Tensions Simmer as German Jews Fight Over Whether to Welcome Refugees

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Dr. Jean Goldenbaum playing with refugee children in Berlin.
Dr. Jean Goldenbaum playing with refugee children in Berlin.Credit: Jacob Yanai
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson

BERLIN – The dozen volunteers, most teenagers and young adults, struggle to keep on top of things as about 20 children run wildly into the makeshift gym. Long tables have been set with quiet activities – arts and crafts, face painting, coloring books – but the children, ranging in age from about 5 to 15, run from table to table, yelling in Arabic mixed with a few words of German.

The volunteers are members of the Synagogue Oranenburgerstrasse, the Conservative synagogue in Berlin, who devote one Sunday a month to providing activities for the children in this refugee shelter.

On September 4, 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel instituted an open-door policy toward refugees, allowing some 10,000 refugees to enter Germany. Tens of thousands of refugees followed; by now, it is widely assumed that there are over a million refugees in Germany, most of them from Islamic countries and a majority of those from Syria. In Berlin alone, there are some 80,000 refugees.

In this Sept. 5, 2015 file picture a man holds a cardboard with a ‘Welcome’ slogan during the arrival of refugees at the train station in Saalfeld, central Germany.Credit: AP

Germany has struggled to find shelter and provide for the needs of these refugees, many of whom have survived horrendous wars and horrific experiences. This shelter is in Spandau, in a hastily fixed-up abandoned factory over an hour out of the center of the city, where several hundred refugees, mostly families with young children from Syria, are living, dormitory style.

The children appear clean and cared for, but their behavior is raucously tense, and they wear mismatched and poorly-fitting clothes that have obviously been donated by well-meaning benefactors. They cling to the volunteers, while their eyes search frequently for their parents, most of whom stand nearby.

Gradually and patiently, the volunteers manage to calm and collect the children, and they play more or less quietly for an hour.

Afterwards, the volunteers form a circle around Lior, an Israeli young woman from IsraAid, the Israeli aid organization that has come to work with the refugees in Berlin. She guides them as they evaluate their experiences.

25-year-old Filip Kusmierski asks, “Should I ask them to share what they have been through?”

“They might not want to tell you,” Lior answers gently, and then adds, “and maybe we are afraid to hear their stories because they are so painful.”

“Maybe they remind us too much of our Jewish stories,” muses a young woman.

Michael says that one of the fathers asked him, in broken German, if he is Jewish. “When I said I am, he asked me, ‘But aren’t you German?’ When I said I’m German and Jewish, he didn’t really understand.”

The volunteers murmur in agreement. “Some of them are beginning to change what they think about Jews,” says another volunteer.

Syrian refugees Moustafa Shikh Habib, center right, and his wife Susan Sheikha, center left, pose for a photo with their children at a room in the refugee shelter where they live in Berlin.Credit: AP

Maysoon, the mother of a child playing with one of the volunteers, looks on from a distance. Like all the refugees who spoke with Haaretz, she does not want to give her name. Asked about the Jewish volunteers she replies, “I had never met Jews before. The [Syrian] governments taught us to hate Jews. I have met Jews here, and they are kind It has made me realize that we were told lies about the Jews.”

But then Michael comments that some of the refugees have come to the shelter only once – then never returned. “Could they be staying away because we are Jews?” he wonders. “We’ll never know about them.”

Last year, as the refugees began streaming into Germany, “the outpouring of good will and concern was exemplary, especially in Berlin,” Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, tells Haaretz. “Jews wanted to be part of this. Jews and Germans working together to help refugees is a powerful symbol.”

The irony of refugees fleeing through Europe to safe haven in Germany was not lost on Germany’s Jews, who have largely come to see themselves as an integral part of German society. But as Germany’s refugee crisis continues, working with the refugees has become a simmering conflict within the community, especially in Berlin, where most of the Jewish voluntarism has been concentrated.

Like most everything in Jewish-Germany, attitudes toward the refugees stem from the conclusions that different individuals and groups draw from the Holocaust.

Erika Stein, a PhD student in sociology researching attitudes toward the refugees, explains to Haaretz, “Those who believe that the Holocaust places a moral burden on Jews continue to want to help the refugees. Those who believe that the Holocaust has given us the right to worry about our own welfare are worried about how the refugees will affect the Jewish community. Those who think that Germany has changed and learned its lessons view working with the refugees as an opportunity. Those who think that Germany really hasn’t changed at all are worried that the resentment against the refugees will spill over onto the Jews.”

