Editor’s Notes: Germany’s new Jewish problem

By David Horovitz December 3, 2004

Barely 50 percent of those who have poured into Germany under the Jewish immigration arrangements now identify as Jews

Saarbrucken, which lies on the border of France and southwest Germany, was home to about 3,000 Jews in the 1930s. Stella, the mother-in-law of an Israeli friend, Michael, was one of them.

Hitler came to the Saarland area early. Michael recalls seeing a color photo of him from before the war, right arm straight and outstretched, swastika flags dominant, celebrating the local residents’ stated desire (by a 90 percent vote in a 1935 plebiscite) to be considered part of Germany rather than France.

Many of Saarbrucken’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Stella and her family were not among them; they got away, leaving for nearby Luxembourg ahead of the Nazis.

Not long ago, having visited Stella in Luxembourg, Michael made the short journey to Saarbrucken, where he went to see the house she’d lived in and dropped by City Hall. Anticipating stereotypical German bureaucratic efficiency, he was confident he’d be able to obtain Stella’s birth certificate.

And indeed, helpful officials swiftly located it for him, although that trademark bureaucratic efficiency also meant that they wouldn’t actually give him a copy. That could only be handed, or sent, to Stella or her daughter – Denise, Michael’s wife. He was carrying Denise’s ID with him, and the officials, satisfied, promised to mail the certificate to her right away. And so it proved: the certified copy arrived at their home in Jerusalem precisely one week later.

During his visit, Michael also went to the Saarbrucken synagogue. The original was destroyed on Kristallnacht. It was first rebuilt, in 1952, as a Jewish museum, with a wall from the original structure included. But now it is functioning. For real, breathing Jews – some 1,200 of them according to the Jewish Agency – are living in Saarbrucken again.

Indeed, so satisfied are the German authorities (for residents chose in the 1950s to remain German rather than revert to French control) with the revival of Jewish Saarbrucken, Michael was told by one of the two police officers guarding the synagogue, that Jews are no longer being directed there by the state authorities. If he wanted to see a former German Jewish community still in the process of being revived, rather than the now ‘capped’ Saarbrucken Jewish repopulation drive, he was advised, he ought to travel to nearby Mertzig, where the repopulation program was still ongoing.

If this talk of limited numbers of Jews being carefully dispatched by the bureaucrats of Germany to precisely designated destinations sounds disquieting, that is the opposite of modern Germany’s intent.

Prompted by the leadership of a Jewish community that numbered a mere 27,000 at the end of the 1980s and was heading for the absolute extinction the Nazis would have so relished, the German government established generous incentives to encourage Jews and eligible relatives to immigrate from the Soviet Union. With the distance short, the standard of living high, and the absorption package available to such immigrants many, many times more lucrative than anything Israel can offer, the results have been predictably successful, or appalling, depending on your point of view.

Germany today boasts the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world. That original core of 27,000, now reduced by the passage of a further decade and a half to perhaps 16,000, has been bolstered by an influx of close to 200,000 from the former Soviet Union.

And, anxious to demonstrate the extent of its repentance and new thinking, and to encourage new opportunities for live Jews rather than merely paying restitution for dead ones, the German authorities have been busily directing the Jewish immigrant traffic to rekindle dozens upon dozens of centers of prewar Jewish life nationwide: no fewer than 90, in fact, according to Anat Kagan, the Jewish Agency’s senior German emissary, who is based in Berlin.

The intention is to revive the dead Jewish communities – to demonstrate that the Jews are returning to the places where they once lived.

Unfortunately, such single-minded purpose, however admirable, seems to be blinding the German authorities to some of the profound shortcomings of the exercise. Most importantly, through the insistence on channeling relatively small numbers of the immigrants to so many far-flung destinations and not to the major cities, Israeli and Diaspora experts say, they are often denying these communities a real opportunity to thrive.

Germany’s new-old Jewish centers range down in size from Berlin’s leading, robust 12,000 to paltry communities of 100, even 80 souls. The smaller concentrations are hard-pressed to establish and sustain any kind of genuine Jewish life, say the experts, a plight much exacerbated by the fact that many of the arrivals from the FSU have little connection to Judaism in the first place.

