saw violent demonstrations when its government signed a reparations agreement in 1952 – avoiding all and any contact with that country.

To deal with their own discomfort with their decision to live in the "land of the perpetrators," the leadership of the small Jewish community invented an imaginary role. They convinced themselves and their community that they played an important role as intermediaries between the new Germany and Israel, as well as between Germany and Jews worldwide. This was blatantly untrue. 

In July 1949, John McCloy, the U.S. High Commissioner in occupied Germany, spoke about the future of Jewish life in Germany: "What this community will be, how it forms itself, how it becomes a part and how it merges with the new Germany, will, I believe be watched very closely and very carefully by the entire world. It will, in my judgement, be one of the real touchstones and the test of Germany‘s progress towards the light."  

That message was internalized by both Jewish and German politicians. More than 70 years have passed, and Germany has doubtlessly come out from the dark and into the light. And yet, the fact is that Germany and Jews continue to have an unhealthy, abnormal relationship. Calling for a normalization of relations is considered by some to be indicative of harbouring anti-Semitic views. 

Relations with Israel are likewise imbued with heavy symbolic weight.  In a dramatic address to the Knesset is 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that ensuring Israel’s security was part of Germany’s Staatsräson, "reasons of state" – its mission, justification and special historical responsibility. The declaration was mainly emotive – Germany is unlikely to send soldiers to fight Israel’s wars – but Merkel was clear that the responsibility was non-negotiable.  

The Brandenburg Gate is illuminated in the colors of the Israeli flag to show solidarity with the victims of a terror attack, January 9, 2017.
The Brandenburg Gate is illuminated in the colors of the Israeli flag to show solidarity with the victims of a terror attack, January 9, 2017.Credit: Michael Kappeler/AP

Almost 75 years have passed since Germany stopped running its program of extermination to rid the world of Jews and it has become a country which actually attracts many Jews to come and live there. It has not been an easy ride. Many post-Holocaust second-generation Jews did not want to stay and by 1989, the dwindling Jewish community in Germany numbered fewer than 30,000 members. 

So an emergency solution to prevent the community from dying out totally was found, by bringing in "new" Jews. In the 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, more than 200,000 Jews from the FSU states accepted an open offer of visas made by the German government, and took up residence in Germany. Another group of non-German Jews finding Germany and especially Berlin attractive are young Israelis. The number of Israelis currently living in Berlin has been estimated at between 10-30,000

Germany’s relationship with Jews and with Israel is understandably shaped by the past. However, this has caused it to be ritualized and artificial. One specific act symbolises it well: about once a year, the German Chancellor and/or the German president find an opportunity to publicly voice their thanks to the Jews for coming to live in Germany. 

And German President Walter Steinmeier, speaking recently at Yad Vashem, noted he  was "laden with the heavy, historical burden of guilt" but also "filled with gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, for the new trust given to us by people in Israel and across the world, for Jewish life flourishing in Germany." German politicians and German media, but also the general public, tread exceptionally carefully when it comes to matters Jewish or Israeli. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on January 23.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on January 23. Credit: Ronen Zvulun,AP

Some of this extra sensitivity is expressed through another feature of German politics: philosemitism. If anti-Semitism is hostility to Jews because they are "Jews" – imagined negative traits they are believed to possess – then philosemitism is the opposite. It is an uncritical love of Jews, just because they are Jews, regardless of their personality, morality or actions. Some Germans afflicted with philosemitism – which, for many, is another way of dealing with their guilt feelings – are noticeably obsessive when it comes to matters connected to Jews or Israel. 

On the face of it, there should be no reason to object to do-gooders. And yet, often the "positive" obsession with matters Jewish, which in its compulsive fervor is not dissimilar to that of anti-Semites, leads philosemites to anomalous, and harmful, agitation and political activity.  

When philosemitism blinds one to Israeli human rights violations, or injustice, then it enables the bad, not the good. If philosemitism produces such a defensive shield over Jews and Jewish life that these become more and more enclosed in a benevolently-meant ghetto, then it is more harmful than beneficial. It should be noted in this context that polls in Germany show the reflexively pro-Israel attitudes of the political elites and of the self-identifying philosemites are not shared by the general population. 

Another German phenomenon that occasionally distorts the German discussions on Jewish and Israeli matters is the small, but rather aggressive, group that calls itself anti-Deutsche. They don’t shy away from labelling views they don’t accept as "anti-Semitic." 

