When I was invited to participate in a programme by the German Embassy in London entitled ‘Jewish life in Germany’, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. Germany isn’t the only country to run such programmes which combine visits to museums and community centres with opportunities to engage with local Jews and policy makers. And yet this being Germany, I knew I wasn’t in for just a leisurely week of platitudes about the ‘renaissance’ of a community.
Together with 15 participants from around the world, mostly involved in Jewish advocacy or education, we arrived in Berlin on a wet Sunday evening prepared for a week of soul searching regarding Germany’s approach to its past and the current issues it faces – most notably the recent electoral success of the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The long shadow of the Holocaust is inescapable – and the programme coincided with the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which was marked in a number of moving ceremonies. But it also gave us an opportunity to get a sense of what the Jewish experience in Germany is like.
That electoral success has come at a time when the country is dealing with the fallout from the refugee crisis and the ongoing war against Islamist extremism. In conversations with various civil servants however, I was often left with the feeling that Germany is still struggling to come to terms with the multitude of threats it faces. While right wing extremism – as evidenced by the AfD – is clearly a serious issue in Germany, it sometimes felt as if some of the causes of this electoral success were not always being afforded the same level of attention. Germany’s consensual brand of coalition politics may shy away from confrontation, but in some areas more concerted effort may be needed. In 2016 alone, so-called Islamic State claimed three terror attacks in the country, including the truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin which killed 12 people and injured 48.
Speaking of consensus and compromise – Germany’s Jewish communities continue to operate under a ‘unitary’ system, funded on the federal state level directly by taxpayers who identify themselves as community members. There are approximately 200,000 Jews in Germany today, of which 100,000 or so are affiliated. Much was made of the explosion in the community’s population following the immigration of Jews from former Soviet republics to the country. And yet the divisions and challenges of integration remain. Great efforts are being undertaken – the impressive community centre in Frankfurt runs programming in Russian and the significant numbers of Jewish schoolchildren from all sorts of backgrounds passing through its doors on a Friday morning left a genuinely warm glow.
The ‘unified’ nature of communities has led to some compromises such as liberal congregations running services in orthodox synagogues, and a more moderate approach to conversions for those born into mixed marriages. All in all, the difficulty in increasing numbers of the affiliated is not dissimilar to the issues faced in countries such as the US and the UK (a recent JPR/Board of Deputies report on synagogue membership showed a decline in membership). It is clear, however, that reaching out to more Russian speaking Jews poses a challenge to the existing community structures.
Back in Berlin, we met a group of Israeli innovators at a university-based (and publically funded) incubator who have decided to call the city home, at least for now. While much has been written about the large numbers of Israelis flocking to the city – various estimates put the number anywhere between 10 and 40,000 – it was clear that motivations for choosing Berlin vary. One delegate opined that the cost of living in Israel was forcing young people to seek opportunities abroad. Israelis in Berlin, like their London-based compatriots, often eschew formal links with the local Jewish community. At the same time, increasing numbers are getting married and putting down roots. Like the Russian speakers, Israelis contribute to a complex and nuanced picture of Jewish life in Germany today. And yet it was just several decades ago that many believed there would be no Jewish life in Germany at all. Amidst the difficult choices facing decision makers today, the resilience of this community is something to take pride in.
- David Walsh is the Board of Deputies International Relations Officer