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OPINION: Unified communities?

Walter Rothschild offers a sharp insider’s analysis of Jewish life in Germany today

Walter Rothschild  |  Autumn 2005  -  Number 199


For the past seven years I have been serving as a ‘Liberale Rabbiner’ in Germany. This is a position which earns a lot of raised eyebrows from the many people surprised that any Jews dare to live in Germany, but I suppose someone has to do it . . .

Initially I was appointed for three years as Liberale Gemeinderabbiner in the Jewish community of Berlin, a top-heavy organization of some 12,000 registered members and 400 employees, which runs six synagogues (one ‘Orthodox’, the rest ‘not Orthodox’); a kindergarten, primary and secondary schools (including a Gymnasium section); an old people’s home and a care home; three cemeteries (two of them still in use); a library; a Volkshochschule (offering evening classes to the public); a youth department, social welfare department and all the trappings of a small state. The chairmanship can be a very well-paid, full-time job, with limousine, chauffeur and bodyguards at all times. (The current Chairman is a lawyer and is not taking the salary.)

Individuals belong to the community, not to a synagogue, and can attend services anywhere. The rabbis and other clergy are likewise employed by the community, not the synagogues, and allocated by rota to services and funerals where required. The Orthodox rabbi in this community has a lifetime contract, the Liberal one - well, that’s where we hit the difference between the theoretical equality in the so-called Einheitsgemeinden and the reality. But at least there is a formal position for a ‘Liberal Rabbi’ in this particular structure; the other ‘Unified Communities’ or Einheitsgemeinden tend to employ only one at most, and these are overwhelmingly not ‘Liberal’ but Orthodox or Chabad - or just, well, strange.

For the past four years I have been serving - mostly simultaneously - a variety of small and penniless independent Liberal congregations, in München, Köln, Halle, Freiburg and all over Schleswig-Holstein. This makes me a great traveller and provides insight into the real situation in many different areas. I am a ‘Wandering Rabbi’ rather than a ‘Wunderrebbe’, not so much a ‘Liberale Rabbiner’ as an ‘Überalle Rabbiner’ - one who goes everywhere. This means I have worked both inside and outside the ‘official system’, and understand at least a few of the conflicts and problems that dominate German-Jewish existence. These are not the ones that most outsiders expect.

The only way to understand the problems facing Judaism or Jews in Germany (note that I do not say ‘German Jews’) is to make clear from the outset that the entire system is the reverse of that in Britain. Finance, and the power that derives from distributing this finance, comes from the top, not the bottom. The Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, another top-heavy and indirectly elected body, claims to be the sole legitimate representative national Jewish organization. Although it protests that it has no real influence, that all power lies with the congregations and the grassroots, this is merely a convenient excuse and not, in my experience, actually true.

Imagine, if you can, the Board of Deputies receiving several million pounds from the British government, and allocating it to whichever synagogue organization can claim to be ‘the only true legitimate one’. You can imagine the wheedling and jockeying for position that would take place! Further, imagine that you had to register at the local town hall as ‘Jewish’ (or Protestant or Catholic) and that in consequence 9 per cent was added to your income tax and paid directly to the local community (or church). Almost no member of any community here pays substantial voluntary subscriptions to their congregation. Instead, the money either comes involuntarily – through the Gemeindesteuer or community tax levied on everyone registered as ‘Jewish’, whether or not they are interested in belonging - or in the form of direct financial assistance paid by local, regional and federal state authorities towards the costs of running communities composed largely or entirely of recipients of social security benefits. Such people do not pay tax and are therefore not liable for the Gemeindesteuer. (This ‘church tax’ system, dating from Prussian times, is applied only to Protestants, Catholics, the separate group of so-called ‘Old Catholics’ and Jews - which means that the Free Churches, Muslims, Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus and other religious communities remain outside. It was originally designed partly to ensure state control of religious organizations, creating a single ‘officially recognized partner’ for the government to deal with. In return for receipt of funding and monopoly access, the ‘church’ is theoretically bound to serve the needs of all persons of their faith in a specific area. The problem is the lack of supervision or incentive to distribute the largesse beyond a small clique.)

To take just the example of Berlin, which proudly boasts to be the largest Jewish community in the Federal Republic, although the principle applies nationwide. Of around 12,000 registered members, about 80 per cent are recipients of social security payments - as pensioners, ‘Victims of National Socialist Oppression’, unemployed, ‘New Refugees’ or whatever. Why does the community not go bankrupt? Because it is classed as a Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts – a term hard to translate but essentially meaning a quasi-governmental organization, permitted to claim tax revenues, have access to government population data and enjoy tax privileges. (Since everyone in theory has to register their religion at the Standesamt, it can claim 12,000 members even if barely a tenth of these are remotely interested in any of the community’s activities. Its payments from official sources reflect this higher number.)

A major consequence of this quasi-official status and funding ‘from above’ is that the communities are seen as branches of government - something which Paul Spiegel, the President of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, complained about when a federal court recently described their function in distributing state subsidies in exactly those terms. Members perceive the communities as quasi-governmental agencies responsible for providing them with social services, language instruction, assistance in integration into the host society, assistance in finding accommodation and employment, in getting their qualifications recognized (or not) . . . There is little sense that the community needs the members, more that members can use the community to meet their short-term needs.

The system leads to many anomalies. First, since the communities are defined less by their religiosity and more by how many people have been registered as ‘Jews’ - and are paid according to their size, on a per-head basis - there is an incentive for the lay leadership to inflate numbers and thereby their income. What matters is quantity rather than ‘quality’ of commitment.

