Donna Swarthout

Where’s the Good News About the Jews? A Report from Berlin

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, the fact that Jews are joining the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party, or the non-stop media coverage of this fringe group’s efforts to get public attention. Nineteen so-called “German Jews” attended a political meeting last month and declared the AfD to be pro-Israel and against anti-Semitism. Are these claims true? Of course not. Are these people being used to promote the party’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant political agenda? Of course they are. These points have been well documented in news and opinion pieces across the U.S., Europe and Israel.

Reports of Jews joining the AfD are just the latest in an ongoing stream of bad news nuggets being dished up about the Jews. Quotes from Holocaust deniers such as Björn Höcke’s statement referring to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame” are guaranteed to attract readers and stir up emotions. We need to be informed about the extreme right-wing zealots who hold such views, but the picture of Jewish life in Germany is not as dark as it may appear to those outside our borders.

It wasn’t so long ago that the news was filled with stories about the resurgence of Jewish life in Germany and the revival of customs and traditions that celebrate Jewish life in the land where the Nazis tried to end it. These trends have hardly disappeared. In fact, since I moved to Berlin in 2010 the Jewish community has only become more and more vielfältig, more diverse. Just look at all the Israeli restaurants that have popped up in Berlin in the last few years.

Last week I participated in Limmud Berlin, a Jewish learning festival organized by volunteers with more than seventy sessions covering cultural, religious, and political topics. Besides giving a presentation on my forthcoming book about the descendants of German Jews who have reclaimed their German citizenship, I attended two highly stimulating sessions by philosopher Agnes Heller and the Israeli historian Fania Oz-Salzberger. Both sessions were crammed with eager learners of all ages and backgrounds listening attentively, taking notes, and asking questions.

The Jewish tradition of asking questions and engaging in argument was the subject of Oz-Salzberger’s talk, “Jews, Words, and the Future of Europe.” Her remarks about the Jewish legacy of words and debate resonated with me because I believe these are the tools that serve us well for supporting and promoting a strong Jewish community in Europe. But we need more voices to be raised, more perspectives to be shared, and more constructive debates about the issues we face. We also need more positive news stories about Jewish life in Europe.

Besides the gathering of Limmudniks, the past week has seen a plethora of concerts, readings, and theatrical performances as part of this year’s Days of Jewish Culture in Berlin. A new organization, Keshet Deutschland, was just founded to support the LGBTQI Jewish community in Germany. And this month the film Back to the Fatherland premieres in ten cities throughout Germany. The film chronicles “young women and men moving from Israel to the countries where their families were persecuted and killed less than a century ago, Germany and Austria.”

The Jüdische Allgemeine reported that more than 350 people attended Limmud Berlin’s learning festival last weekend. So let’s celebrate the continuation of vibrant Jewish traditions in Europe, and keep in perspective that nineteen misguided Jews who’ve aligned themselves with the AfD are probably a little meshuggah.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout has been writing about Jewish life in Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust since moving from the U.S. to Berlin in 2010. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).
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