Dr. Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews, spoke with the founder of the initiative Faces of Democracy, Sven Lilienström, about the importance of German democracy, Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and modern anti-Semitism in Germany.
Dr. Schuster, the Federal Republic of Germany has come a long way towards a stable democracy. How important are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
As a child of parents who escaped the Nazis only through sheer luck, and the grandchild of people who were murdered in Auschwitz, I cannot value democracy and the values of our constitution highly enough. Respect for and protection of human dignity, fundamental rights as well as freedom of religion – these are all valuable achievements that we need to preserve.
The USA under President Donald Trump have decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a historic step with ample potential for conflict. How do you judge the decision?
What did Mr. Trump say? He said what's basically a fact: Israel's government is in Jerusalem, the parliament is in Jerusalem, every state visit and all political talks take place in Jerusalem. This is internationally accepted by everyone. Trump did not speak of East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem or the whole of Jerusalem. Whether consciously or not, that was a diplomatic statement. That's why I didn't understand all the excitement. I have the impression that anti-Israeli circles have exploited his statement, as could be seen, for example, in the protests in Berlin.
How do you explain the apparently emerging anti-Semitism in Germany? What influences do you think play a role and what demands do you have on politics and society?
I wouldn't speak of a newly emerging anti-Semitism. Surveys have shown for decades that about 20 to 25 percent of the population have anti-Jewish resentment.
However, these attitudes have been articulated more openly for some time now. The internet plays a major role here. In the social networks we find a verbal lack of inhibition which is dangerous, especially on the far-right of the political spectrum. Therefore, it is good that the Network Enforcement Act now provides an instrument to better prevent “hate speech”. Unfortunately, however, an anti-Israeli attitude is also spreading in society. It is then no longer a matter of factual criticism of Israel, but Israel's right to exist is called into question, or Jews in general are held liable for the policies of the Israeli government. That's anti-Semitism.
Dr. Josef Schuster. Photo: DPA
Headscarf and Kippa: Is a common foundation of values that transcends beliefs and cultures realistic or pure illusion? Do you think enough is being done to educate people on this?
We have an overarching foundation of values in our constitution. It has proven itself over decades. As far as the knowledge available about the different religions is concerned, we have a lot of catching up to do. For instance, schoolchildren only learn about Jews as victims. Jewish culture and tradition are not taught enough. That is why, together with the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, we have adopted a declaration with a view to broadening the dissemination of Judaism in the future. Materials are currently being developed for this purpose.
The Berlin Regional Court saw your statement about the AfD politician Wolfgang Gedeon, whom you called a “Holocaust denier”, as being covered by the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Did you expect this decision?
That is not the crucial question. What is crucial is the judgement itself, which we very much welcome in the face of increasingly aggressive anti-Semitism.
The owner of the Israeli restaurant Feinberg in Berlin recently filmed an anti-Semitic attack. Are verbal or physical attacks on Jews in Germany isolated cases or everyday life?
Unfortunately, we can no longer speak of individual cases of verbal attacks, but fortunately physical attacks occur less frequently. It is part of everyday Jewish life, however, that our institutions are under police protection, Jewish pupils are under police protection and we are increasingly reluctant to make ourselves known as Jews in public.
Dr. Schuster, our seventh question is always a personal one: What goals have you set yourself for the next few years – both professionally and privately?
With the Central Council of Jews, I would like to make a contribution to reducing anti-Semitism. We are working on this at various levels, through seminars and conferences, through a new student exchange project, in close cooperation with the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs and at the political level, for example through our efforts to appoint an anti-Semitism commissioner. We would also like to attract more young people to our communities. Personally, I have decided to spend more time with the family, especially my grandchildren.
This interview was first published in German by Faces of Democracy.