By the end of World War II, only about 15,000 Jews remained in Germany. They were joined by some 200,000 displaced Polish and other Eastern European Jews. But the community was elderly and struggled; their numbers dwindled, and by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, only some 30,000 Jews remained.

Then, in another reversal of history, the wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the German Federal Government agreed to an influx of some 200,000 individuals of Jewish background from the Former Soviet Union.

This file photo taken on June 16, 2016 shows participants registering for a professional training fair aimed at refugees, at an employment office in Berlin.Credit: AFP

By the beginning of the 21st century, Germany had become a world powerhouse and Berlin had established itself as the uber-cool cultural capital of the Western world.

Some 10,000-20,000 Israelis have also made their way to the super-hip city, part of the community that is estimated at 40,000. Berlin is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world, with ever-increasing numbers of Jewish schools, institutions, synagogues, cultural venues and restaurants. But at the same time, it is a community divided between veterans, Russian immigrants and Israelis; between Orthodox and liberal streams and steadfast secularists, with ongoing tensions between Jews from former East and West Berlin.

Officially, the Jewish community is led by the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (the Central Council of Jews in German, referred to as the Zentralrat), the umbrella organization that is, according to German law, responsible for distributing the vast funds that the German government allocates to the Jewish community to the various institutions and organizations. But the Zentralrat is also troubled, not only by the divides within the community, but also by contentions of mismanagement and corruption that have persisted for years. To be a formal member of the Jewish community, an individual must be a member of the Zentralrat, but only some 12,000 Jews in Berlin, less than one-third, are registered.

Yet they are all held together “by our strong identities as Berliners,” says Armin Langer, a former rabbinical student at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam and founder of an interfaith group called Salaam-Shalom. “Berlin is a free, cosmopolitan and individualistic city, full of minorities. It would drive Hitler crazy.”

And Jews, Langer continues, “are the minority that integrated best into the German mainstream, so it is our responsibility to help other minority groups, especially the refugees.”

Indeed, the German Jewish community enlisted in the effort. The Zentralrat dedicated its annual Mitzvah Days to work with the refugees; dressed in bright green T-shirts, thousands of Jews throughout Germany visited refugee centers, sorted clothes, helped convert unused public buildings and apartments into shelters, and gave impromptu German lessons.

In February, IsraAid launched its program in Germany, aiming to provide psycho-social services for the refugees and training for the volunteers. Volunteers such as Dr. Gerhard Baader, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who joined IsraAid to help the refugees, became local media heroes.

The Jewish community in Berlin has been especially involved. Like the Synagogue Oranenburgerstrasse and several other congregations, the Fraenkelufer Synagogue, a small, young and liberal Orthodox congregation in the hip district of Kreuzberg, also organized a volunteer program.

“Jews know first-hand about flight, expulsion and displacement,” Nina Peretz, a leader in the synagogue, tells Haaretz. “So it is our obligation to ensure that the inhumanity of the Holocaust never happens again.”

Sensitive to refugees’ plight

Members of a Syrian family eat the Iftar (breaking fast) meal at a refugee shelter in a former hotel in Berlin, Germany June 9, 2016.Credit: Stefanie Loos, Reuters

But as the immigrants continued to stream in, and as budgets and housing capacities strained to meet their needs, enthusiasm among Germans began to wane. Even moderate Germans, says Oliver Bradley, a public relations expert in Berlin and member of the Jewish community, were disappointed.

“We really thought that the effort to help the refugees would be European-wide. But when no one else took them in, and when Britain voted for Brexit, some Germans began to wonder if we were being nave, or stupid.”

Furthermore, notes Bradley, there are already some three million ethnic Turks living in Germany, some for decades. He points to a report by the Goethe Institute, a cultural institution funded by the Federal Republic of German, which reveals that the refugees remain poorly integrated in social, economic and cultural terms.

“As a Jew,” says Bradley, “I am of course sensitive to the plight of the refugees. But knowing that Germany has failed in integrating one group of immigrants does make you wonder if our society is capable of integrating another group.”

The refugees have provided some right-wing political leaders with an opportunity to stoke latent German xenophobia. Of more concern to the Jewish community, other politicians made a connection to the Jews, contending that Merkel’s policies are based on German guilt for the Holocaust.

