a rolling plane of large grey stone blocks, row after row stretching out
The Berlin Holocaust memorial (Photo/Wikimedia-Orator CC BY-SA 4.0)

Challenges lie ahead for Germany’s Jews

Several weeks ago, at a luncheon in Frankfurt, Germany, I saw firsthand one of the major challenges facing today’s German Jewish community. The occasion was the launch of a campaign to build a memorial to the children who escaped on the Kindertransport to England. One of the fortunate children was brought from California to speak at the event organized by B’nai B’rith. She is now 94 years old.

And that hints at a serious challenge. We are nearing the moment when there will be no more eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust. And as that day approaches, there is growing concern that Germany — which has owned up to its responsibility for the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others — will feel that it has completed its obligation.

Many younger Germans do not believe that they should bear the burden of earlier generations. They were not perpetrators. At the same time, there are growing voices within German society to pay greater attention to other examples of mass human suffering — from the plight of Germans who endured oppressive Communist rule to the immense refugee crisis stemming from the Middle East. Germany’s sense of direct responsibility has strengthened its friendship with Israel and led to a deep commitment to combat anti-Semitism in Germany and a rebuilding of Jewish life in Germany. There is great concern about what will happen as that sense of responsibility fades into history.

I was in Germany to assess the current situation facing German Jewry and specifically to meet with activists and leaders of organizations addressing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity, including the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. I was based in Berlin, a remarkably vibrant and fascinating city where most of the key organizations taking on these issues are headquartered. After 28 meetings in six days — including people from government officials to grassroots activists — I came away inspired by the remarkable dedication of the groups’ Jewish and non-Jewish leaders. Indeed, a distinguishing feature of the activist community in Germany is the number of non-Jews who are fighting these fights because they feel a deep sense of historic responsibility — that Jews must never again be abandoned.

There are, to be sure, internal community challenges. The community, which was 500,000 strong before the Holocaust, had only about 27,000 Jews until the German government made a concerted effort to rebuild Jewish life by opening its doors from 1990 through 2005 to Jews interested in moving to Germany. The overwhelming majority of newcomers were Russian-speaking Jews, and today there are some 100,000 official members of the German Jewish community, living in dozens of cities. Absorbing such a large number of newcomers relative to the existing population and providing them with the services and education they seek and need has been a major communal priority.

Modern German history has taught us the danger of not heeding warning signs.

Layered on top are the external challenges. Anti-Semitism is a serious concern in Germany. And BDS is spreading — in the universities, arts community, churches and beyond. But I was also struck by how different the situation felt compared with France, where I made a similar visit two years ago. In France, the question I heard most frequently was: Does French Jewry have a future? France was witnessing a dramatic acceleration in aliyah to Israel and the community was feeling nearly overwhelmed by the serious threats directed against the Jewish community. Ironically, in Germany with its history, while the trends are disturbing and anti-Israel forces are gaining strength, Jews do not ask about their future.

At the same time, I worry about three longer-term trends over the next 10 to 15 years.

One is the prospect that the taboo against open anti-Semitism — directly related to that sense of German historic responsibility for protecting Jews — will be lifted as collective memory fades.

The second is the rise of the far right, which includes blatantly anti-Semitic elements — with the near-term prospect that the upcoming German election will result in the far right AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) Party winning seats in the Bundestag (the German Parliament) for the first time.

The third is the prospect that Germany’s generally moderate Muslim population (overwhelmingly of Turkish background) will — under the influence of growing radicalism in Turkey — become less tolerant and more susceptible to anti-Semitic attitudes. At the same time, there’s a possibility that the nearly 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who have been welcomed into Germany since 2015 will not be successfully integrated, resulting in extremist views taking root within pockets of this population as has happened in France.

These are real concerns and modern German history has taught us the danger of not heeding warning signs. Fortunately, in addition to exceptionally dedicated and capable activist leaders in Germany, and a German government that deserves credit for its actions aimed at accepting responsibility for the past and absorbing the lessons for the future, there are a number of visionary American-based foundations that are committed to helping support the best and most strategic efforts aimed at securing the future for Germany’s Jews.

The people on the front lines in Germany are very grateful for the support and sense of solidarity from abroad. Vigilance is indeed required. As one person I met commented, “Germany is at the peak of its economic performance and its friendship with Israel. It can only go in the wrong direction.” And another, discussing his fears about anti-Semitism within German society simply said, “Just because they don’t speak doesn’t mean they don’t believe.”

Doug Kahn
Rabbi Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The views expressed are his own.