The consequence is assimilation, on a huge scale.

‘We wouldn’t have had this problem if the German authorities had focused on rebuilding, say, eight or 10 major communities, or even one each in the 16 federal states that comprise the federal republic,’ according to one expert who is deeply familiar with the new communities.

Although the German authorities are channeling considerable resources into the communities, and are certainly not deliberately fueling the dilution of their prized new Jewish demographic, he says, the statistics tell a sorry story. They show that barely 50 percent of those who have poured into Germany under the Jewish immigration arrangements now identify as Jews through affiliation with the organized community.

For Israel and the Jewish Agency, the ‘loss’ of these Jews is all the more galling given what is considered to be Germany’s horrifying designation of those Jews for whom it is providing a new homeland as ‘refugees.’

In an appearance before the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee six months ago, Sallai Meridor, the Jewish Agency chairman, castigated the German government for ‘enticing’ Jews from the FSU to immigrate to Germany ‘under refugee status, despite the fact that the State of Israel already exists for 56 years.’ His point: No Jews, anywhere, need be considered refugees when Israel’s doors are automatically open to them.

Meridor urged the Israeli government to ‘take serious steps to counter Germany.’ The Foreign Ministry says the issue has been raised at ‘head of state’ level, by Israel’s ambassador to Germany, and in other diplomatic contacts. To no avail.

Its vaunted special relationship with Israel notwithstanding, Germany’s position is that its Jewish immigration policies are its own business. Questioned by an Israeli journalist last year, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder essentially advised Israel to keep its nose out of the matter.

And its enthusiastic embrace of almost all of those who apply to enter under those policies is underlined by the fact that the almost 200,000 new arrivals in the past 15 years have been drawn from barely 250,000 applicants.

Agency officials estimate that the reservoir of potential Jewish emigrants from the FSU is still in the hundreds of thousands. If it maintains its current policies, Germany should have no trouble, then, bringing 500,000 new Jews into the country to ‘replace’ the 500,000 who lived there before the war. To judge by the assimilation figures, though, it’s a revival that will prove short-lived.

Germany’s insistence that outsiders butt out of its immigration considerations contrasts starkly with the stance taken by the United States over the same period since the end of the 1980s. When the exit gates opened and Soviet Jews first began flooding to freedom, a growing proportion who left on Israeli visas were siphoned off en route, in Vienna and Rome, and redirected to America. Fairly soon, though, the US introduced a 40,000 per annum quota of such immigrants – far from filled nowadays, but a massive limitation when the exit rate was in the six figures in 1990 and 1991. That shift, and the Soviet Union’s acquiescence to Israeli requests for direct flights from there to here, ensured that the majority of exiting Jews came to Israel.

That’s not the only stark contrast. There’s a world of difference, too, between the impassioned entreaties to Washington led by then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, at the turn of the 1990s, and the polite Israeli government requests to Berlin today.

And so the influx to Deutschland continues to swell, while the flow to Zion dwindles. This, despite ongoing efforts by the Agency to promote aliya in the FSU and Germany, and new campaigns to at least bring some of the migrated youngsters to Israel on short programs like birthright and Israel Experience.

When Meridor went to the Knesset in May, he quoted 2003’s figures, which showed 19,000 Jews from the FSU immigrating to Germany compared to only 12,000 who came to Israel. The 2004 figures make even starker reading: For the first time, FSU Jewish emigration to Germany, at 20,000, is now double FSU Jewish emigration to Israel.

Of course Jews should have the right to live anywhere they want. But these are troubling demographic trends for Zionists. And in the light of that German government policy of distributing its Jewish bounty so widely across the country, and the consequent evidence of large-scale assimilation, they are disturbing trends, as well, for all who cherish the well-being of the global Jewish nation.

Today’s Germany certainly considers itself motivated by that concern. How unfortunate, then, that unless Berlin changes its policies on Jewish immigration and absorption, some of the relatives who ‘get away’ today will in future decades again be dropping in on town halls in places like Saarbrucken. They’ll be seeking out the birth certificates of ancestors who, 60 and more years after the Holocaust, nevertheless disappeared in Germany.

© The Jerusalem Post