“It’s a fortress mentality,” said my friend as we sat outdoors over a glass of wine on a mild September evening after attending a back-to-school night at the John F. Kennedy School of Berlin. “Jewish organizations in Germany are closed, restrictive organizations that don’t seek volunteers and don’t have the transparency of Jewish groups in the States.” Punkt.
“But I want to do something to address the rise in anti-Semitism and promote cross-cultural unity,” I said. Silence. A sympathetic nod. Time to move on, I thought.
Less than a week earlier I had attended a rally against anti-Semitism organized by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. About 6,000 people, a rather disappointing turnout, gathered around the slogan “Steh Auf – Nie Wieder Judenhass” (Stand up – Never again hatred of Jews).
I had simmered with disgruntlement over this slogan in the days leading up to the rally. Why couldn’t they have chosen something more positive and inspirational?
I’ve lived in Berlin for more than three years and never felt hated.
Yes, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, but let’s rally for a more just society for Jews, Muslims, and other minorities. Our freedom is intertwined with every legitimate group that encounters hatred.
The rallying cry “Nie wieder Judenhass” was the cry of a persecuted minority, one whose dark history is never far from mind. But the last seven decades have brought significant changes to Germany, not the least of which is a thriving Jewish population.
How can our response to present acts of hatred and intolerance be informed by the past and yet account for the different circumstances of today?
Anti-Semitism remains a stubborn stain on German society, but consider “the Pew Foundation 2014 Global Attitudes survey which suggests that in Europe unfavourable attitudes towards Roma and Muslims are more prevalent than those toward Jews.”
In the months prior to the rally and during a summer of street demonstrations in Berlin over the Gaza conflict, I had been looking for a way to get involved in interfaith or cross-cultural awareness programs.
I searched the web and sent numerous emails, but I found little to no information about social action and volunteer opportunities in Berlin’s Jewish community.
My hopes were raised when I met with a prominent Jewish leader who welcomed my offer of help but has since not answered any of my messages.
I’m used to being bombarded with online invitations to join campaigns, contribute resources, and help make a difference.
This is not the case with regard to the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Jewish community of Berlin.
Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I cannot determine how the Jewish leadership in Germany would like me to help build a society that is free of hatred and intolerance towards Jews.
Standing up to rally against hatred should be just the starting point.
Germany has become one of the world’s most democratic nations. Most observers praise the German government’s efforts to memorialize Holocaust victims and provide accurate education about the past.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet have taken a firm stance against anti-Semitism. Jewish life and culture is on display in many parts of Germany, lending affirmation to Merkel’s statement at the rally that Jewish life belongs in Germany and “is part of our identity.”
It’s time for Germany’s Jewish organizations to shed some of their protective layers and show more leadership in community action for social justice.
These organizations already provide valuable religious, cultural and social services to Germany’s growing Jewish population.
Their websites list many great programs and resources and I hope to soon see some new outreach and education initiatives as well.
In the meantime, I’ve just agreed to work with two Berlin churches to form an interfaith youth group. Perhaps I’ll be able to convince the Jewish community to participate.
Donna Swarthout is a freelance writer in Berlin, Germany. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle.