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Germany: Central Council of Jews Celebrates 70th Anniversary

Update: July 8th, 2020, 9:45 p.m. CEDT

The Central Council of Jews in Germany represents more than half of all Jews in the Federal Republic. Integration and fighting antisemitism are only two of the organization’s many tasks.

Seventy-five years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, there are 105 Jewish congregations in the reunited Federal Republic. Along with their 100,000 members, they are being represented by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. This means the Council is an important voice for more than half of all Jews in the country. But many of those who are not officially part of any congregations do feel represented as well.

The Antisemitism Aspect

Fighting antisemitism is an increasingly important aspect, because this kind of hatred has been on the rise for years. Hatred towards Jews is hundreds of years old. The original Nazis “and their willing executioners” (Goldhagen) murdered 6 million Jews in Europe. In spite of — or because of — this most terrible crime in human history, neo-Nazis admire them.

Josef Schuster: “We will raise our voice in future as well, whenever necessary.” Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Jew-hatred in today’s Germany has other sources too. Part of the left spreads Israel-related antisemitism. Islamists are yet another danger. Whenever antisemitic rallies take place, when antisemitic statements are made or similar problems arise, when the extremist right-wing ‘AfD’ attempts to use Jews to engage in whitewashing, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, mostly its President Josef Schuster, will comment, he will be interviewed and consulted.

Big Political Decisions

But reducing the Council to this task would be inaccurate. The organization also connects its members all over Germany, for instance by making sure the communication does not lag behind, and by organizing Jewish Community Day. The last one took place in Berlin just before Corona hit. International communication, for instance with the World Jewish Congress (WJC), is important too.

There is more: Big political decisions, such as the recent appointment of Jewish chaplains in the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, would probably never have been taken without the Central Council. The same applies to the appointment of the federal government’s first Coordinator Against Antisemitism, Felix Klein. Of course, the relations between the organization and the federal government are good.

Immigration and Integration

A big challenge was — and partially still is — the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Because of the alarming antisemitism in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Bloc, some 220,000 Jews from there came to Germany. They became part of congregations and changed them.

‘Meet a Jew’ is one of the Council’s programs against prejudice. Photo: Central Council of Jews in Germany

It was the Central Council which provided help to those immigrants. The aid included German language classes and other, more complicated forms of integration support. Many Russian Jews were taught about Jewish customs and values, also because they were not allowed to observe their religion in the Soviet Union, or learn about it.

Decreasing Prejudice

Out of all tasks the Central Council of Jews in Germany is working on, the communication programs it organizes for Jews and Muslims might be the most important ones. Funded by the government, ‘Schalom Aleikum’ is designed to reduce prejudice. Meetings of Jewish and Muslim representatives of the same profession or age are part of the program.

The exchanges are helpful. In many cases, Muslim participants have not met Jews before. They also serve as multipliers who talk to their friends and families about the experience. For instance, they might find out Jews are ‘normal people like you and me’. Another program called ‘Meet a Jew’ was organized at schools. Its goal is pretty much the same, namely decreasing prejudice.

Reaction to Issues

Today, the Central Council is being run by its President Josef Schuster, a doctor from the city of Würzburg, and Chief Executive Daniel Botmann (see main photo at top of page, on the right). There are big names among Schuster’s predecessors as well, including Charlotte Knobloch, who is still very active in Bavaria today, the late Ignaz Bubis and the late Heinz Galinski.

Mathias Döpfner (left) was awarded the Leo Baeck Prize by Josef Schuster (center) last year. The WJC’s Ronald Lauder (right) held the laudation speech in Berlin. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Not all Jews in Germany always agree with everything the Central Council says. Some wish the organization would react a little harsher to obvious issues in Germany. Recently, some courts did not treat obvious antisemitic incidents as such. The government seems to be working against Israel in many ways, including at the U.N., while claiming to do the opposite.

Criticism within Community

Some German Jews believe the Council should be a little louder, also when the Bundestag punishes Israel for the failures of Palestinian leaders who have rejected all peace proposals since 1948, including the Partition Plan, while Israel supported all of them. Israel’s annexation plans in Judea and Samaria were just criticized in a Berlin Bundestag resolution.

“The Central Council is important”, Malca Goldstein-Wolf, a Jewish activist from Cologne told The Berlin Spectator. “In many cases, I wish their statements would be more distinct when they address the political Berlin. Also I wish they would not just look to the right, but also see the dangers of left-wing and Muslim antisemitism.”

‘Diplomatic Approach’

She missed clear criticism of Germany’s foreign policy and of the double standards it deployed, Malca Goldstein-Wolf said. “At the same time, I understand the Central Council needs to take a diplomatic approach” and that it was forced to get along with leading politicians.

Josef Schuster introduced the ‘Schalom Aleikum’ project in Berlin last November. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Elio Adler, the chairman of the NGO ‘Werteinitiative’, which discusses Jewish issues with MPs at the Berlin Bundestag, said he thanked the Central Council for fulfilling its mission impossible. The proverb about two Jews with three opinions was accurate. According to Elio Adler, the Council has managed to keep the balance and to make statements with a majority appeal within the Jewish community.

Liberated Jews

The Council also awards prizes to people for their commitment to the Jewish cause. Recently, Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer SE, got the Leo Baeck Prize. Among all renowned commentators in the German media community, he is definitely among the most supportive ones when it comes to Israel and Jews.

It all started two months after World War II, when Holocaust survivors founded the ‘Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the American Zone’, one of the predecessors. The Central Council of Jews in Germany was founded on July 19th, 1950, in Frankfurt, exactly seventy years ago. After Germany’s reunification, the small community from the GDR was integrated.

Schuster on Anniversary

Without Corona, there would have been a real celebration. Now the Council said it would honor the anniversary in a “digital and modern” way. A new podcast series, in German, is about to be published.

“What started as a provisional arrangement after the Shoah, is an integral part of society today”, President Josef Schuster said a week and a half ahead of the anniversary. “Jewish life is part of it. Germany is our home.”

“We do monitor the political and societal developments in our country”, Schuster stated. “Like we did in the past decades, we will raise our voice in future as well, whenever necessary, when the rights of the Jewish community, of other minorities or basic rights are in danger.” Schuster vowed the Council would talk straight instead of beating around the bush, just like in the past.

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