German Jews Praise Merkel

As Germany stands on the brink of a new political era — about to have its first woman and first former East German as chancellor — Jews are peering over the horizon with cautious optimism.

Seven years of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder turned out to be rather good for the Jews. But Angela Merkel isn’t exactly an unknown quantity either.

When it comes to relations with Israel and with Germany’s Jewish community, a Merkel administration isn’t likely to bring much change, observers say. And transatlantic relations, another issue of import to the Jewish community, are likely to improve.

In coming weeks, Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union and Schroeder’s party, the Social Democratic Union, will craft their coalition.

“There’s no ‘getting to know you,’ no breaking-in period needed,” Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Claims Conference, said of Merkel in a telephone interview. “We know her commitments.”

Merkel has “demonstrated considerable interest in a positive and dynamic relationship with the Jewish world,” Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, who also has met frequently with the CDU leader, said in an e-mail interview.

Merkel was born in 1954 to a Lutheran pastor and a teacher. She studied physics and worked as a chemist before becoming involved in politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. She became a political protégé of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and has headed the CDU since 2000.

A proponent of economic and social reform, Merkel wants to make Germany more competitive by allowing longer workweeks and removing barriers to firing employees.

She is a strong advocate of transatlantic relations, and even supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq at a time when the view was most unpopular in Germany.

For German Jews, the top items on the domestic agenda are integration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, funding for cash-strapped Jewish communities, support for Jewish education and training of rabbis, security and efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Internationally, the issues are close ties with Israel and the United States.

Under Schroeder, Jewish communal life took a great leap forward with the signing of a historic contract in 2003 between the Central Council and the German government that placed the Jewish community on a legal par with the Protestant and Catholic churches.

“I look to Mrs. Merkel for at least as much understanding” as the past administration showed, Rabbi Singer said.