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Can today's Germany 
be a home for Jews?

By Eliahu Salpeter

After every wave of neo-Nazi incidents, the question arises again among some of the leaders of German Jewry, of whether it was right to rebuild Jewish communities in the country where the Final Solution was implemented. 

The previous president of the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, gave instructions in his will to bring his coffin for burial in Israel rather than in Germany, for fear that his grave would be desecrated by anti-Semitic thugs.Last week, too, in the wake of attempts to burn two synagogues and other incidents, the question was again raised by the present chair of the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities, Paul Spiegel. The question dealt with a situation which is still delicate in Germany, because the presence of Jewish communities and the attitude toward the Jews is still considered by most of the country's political and spiritual leaders as one of the criteria for measuring the depth of democratic roots in Germany.

"The attacks on Jewish sites are directed not only against German Jewish citizens, but against the whole of German society," said Friedrich Mertz, one of the leaders of the Christian Democratic party, at a special session of the Bundestag held last week in order to discuss the situation of German Jews in light of recent acts of violence.

Almost 100,000 Jews live in united Germany, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There is no information as to the number of Jews (most of whom settled in Germany because they didn't receive entrance visas for America, and didn't want to come to Israel), if any, who are now considering leaving Germany. But the possibility worries the members of the Bundestag. At the same special session, speakers from across the political spectrum condemned the anti-Semitic incidents and called on the Jews of Germany not to emigrate. Some of Germany's leaders are expressing a fear (which is not unfounded), that as the Holocaust becomes more distant, the moral prohibition against public expression of anti-Semitism, which has been in force in Germany since World War II ended, has weakened.

The attacks on Jewish targets are a relatively small part of the growing wave of extreme right acts of violence directed against foreigners, including many murders of residents of African origin. In Germany, too, right-wing thugs burn pizzerias and shops owned by foreigners, and beat up people who look foreign. Matters have become so preoccupying that German Interior Minister Otto Schily recently asked that the extreme right National Democratic Party be outlawed. Even the legal authorities, who are known for their slow pace, recently hastened to bring right-wing thugs to trial.

The fact that lately there has been a rise in neo-Nazi crimes even in the western part of Germany is cause for concern, but most of the racist and anti-Semitic crimes are still taking place mainly in the former East Germany, where problems of racism were not dealt with during the Communist era. In 1999, the proportion of racially-based acts of violence in the former West Germany was 0.7 per 100,000 inhabitants; in the states of the East the proportion was 2-3 per 100,000. About 18 percent of the inhabitants of the Federal Republic live in the former East Germany, but about half of all extreme right acts of violence take place there. Sociologist Richard Stoess of Berlin says that the breaking point came during the second half of the last decade, when a significant percentage of East Germans lost the optimism they had felt with the reunification of Germany.

A survey conducted by the German Emnid institute in August shows the great differences between East and West Germany. To the question of whether they would be willing to vote for one of the three (legal) extreme right parties, 11 percent of West Germans and 23 percent of East Germans answered yes (these numbers were arrived at by combining those who answered "in general" and those who answered "in special cases"). The highest rate of affirmative answers in both parts of Germany was among young people between the ages of 16 and 27. To the question of whether there are too many foreigners in Germany, 47 percent of West Germans and 63 percent of East Germans said yes, in spite of the fact that West Germany has a higher proportion of foreigners. Nevertheless, it is no less significant that even in less extreme West Germany, almost half of those asked answered in the affirmative. Only 12 percent of West Germans think that foreigners are taking away their jobs, while in East Germany, 34 percent think so. However, the fact that the percentage of those who think there are too many foreigners is much higher than the percentage who think that foreigners are stealing their jobs - proves that the economic explanation for xenophobia is at best only partially correct.

The fact that in both parts of Germany, anti-Semitism in particular (as opposed to xenophobia in general) is stronger among young people than among adults, is a matter for concern. In a survey conducted last month by Potsdam University among 4,500 youth in Brandenburg in East Germany, and in the state of Nord-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, it was discovered that in the West, 11 percent of youths have clearly anti-Semitic opinions, while in the East, that figure rises to 30 percent.

While acts of violence take place mainly among youth from the lower classes, anti-Semitic opinions have increased greatly among the political, intellectual and economic elites. In these circles there has been a serious qualitative change: The social taboo which placed anti-Semitism outside accepted norms has been broken. Anti-Semitism is now expressed openly and in public.

In many countries, there have recently been more acts of anti-Semitic violence than in Germany. Of course, German leaders denounce these phenomena more sharply than do leaders of other countries. But it is clear that when such events increase in Germany, sensitivity to them is greater.

© copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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