The German Jews Who Think Now Is the Time to Leave, Before It’s Too Late – Again

In Germany, every Jewish celebration is a collective act of defiance against a rising, violent far right. But shadowed by thousands of armed extremists, and an ascending political far right, they face a fateful choice: Stay, or go

Members of the Jewish community walk and dance on the way to the dedication of the new synagogue in Konstanz, southern Germany. Nov. 10, 2019
Felix Kaestle,AP

For pedestrians in the city center of the southern German city of Konstanz two Sundays ago, the joyful procession through the old town could have been mistaken for the inauguration of Carnival season, or even a Turkish wedding celebration.

But the procession, accompanied by music, singing and dancing, marked instead the opening of the city’s new synagogue. It was the first dedication of a synagogue since the Nazis destroyed the old synagogue 81 years ago on Kristallnacht, the November pogrom against Jews, Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned businesses known as the Night of Broken Glass.

The celebration came just one day after the mournful commemorations of the many victims of those Nazi-organized pogroms, which destroyed over 1000 homes, businesses, and places of worship across Germany and Austria on November 9, 1938. But the celebrations were not only notable for this. Last week’s festive dedication of the new synagogue was a proud, and pointed, counterpunch to the aggressive nationalism stalking Germany today.

Fresh in the minds of both the Jewish community and the general public is the recent deadly attack on a synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, and the assassination of a pro-refugee Conservative party politician last summer, both by neo-Nazis.

Mourners light candles on October 10, 2019 at the synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, one day after the deadly Yom Kippur shooting in which two passersby were murdered

In his speech at the dedication ceremony of the new synagogue, the Baden-Württemberg state president, Winfried Kretschmann, warned of the further threat of right-wing extremism. 

He wasn’t exaggerating at all. Germany’s intelligence service recently reported that the country hosts 24,000 violent right-wing extremists, half of whom have a "very high affinity for firearms," and the police has counted 600 verbal and physical attacks on refugees in just the first half of this year.

The German interior minister Horst Seehofer, who came under criticism for his own anti-foreigner remarks last year, announced an "elevated" risk of right-wing terrorism, meaning an attack could come "at any moment."  It was further confirmation of his comments after the Halle shooting, when he stated that "the threat of anti-Semitism, right-wing extremism, and right-wing terrorism is very high." 

But against the destructive past and the unknown future is the creative and rebellious acts of the Jewish community in the present, and the active resistance of so many non-Jews.

The latter was perfectly demonstrated over that same Kristallnacht commemoration weekend, when 15,000 people confronted a neo-Nazi march in Bielefeld and formed a human chain around the synagogue there. At the Konstanz synagogue dedication, Kretschmann affirmed that the new synagogue is a "triumph" of Jewish life and of interreligious coexistence over "hate and violence." 

In fact, the rebuilding of Jewish communities is a rebellious, collective act of resistance in the face of far right hostility. This was an ongoing theme of all the speeches in Konstanz that evening, which also criticized the rhetorical attacks of the far-right’s parliamentary representatives, the so-called "Alternative for Germany."

Regularly trivializing the Nazi past, and maintaining many connections to neo-Nazi groups, the AfD was correctly described by one lawmaker of the Social Democratic party as the "political arm of right-wing terrorism," whose verbal attacks embolden people towards physical assaults.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) top candidate for the Brandenburg election Andreas Kalbitz reacts to early exit polls in the Brandenburg state election. Werder, Germany, September 1, 2019

Against this background of hostility, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Abraham Lehrer, forcefully declared from the bima of the new synagogue: "We are not packing our suitcases."

His message was that there could be no surrender to the far right; that the Jewish community is instead building and strengthening its ties to Germany, despite the surrounding aggression.

In fact, there are many similar stories of Jewish self-assertion in Germany. Alongside a seemingly endless string of verbal and physical assaults in the capital, one congregation in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg has created a vibrant community. They have knitted together German Jews with Israeli, American, Australian, and Russian Jewish immigrants.

Their efforts have gained support from a lawmaker from the leftist local coalition government in Berlin, the Palestinian-born Raed Saleh, who is leading the initiative to rebuild the Fraenkelufer Synagogue which was destroyed on Kristallnacht. In Regensburg, the community rebuilt its synagogue this year, also destroyed in 1938.

Berlin’s Social Democratic Party chair, Palestinian-born Raed Salah, with Nina Peretz, head of the renovation project, outside the Fraenkelufer synagogue,
Boaz Arad

Yet while many Jews are indeed planting roots in Germany, there cannot be complete confidence that history will not repeat itself. So, just as British Jews are applying for EU passports, fearful of the repercussions of post-Brexit chaos, nationalist scapegoating and/or a Corbyn-led government, it is an open secret that German Jews are considering an escape route as well, just in case.  

After the shooting, the head of the Jewish community in Halle, Max Privorozki, said in an interview that he has been considering emigration for years.

Members of the Jewish community in Düsseldorf, whose synagogue was targeted by incendiary devices in 2000, speak openly about emigration. The community’s chairman, Oded Horowitz, told the West German public broadcaster WDR earlier this month that community members are discussing if the time had come to leave.

He himself thought that the signs of catastrophe were already imminent, and would be affirmed if the far right consolidated its vote in the 2021 parliamentary elections: "If we wanted to act responsibly as Jewish community leaders, we should urgently urge our members to leave Germany while they still can."  

At a time when every fourth German says they can imagine something like the Holocaust repeating itself, there simply is no absolute confidence within the Jewish community that German society will do enough to stop the slide into barbarism, again.

The Nazis burn furnishings and ritual objects from the synagogue in the south west German town of Mosbach in the central square on 10 November 1938, part of the November progrom, or Kristallnacht
Heritage Images/Getty Images

So the best that real people can do, when they refuse to be ruled only by fear or only by a tragic notion of lone heroism, is to prepare for both possibilities: life in Germany, or life abroad.

German Jews are building here and being as steadfast as they can, despite the state of siege. They are also considering the difficult question of exodus. But with Jewish communities feeling vulnerable from the U.S. to the UK to France, it is not clear in anyone’s minds where they might go.

In the meantime, every festive public celebration by Germany’s diverse Jewish communities – from Konstanz to Regensburg to Berlin – are determined and defiant acts, undertaken with the full force of German history at their back, and with a future ahead that is uncertain in the extreme.

The hope is that such acts of community-building, in concert with civil society and political allies, will also shape Germany’s future, and be part of the efforts to block it from repeating its past.

Robert Ogman is a journalist and lecturer on contemporary politics and social issues and lives in Germany. Twitter: @r_ogman