Germany: A new generation of Jewish grandparents is being born

Nobody really knows how many Jews live in Germany today. Demographers are still arguing about the exact figures. Estimates range anywhere between 200,000 and 350,000. These are staggering figures which contrast sharply to the approximately 30,000 who – demographers agree – lived in Germany in 1990.

This surge in growth was made possible through a special government program that eased Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. With an average of 15,000 new arrivals entering the country each year, Germany claimed the fastest growing Jewish community in the world between 1995 and 2005.

A change in the immigration law has since seen this average drop to a comparative trickle. However, this decline has been offset by an unprecedented influx of Israelis. In Berlin alone over 5,000 Israeli passport holders have registered. But even here, exact figures are unknown since a majority of the estimated 15,000 to 30,000 Israelis living in Germany today have been registered with their dual EU-citizenship

The exact numbers are less important than the phenomenon that thousands of Jews have decided to make Germany their home – within only two generations of the Second World War. It is an enormous change from the first post-Holocaust generation, when many Jews refrained from setting foot in Germany or buying products made in that country.

In the past 25 years alone, over 80 synagogues have been built or re-consecrated. And while churches in the United States, South Africa and other countries are being sold off and transformed into mosques, Germany has seen about a dozen of its churches converted into synagogues – most recently the prominent Castle Church of the eastern German city of Cottbus, in 2014.

This renaissance has, however, also brought with it a growing friction among Germany’s institutional Jewish congregations – with their hodgepodge of Russian, Polish, German, Israeli, liberal and Orthodox membership.

Germany’s pre-1990 Jewish elite, made up mostly of displaced Orthodox Jews from Poland and remnants of German-Jewry, have not yet come to terms with their loss of administrative power to the current Russian-speaking majority. And although Germany was the birthplace of the reform movement, liberal congregations are still struggling to gain equal government recognition in order to receive the subsidies which Orthodox communities enjoy.

What binds these wrangling congregations – and also allows them to wrangle – is the confidence that they are relatively safe in Germany – or were, at least, up to now.

Confidence aside, synagogues and Jewish institutions in Germany must be guarded by the police as they are in the rest of Europe. Violence following the Gaza war of 2014 showed that this security is a necessary inconvenience and that  anti-Semitism is far from dead – especially among neo-Nazis and offspring of Arab migrants, whose numbers have swelled enormously. Neo Nazi groups still remain the biggest threat, particularly in southeastern Germany, but Muslim violence against Jews is growing at an alarming rate.

What alarms anti-racism activists even more, however, is the current trend of left-wing politicians camouflaging their anti-Semitism through their anti-Israeli stances, often at the same demonstrations attended by far right neo-Nazi groups.

Despite these challenges, Germany is a far cry from what it was in 1945. Its generous immigration policies, the continuing expansion of restitution programs, and the hindrance of large-scale right-wing marches by counter-demonstrators are examples that attest to this.

The building of massive monuments, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a mere 160 feet from the German capital’s iconic Brandenburg Gate – underlines Germany’s commitment to reconciliation. However, the main leap forward in Jews’ confidence in Germany followed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech before the Knesset in 2008 where she declared that Israel’s safety was an integral part of Germany’s raison d’état.

Since then, most Jews in Germany have ceased referring to the metaphoric “packed bags” they claimed to be sitting on before moving elsewhere – finally acknowledging Germany as their permanent home. This has given rise to a new generation of Jews in Germany – the generation of the grandparent – a luxury that only a few Jewish children born in Germany had, prior to 1990.

Their bags may be unpacked and stored in the attic, but Jews in Germany are well aware of the threats from extremist groups, despite the government’s commitment to reinforcing and protecting Jewish life. Potential violence against Jews remains high – just not at epidemic levels.

Anette Kahane, of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, has been one of the most vocal advocates combatting racism and Anti-Semitism in Germany. She blames eastern German xenophobia on that region’s relatively sparse population structure – claiming that most people in rural areas have rarely come into contact with people of different color backgrounds.

Multidenominational and non-confessional NGOs, such as Kahane’s Foundation, have been working hard at building bridges of understanding and reconciliation, particularly among Muslim youth.

One of these leaders, Rabbi Daniel Alter, Anti-Semitism Ombudsman of Berlin’s Jewish Community, was himself a victim of anti-Semitic violence. In 2012 while he and his children were walking home in what had been deemed one of Berlin’s safest districts for kippa-wearing Jews, a gang of Muslim youths beat him up – his small children watching.

Rather than leaving him bitter, the violence led Alter to intensify his Muslim-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation projects – particularly among young Muslims.

Is Germany safe for kippa-wearing Jews, such as Rabbi Alter? Over the years, several Jews were attacked because of their outwardly Jewish appearance. A Germany-wide kippa-test, in 2007, proved that kippa-wearing people [the test was conducted by non-Jews] were prone to stares and verbal attacks.

On the other hand, a kippa-test at the beginning of 2015 resulted in no action or violence. Attacks on people, such as Rabbi Alter, it was inferred, were simply a result of being someplace at the wrong time.

The over one million migrants that will have entered Germany from Muslim countries at Angela Merkel's invitation by the end of 2015, including refugees from war-torn Syria,  will pose a challenge to the German government which has already been sharply criticized for failing to integrate tens of thousands of children of Muslims who have already lived in Germany for generations.

It may signal a huge change for Jews, and perhaps for all Germans, as it has, tragically, done in France. Many Jewish leaders fear that this influx of Muslim newcomers will include ISIS members and sympathizers and will lead to a sharp increase in Muslim-based anti-Semitism, but not only Jews are worried. ISIS has announced that Germany is on its hit list after the horrendous terror massacre in Paris on November 13.

Despite these fears, Josef Schuster, Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Germany’s largest federation of Jewish communities, said that Germany is the last country in the world that should refuse entry to migrants seeking its protection.

Only time will tell.


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