The recent German national elections that saw the nationalistic AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party gain nearly 13 percent of the vote — placing it third with 94 seats in the Bundestag, up from none in the last elections — stunned many in the establishment, not least the Jewish community.
A non-Jewish German friend of mine shocked me by suggesting that Germany got the government it deserved, and that German Jews should consider leaving.
The Shoah was supposed to be the “never again” watershed tragedy heralding a genuine enlightenment that included contrition and remorse. Yet, this new post-unification Germany that held the promise of a modern dynamic and diverse society based on liberal values has stumbled with growing populism and xenophobia.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was bitterly opposed to German reunification, fearing a resurgence of unbridled nationalism. At the time, Chancellor Helmut Kohl (current German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mentor) assured Thatcher that a united Germany was now “a good Germany,” though acknowledging that it had a longer history of dictatorships than democracy.
Despite misgivings about a future new pan-Germanism from other European leaders, such as Italy’s Giulio Andreotti — who joked that he “loved Germany so much, he preferred to see two of them” — German reunification formally occurred in 1990. The year before, Jewish-American conductor Leonard Bernstein led a passionate performance at Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he renamed “Ode to Freedom” for that occasion.
Twenty-seven years later, the joy has turned to anger, angst and divisiveness.
From the right, there are neo-Nazi sentiments expressing vulgar hatred of “outsiders,” and from the left, there is support for groups that endorse Israel’s demise in different ways through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), misleading anti-Israel propaganda in the media, Holocaust distortion and inversion, and annual Al-Quds marches. According to a German federal government study, modern anti-Semitism rose sharply between 2014 and 2016.
And so Germany’s Jews are uneasy. They no longer enjoy the confidence and optimism they had in the early 1990s.
Indeed, Bjorn Hoecke, a top AfD leader, questioned how Germany could shame itself by having a Holocaust memorial in the center of its capital, something that no other self-respecting country would do.
Germany’s mirror seems cracked.
On the one hand, a Nazi salute is against the law, yet on the other hand, the annual Iranian-sponsored Al-Quds marches calling for Israel’s annihilation are permitted.
On the one hand, the government says that Israel’s existence is linked to modern Germany’s raison d’etre (questioned by AfD co-founder Alexander Gauland), but on the other, Germany funds radical NGOs such as B’Tselem, Zochrot and Al-Haq that promote the demise of Israel as a Jewish state through BDS, lawfare and violence.
On the one hand, Germany guarantees the security of its Jews, but on the other hand, the Wuppertal Court of Appeals ruled that the firebombing of a synagogue was a form of protest against Israel’s policies.
On the one hand, Germany strongly rejects anti-Semitism, yet Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s second largest party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), not only accused Israel of stealing Palestinian water but also applauded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ European Union (EU) parliament speech accusing Israeli rabbis of plotting to poison Arab water, reminiscent of medieval canards.
Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, condemns anti-Semitism but embraces an Iran that sponsors a Holocaust cartoon contest and forgoes diplomatic norms by choosing to meet with a radical anti-Israel NGO rather than the Israeli prime minister. He also told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper in April that “the current government is not Israel,” and he previously called Israel an “apartheid regime.”
Germany’s Jews have fallen into the cracks between right and left, preferring not to observe the observable.
Jewish life has become largely security-centered, fighting anti-Semitism as an end itself, to the point where German authorities advised the Jewish community to send official mail in plain envelopes without logos. Most German Jews do not put up a mezuzah, and those who do place them concealed inside their front doors.
Jewish leadership needs to ask itself whether Jewish cultural life in the broadest sense has been reduced to armed police at synagogues, the Holocaust and combatting BDS. Several times when looking for a particular synagogue, smiling pedestrians directed me to “where you see a group of police guards.”
German Jews still are arguing yesterday’s issues. Not too long ago, I heard a sermon in which the rabbi asked, “Are we Germans of the Mosaic [Jewish] faith or Jews living in Germany?”
German Jews debate whether the stolpersteine (small brass memorials to murdered Jews inlaid on the pavements outside their former homes) are disrespectful or not, given that people and dogs walk on them.
Are post-war German Jews today equipped to sustain Jewish life?
A community program called Rent-a-Jew was started in Berlin whereby people “could engage with Jews, rather than about Jews.” Spokeswoman Mascha Schmerling told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that “we want them to see that we’re completely normal people.”
Some 70 years after the Shoah? Really?
A few years ago, a German politician told me that Germany could not indefinitely commit to a foreign policy that considered Israel’s interests. With Holocaust survivors and perpetrators dying out, Germany would align more with the EU. This is clear already.
Germany was the first EU country to recommend the labelling of Israeli products over the Green Line in addition to voting with such countries as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China against Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
On the other hand, some cities such as Munich and Berlin finally are making an effort to block BDS activities.
While German Jews focus on anti-Semitism, Holocaust memorials and adequate security, Germany is drifting from the United States and Israel, and embracing a guilt-free nationalism. If the British and French can honor their soldiers, “we Germans should also honor our soldiers from both world wars,” according to Gauland, ignoring the fact that thousands of these “soldiers” were savage murderers of men, women and children, as happened at Babi Yar.
As Germans break taboos and return to populist nationalism and speak with forked tongues about Jews and Israel — increasingly discarding historical guilt — German Jews need to adapt to reality and focus on strengthening Jewish youth, particularly with education and identity. I have come across young Jews who confused Passover and Purim and had no idea who Chaim Weizmann was. Assimilation rates are high.
Germany’s challenge is to rethink the direction in which it is going.
The challenge for the Jewish community is not only to know what it is fighting against, but to understand what it is actually fighting for.
Ron Jontof-Hutter is a fellow at the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and author of the satire “The Trombone Man: Tales of a Misogynist.”