By: Vic Alhadeff
19 January 2019
The cry was as jarring and intrusive as it was unexpected. Huddled against a bracing Frankfurt morning, the delegation of Jewish leaders from centres as diverse as Novosibirsk, Siberia, and Santiago, Chile, was listening to an outdoor briefing about the turbulent history which lay behind a sign that simply said “Judenmarkt”.
Just metres away was an elongated grey wall, its surface punctuated by tiny metal boxes – simulated coffins? – each bearing biographical details of one of the 11,500 Jews of Frankfurt who were murdered in the Holocaust. Suddenly, a cream-coloured Mercedes taxi raced towards us; as it passed, the driver lowered his window and yelled “Alles luege!” – which translates, unfortunately, to “All lies!”
The irony that the invective occurred during the final presentation on the final day of a week-long government program titled “Jewish Life in Germany” was not lost on the international visitors, while visibly rattling our guide’s composure. A commendable initiative of the German Foreign Ministry, the comprehensive schedule of briefings, site visits and participation in Holocaust memorial ceremonies immersed us in the fraught situation in which the German Government and the nation’s 250,000 Jews currently find themselves.
Headlining the most disturbing aspect of the evolving landscape is the eruption onto the political scene of an extremist party with neo-Nazi elements, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). From a standing start, it burst into prominence in September 2017 and now occupies an alarming 92 seats in the Bundestag (federal parliament), making it one of the country’s largest opposition parties, while fielding MPs in all 16 of the nation’s state parliaments.
Exploiting widespread anger at the 2015 influx of over one million Syrian refugees, its principal platform is opposition to Muslim immigration. In this context it bizarrely presents itself as a safe harbour for German Jews, attempting to launch a Jewish group at a recent meeting in Wiesbaden. The good news was that only 19 Jews showed up, while 400 Jews staged a counter-demonstration and affirmed that they would have nothing to do with the AfD – consistent with the policy of the country’s peak Jewish organisation.
While the rise in antisemitic incidents is attributed in part to the left, to Islamists and to refugees, over 90 per cent are perpetrated by far-right extremists – all of which has motivated Germany’s Foreign Ministry to establish a position dedicated to combating anti-semitism and liaising with German Jewry. The appointee is Dr Felix Klein, who is building a department to devise a strategy to combat antisemitism and promote Jewish life in Germany. At the same time, 300 municipalities across the country are engaged in programs against hate.
While German Jews are spread across 103 communities throughout the country, creating logistical challenges, there are many positive events on the national Jewish calendar. They include: Jewrovision, a music festival for Jewish youth, bringing together 1000 Jewish teenagers; Kipa Day, when the mayors of Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich and Cologne invite males to wear a kipa as a mark of solidarity with Jewish citizens; a project to educate Syrian refugees about the Holocaust and antisemitism; the import of Arab-speaking Israelis in an effort to build bridges to the refugees; and a recent conference by Jewish youth on the future of Germany’s Jewish community with the upbeat theme “Because I want to live here”.
Meanwhile, Berlin leads the way in acknowledging the Holocaust. Apart from the iconic landmarks such as the massive Holocaust memorial just 200 metres from the Brandenburg Gate, 6000 Stolpersteiner (Stumbling Blocks) – metal plates inlaid into pavements across the city at sites from where Jews were deported and murdered, their personal details engraved. And chillingly, while on a pre-dawn run, I came across a bus-stop outside a hotel featuring billboards bearing information about Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann – because the hotel is located on the site of Eichmann’s headquarters, from where he directed killing operations.
So the situation is complex. German Jews – who include an estimated 30,000 Israelis – are overwhelmingly positive, while profoundly concerned at the emergence of the AfD. At the same time, 3600 British Jews have applied for German citizenship in the event that Jeremy Corbyn becomes that country’s prime minister.
Yet there are Germans – a growing phenomenon among younger demographics – who are angry with the Jews because of the Holocaust, who in fact resent the Jews for the Holocaust. There are 1600 years of Jewish history in Germany, they point out; why this obsession with just 12 of those years – 1933-45, when the Nazis were in power? How succeeding generations of Germans tackle and respond to that most vital of questions will hold a key to the future of the country’s Jewish community.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He travelled to Germany as a guest of the German Foreign Ministry.