In one community, which I dare not name, I have heard that a Chairman paid the members to join - only a small amount of pocket money but significant for these elderly and virtually penniless refugees from the East. He was then able to go to the local authorities and say: ‘Look, we have a Jewish community here of so and so many members! We need resources! Research has revealed that in several communities entire refugee families of five or six persons have been included in the statistics even if only one member - say, the husband/father - is halachically Jewish. Not really interested in Halacha, the community cashes in and does not mind, perhaps until the day when an Orthodox rabbi is appointed and declares certain members not to be Jewish after all . . .

Recent figures indicate perhaps 108,000 registered Jews in Germany – but there may be another 80,000 who are not registered, have left their communities (because of disputes or to save money) or have not been accepted as Jews by their communities! Some of these anomalies result from the way immigration is organized. The embassy in Moscow allocates successful applicants to Länder, or states, which then in turn allocate them to specific Kommunen, cities and towns. This is to ensure that not all Soviet-Jewish immigrants congregate in a few major cities but leads to the creation of totally artificial and rootless ‘Jewish communities’ in small provincial towns, cut off from most of the required infrastructure and with little idea where to begin. Yet, for the first few years, residence permits are specifically tied to these towns.

Problems can arise when someone who has been classed as Jewish in the Ukraine is not classed as Jewish here. It also happens that expatriate Americans and Israelis can live and work here for some years but, because they are not paid and taxed in Germany, have no means of being registered as members!

Another bizarre element in the situation - and one which no other Jewish community in the world has to face - is that it has in many ways become a positive advantage to be Jewish. Though outsiders wail about every little antisemitic incident, and though the ‘professional Jews’ react in the same way to maintain their public profiles, the truth is that being Jewish today can gain you privileges in terms of immigration, access to state assistance with housing, language courses, job-seeking. As a Jew you will automatically be admired by a majority of Christians, invited to speak in churches and schools, treated with special care by the police (who would not hesitate to deal much more roughly with Muslim gangsters). There are even lots of people prepared to pay large sums of money to become Jewish, and rabbis (unfortunately) prepared to accept large sums of money to give them the necessary papers. It is a strange reversal of history - previously, people forged papers to prove they were not Jewish, now they forge papers to prove they are . . .

As a people, we are so used to being oppressed, despised and attacked that we have no effective communal strategy to deal with the sudden influx of interested new potential converts, or people seeking to use a ‘Jewish’ identity as a protective cover for other activities. Sincere seekers of closeness with God are to be found alongside those reclaiming a grandfather who married out, was baptised or lost his faith, but who provides what they see as a useful route back into the lost religion. It is fashionable to be Jewish - in many quarters of German society - and one learns to be wary of the true motivation of some of those who come knocking on the door.

So the German Jewish community has grown - from around 30,000 fifteen years ago - but the growth has not been ‘natural’. For a period of just over a decade a tap was turned on and Jews from the Former Soviet Union were permitted to immigrate on privileged terms. (Other ethnic or cultural groups, incidentally, were also given a ‘fast track’, including the so-called Spätaussiedler, descendants of ethnic Germans. No one likes to use the term, but essentially this is a racist policy, defining people not by their current identity, culture or abilities but solely on the basis of whether they had a ‘German’ grandparent! Some of these people have also imported their own brand of Soviet antisemitism into Germany - two such men, living in an immigrant hostel in Schleswig-Holstein, beat another man nearly to death simply because he had a Jewish wife . . .)

Antisemitism is often raised as a worrying issue by outsiders. I would say it is always there, endemic, a product of history and ignorance and twisted guilt - but that the Jewish community as a whole does little or nothing to reduce it, only to scream about it whenever any criticism is made or any restriction is proposed. As in other countries, problems often come from directions that some might consider unexpected. There are always some rebellious and provocative young men who like to dress up in black leather and attack ‘foreigners’, but the foreigners they attack today are predominantly not Jewish but refugees or immigrants from Africa or the Far East. A large proportion of anti-Jewish attacks come from young Muslims - the German Police use the term ‘of Southern appearance’ (Südländisch) to describe suspects from the Mediterranean or North Africa – rather than ‘Neo-Nazi Germans’.

There is more, much more, that could be said about the internal problems within the communities - between the ‘Germans’ and ‘Russians’, the different groups of immigrants, between Liberal and ‘not Liberal but not really Orthodox’, between Chabad and the rest. It is an interesting experiment that is taking place - the parameters are not yet clear and we will need a generation or more before we can tell whether the experiment has worked. Many people, closely involved in Jewish life, harbour severe but secret doubts. No non-Jewish politician dares criticize too openly – it would be political suicide - but many are well-informed and have their private opinions as to what has been going wrong with the integration of new Jewish citizens. The Liberal congregations have banded together and are fighting hard for their rights – and have managed to achieve a few minor victories in terms of access to money and the opportunity to advertise in the national Jewish newspaper.

It is a wonderful irony - a nation which spent decades trying to get rid of its Jews and then decades hoping for the removal of the Russians is now importing Russian Jews at state expense! It then gives them - after due process - passports valid throughout the European Union. This is a benefit which also attracts thousands of Israelis and South Americans of German refugee descent. Yet we then spend most of our time and energy fighting each other for the financial support to enable us to continue fighting each other . . .

In conclusion, I would advise: be careful of simplistic reactions. Germany is a complex country, and always has been. There may have been a time when the concept of ‘Jews in Germany’ seemed unthinkable. But now it has become a reality, and the Germans are being God to us - in many respects, far better than we deserve. Whether the community will become yet ‘good Jews’, ‘good Germans’ or indeed both remains to be seen. But some of us are working on it . . .

Walter Rothschild is Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein.

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