Jewish leaders drug scandal spells trouble for German Jews

BERLIN — It could hardly be a seedier combination: Drugs and prostitution are threatening to bring down one of Germany's most prominent Jewish figures.

To some extent, the woes of Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and president of the European Jewish Congress, mean trouble for Germany's Jews.

Observers are watching anxiously as the story unfolds in the media, where reports reflect and amplify the public's fascination both with celebrity downfall and with the demise of a prominent Jewish leader.

Some see the Friedman episode as the biggest test yet of postwar Germany's readiness to eschew anti-Semitic stereotypes.

So far, reviews are mixed.

German media quickly picked up and highlighted the story, which involves one of the best-known and most controversial Jewish public figures in Germany. Some media outlets used old photos of Friedman smiling broadly, or receiving Germany's highest medal of honor, to illustrate the seamy news.

"There are, of course, anti-Semitic undertones" in coverage of this story, said Henryk Broder, a columnist for the German news weekly Der Spiegel.

"The shameless expression of schadenfreude is very, very strong," Broder said, using a German word that means taking delight in the misfortunes of others. "I myself have no connection to Friedman, but I get nasty anti-Semitic e-mail just because of the coincidence of him and me being Jews."

Winston Pickett, director of external relations at the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, said, "When something like this happens, the higher someone is the farther they fall, and it captures the imagination, regardless of religion and ethnic background.

"When you add that Jewish context, it makes it even more painful," he continued. "It can't help but reflect negatively upon Jews, because they have invested in this person. He represents us."

Alexander Brenner, head of Berlin's Jewish community, said, "This kind of thing does not cause anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism is there to begin with, whether aimed at a Friedman or a Brenner."

With few exceptions, German media have been all over the story, relishing the details as they have slowly emerged.

On June 11, drug-sniffing dogs were set loose in Friedman's Frankfurt home and law office; evidence was confiscated that police say turned out to be cocaine. Friedman offered up hair samples for testing.

Soon, hints of involvement with prostitutes appeared in the media, together with humiliating details about an alias Friedman allegedly used — Paolo Pinkel, the English equivalent of which would be, roughly, "Paulie Pee-Pee."

In the minds of many, Friedman's free fall is paired with that of Jurgen Mollemann, Friedman's political nemesis, who literally free fell recently in a plunge to his death.

Mollemann, a sky-diving enthusiast, refrained from opening his parachute in a June 5 jump that is being considered a suicide.

Mollemann sullied the 2002 national election campaign by blaming Friedman for causing anti-Semitism. Mollemann's statements elicited general public outrage, and they contributed to the election failure of Mollemann's Free Democratic Party and to the politician's own political isolation.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.