Fragment of the East Side Gallery in Berlin, a 1.3 km-long part of the original Berlin Wall which is now a graffiti gallery.Credit: Dreamstime

Anti-Deutsche ("Anti-Germans") started out as an anti-nationalist political splinter group on the country’s radical left. Only one nationalism is sacralized: Israel’s. Blinkered support for Israel and opposition to anti-Zionism are an important feature of anti-German thinking. 

There are three more critical participants in the German discourse regarding Jews, anti-Semitism and Israel. They are the Central Council of Jews in Germany (the community’s representative umbrella body), the State of Israel, which operates directly, but also through a variety of informal and sometimes under-the-radar channels, and the major American Jewish advocacy organization, the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Their lobbying, together with the relentless work of philosemitic members of the Bundestag, has pressurised Germany into establishing a substantial new, and to my mind unnecessary, bureaucracy "combatting" anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism czars, on both federal and state levels.

It is noteworthy, that German politicians did not have the decency to consider the more than four million Muslims, many of whom experience Islamophobia on a regular basis, with a parallel appointment to handle issues of anti-Muslim incitement and violence. Or perhaps even better, creating one function dealing with both racism and anti-Semitism?

And if not decency, then at least pragmatism: Let there be no doubt, Jews, already seen as a privileged minority, appear to getting more special treatment.

Policemen secure the area around a memorial commemorating the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms, near the synagogue in Dresden, eastern Germany, after two people were shot dead near the synagogue in Halle. October 9, 2019
Policemen secure the area around a memorial commemorating the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms, near the Dresde synagogue, after two people were shot dead near the synagogue in Halle. Oct 9, 2019Credit: ROBERT MICHAEL / dpa / AFP

In my research on anti-Semitism amongst Muslims in Germany, some of my interviewees expressed resentment of special treatment like extra security for synagogues, compared to the zero extra protection afforded by the states to mosques, despite being threatened by the violent far right.

Those who lobby on behalf of a conflation between anti-Israel activism and anti-Semitism – the declared stance of Israel itself, as well as the Trump administration – are also very active and increasingly successful in campaigns seeking to no-platform opinions they disagree with. In plain language, to get such voices boycotted. Accusing individuals, organizations and states of anti-Semitism has always been an important weapon in Israel’s arsenal, to shut up those who criticize it, leading to the absurd construct of falsely maintaining that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is anti-Semitic. 

That campaign’s latest success was the Bundestag’s decision to define BDS as anti-Semitic. The decision has the immediate effect that anyone wishing to openly discuss this Palestinian non-violent civil-society movement is being no-platformed by all public bodies, government, local government and semi-governmental, churches, universities and more. Israel’s Embassy, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, even the Federal Anti-Semitism Czar, are all aggressively pushing for the implementation of this Bundestag decision. 

This unique mix of players, all demanding and receiving a special role in how Germany relates to Jews, Israel and anti-Semitism, has produced an unhealthy state of affairs: unhealthy for Germany and unhealthy for Germany’s Jews, some 90 percent of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants. They were brought in by the German government to serve as Jews, to deliver Jewish life, because Germany believes that it needs a Jewish community to prove that it is "clean." 

To that end, political and communal institutions and rituals, have created a community with a meta-mission, a community that lives in a weird, mollycoddled bubble that is also being mobilized, even weaponized, on behalf of right-wing Israeli politics. 

For change to take place, the Jewish community itself will have to bring it about. Neither philosemites nor the anti-Deutsche are likely to change their hymn book. Israel and its supporting actors, be it influential American Jewish groups or others, are committed to exploiting Germany’s fear of being accused of anti-Semitism to cover as much criticism of Israel as possible. The Jewish community needs a leadership that will lead the way to normality. This change is unlikely to come from Germany’s non-Jewish majority.

Hopefully the German Jewish community, which currently seems to consider combatting anti-Semitism as not just necessary self-defense but an integral to defining its own identity, will find a way out of this morbid pattern. These are people who chose to come and simply live in Germany. Full stop. Jews in Germany themselves should reject the notion that they have a meta-historical role to play. A new post-Merkel administration could be a good opportunity for a fresh start. 

Born in Israel, Dr. David Ranan is a political scientist and author, who divides his time between London and Berlin. His latest book is "Muslimischer Antisemitismus: Eine Gefahr für den gesellschaftlichen Frieden in Deutschland?" ["Muslim anti-Semitism: A threat to social peace in Germany?"] (2018). His current work centres on political terminology and its manipulations and his book on the issue is due to be published in Germany in late 2020. Twitter: @davidranan