Grumbling was heard in the Jewish community, too. Jutta Weisbergen, a physician at a public health clinic who was born and grew up in Berlin, is an Orthodox woman who covers her head with a thick kerchief. “As an individual and a physician, I feel for the plight of the refugees. But as a Jew, I worry. I see what is happening in other countries in Europe, and I also worry that some Germans will resent us.”

The issue came to a head in late last fall, when Joseph Schuster, the head of the Zentralrat, declared that Germany should set a limit on the number of migrants arriving from Arab countries. “Many refugees are escaping the terror of Islamic State and want to live in peace and freedom,” Schuster said in the interview. “At the same time, they come from places where hatred of Jews and intolerance are an integral part of the culture Sooner or later we won’t have a choice but to set an upper limit,” he told the Die Welt daily.

“It’s also important that those who at present can’t return to their home countries will become familiar with our Western values,” Schuster wrote in another op-ed. “In Germany, that means respect for the values enshrined in the constitution and also an acceptance that support for Israel is part of the political DNA of this country. Moreover, society by and large agrees that the Holocaust must be remembered.”

The responses to Schuster’s comments were mixed. Hundreds of Berlin’s Jews, most of them Israeli expats, demonstrated against him. In an op-ed, Langer called Schuster a racist – and was summarily dismissed from his rabbinical studies. Langer subsequently publicly apologized, but tells Haaretz, “How dare Schuster call for limits on the numbers of refugees? How dare he insinuate that they are dangerous? We Jews know that it is a religious mitzvah to help the refugees.”

Spitz, a Hebrew-language monthly magazine for Israeli expats, devoted an entire issue to the question of “the refugees and us” – and the contributions all criticized Schuster.

Shaked Spier, an Israeli living in Berlin for some eight years, explains why. Spier volunteers with refugees through an ad hoc group in his neighborhood, he tells Haaretz. “I can’t just not do anything ... My grandparents were refugees from Germany, and I have come back to Germany as an immigrant. The head of the Zentralrat is using German fears of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to reject the immigrants, but I will not stand by.”

But Samuel Skolbo, who identifies himself as a political spokesman for the Orthodox community, says, “Orthodox Jew are easily identifiable and we are often attacked in the streets – hardly a week goes by without an incident. Orthodox men are now wearing baseball caps in public instead of kippot. We see what is happening in France with the veteran immigrants from Arab countries, and we worry that we will see the same things here.”

Something in common

According to a report from the Amadeo Antonio Foundation, a human-rights watchdog, anti-Semitism is growing in Germany. In 2014, according to one of their recent reports, some 1,596 anti-Semitic crimes were committed throughout Germany. Of these, 1,342 were perpetrated by German right-wing groups, seven by left-wing groups and 247 by “foreign ideology” or unclassified motives; however, the report also noted a spike in anti-Israel protests by Muslim youth during the 2014 war in Gaza.

Stein notes that there are more subtle signs of anti-Semitism, too. “Even moderate Germans sometimes use the term, ‘bio-Deutsch’ to refer to someone who is ‘organically or ethnically German.’ And there’s a sense that Germans are tired of feeling that they have to atone to the Jews for the Holocaust and that they want to be normal. All this stirs up Jewish fears and more and more Jews, like the Germans, are beginning to think that letting in so many refugees was a bad idea.”

But Spier emphasizes that most of this anti-Semitism is home-grown and has nothing to do with the refugees. He sports a large tattoo on his forearm, spelling Mandlin (German for Shaked, which means almond in Hebrew) in Hebrew letters. “Obviously, the refugees know I’m Jewish and Israeli – and I experienced nothing but gratitude from them.”

Malik, a refugee from Aleppo who appears to be in his early 20s, says that he “understands the Jews’ fears, but they are wrong. The Jews see what happens in France and Belgium – but those terrorists aren’t refugees, and anyway, they come from North Africa. We refugees from Syria are not extremists – we are running away from extremists. Most of us had never met Jews before, but here our experiences have been good. Some Germans – even ‘normal’ people, and not just skinheads – don’t want us here, and some of them hate the Jews, too. So maybe we even have something in common.”

Skolbo is not convinced. Cautiously, he concludes, “We still feel safe about this ship that is Germany – but we worry about the storms the ship might be sailing into.”

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