Religions in Germany

Central Council of Jews in Germany Turns 60

Homepage des Zentralrats der Juden in Deutschland; © Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland Website of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; © Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland 60 years after its foundation, the Central Council of Jews in Germany can look back over an amazing success story: nearly 110,000 Jews live in over 100 growing communities. Jewish life has become more diverse thanks to migration and reorientation. This entails some challenges for its organization.

Stephan Kramer is annoyed. The widespread indignation at the bloody military operation launched by the Israeli army against the “Gaza solidarity fleet” on 31 May 2010 reminds him of the ritual outbreaks of “two minutes’ hate” in George Orwell’s novel “1984”. While Kramer admits that this was a “colossal failure” on the part of the Israeli army and its leadership which must be “relentlessly investigated by Israel”, he claims that the failure is the fact that Israel “walked blindly into the trap set by violent criminals posing as peace activists”. The genuinely peaceful activists on the ships, he continues, were in actual fact “‘useful idiots’ from the West “who refused to believe that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip is designed to prevent Hamas from acquiring arms via Iran.

Stephan J. Kramer is Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. This is by no means the first time he has adopted a resolute public stance on an aspect of Middle East policy. A large part of the press statements published by the Central Council are concerned directly or indirectly with the state of Israel. Kramer believes this is necessary because Western criticism of Israel is often about a matter of principle, namely the fact that people do not wish to grant “Jews the universal human right of self-defence”. His positions on the Middle East conflict, however, are also characteristic of one of the balancing acts in which the Jewish representative body in Germany finds itself involved 60 years after its foundation.

Radical change after forty years

Leo-Baeck-House; © Zentralrat der Juden in DeutschlandWhen the “Central Council of Jews in Germany” was created in Frankfurt am Main on 19 July 1950, around 15,000 Jews were still living in the then Allied occupied zones. A third of them had survived the Shoah in hiding, while the remainder returned from camps and exile. Of those Jews who came to Germany as displaced persons in the post-war years, most moved on, the majority to the USA or Israel; a few thousand, however, remained.

Until 1989, the number of Jews represented by the Central Council in the Federal Republic of Germany remained fairly stable at roughly 25,000. It was only when the Soviet Union collapsed that the situation suddenly changed: the influx of Jews from the former Eastern Bloc caused the communities to grow to more than four times their previous size. What is more, the five regional associations of Jewish communities in East Germany (GDR) were incorporated into the Council in 1990. Within just a few years, the Central Council faced the challenge of providing a radically changed Jewish population in Germany with a common roof, as this was its original mandate.

Hard to reproduce a grand tradition

In 1950, the delegates in Frankfurt elected a four-member directorate and a council comprising 15 community representatives. Surviving Jews found their new religious and social home in what were known as “united communities” which were mainly orthodox in character. It was virtually impossible to reproduce the religious diversity of the pre-war years on account of the small number of members. The Council did not act as a religious authority but as an umbrella organization to represent Jews in society as a whole and vis-à-vis official bodies.

Stephan Kramer; © Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland As such, the Central Council was the successor to the Reich Representation, which was established in 1933 and represented over 500,000 German Jews. This was the first central association of Jews in Germany: a necessity if Jews were to be able to react to the incipient discrimination and persecution of the National Socialist state. From 1939, however, the Gestapo took over direct control of the organization, finally disbanding it in July 1943. Its president, the famous liberal Rabbi and scholar Leo Baeck, survived internment in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The Galinski era

The Central Council was initially domiciled in Frankfurt, later moving to Dusseldorf and then to Bonn, the then German capital. No-one symbolizes this era as much as the Council’s first president, Heinz Galinski. He had lost his entire family in Auschwitz and himself had survived the camps in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. He was chairman of the Jewish community in Berlin for 43 years.

Because of his own fate, Galinski was able to credibly defend the prospect of new Jewish life in Germany despite widespread scepticism abroad, especially in Israel. He negotiated compensation laws with the government of the Federal Republic of Germany and was impossible to ignore as a public figure who was determined not to allow the past to be suppressed. In 1988, Heinz Galinski took on the newly created office of president of the Central Council, a post he held until his death in 1992.

Growing pains

Website of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; © Zentralrat der Juden in DeutschlandIn 1999, the Central Council moved to Berlin and set up its headquarters in Leo Baeck House, the former “Academy for the Science of Judaism”. In Germany’s new capital, the Council coordinates the development of a re-emergent Jewish community. In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal communities formed once again for the first time in Germany and organized themselves into the “Union of Progressive Jews”. In 1994, there was an open conflict with the Central Council concerning the legal recognition of the new communities and the distribution of government subsidies. The dispute was resolved in part in 2006. In the meantime, a number of liberal regional associations have joined the Central Council, though conflicts still arise, some of which are settled in court.

Immigration and religious differentiation are gradually leading modern Jewish life in Germany out of the shadow of the Shoah. Jews are no longer perceived merely as victims and survivors and also no longer see themselves in this way. Symptomatic of this is the dispute about who is to succeed Council President Charlotte Knobloch. In early February 2010, she declared, in the wake of internal discussions, that she would not put herself forward as a candidate for another term of office in November. She was accused of hindering a generation change in the leadership of the Central Council and appropriate participation of immigrants. Dieter Graumann, her vice-president, is thought to be a promising successor. The change at the helm, however, does not mean “in any way that the era of Holocaust survivors is coming to an end”, stresses Stephan Kramer. After all, he explains, a considerable number of people who witnessed the genocide are still members of the Council’s executive bodies.

Many hot potatoes

Knobolch’s successor will have to get to grips with a whole series of hot potatoes: on an internal level, there is the question of coexistence of orthodox and liberal Jews, and of native German Jews and Jewish immigrants. Politically, it is a question of critical solidarity with Israel, whose firm line is controversial even among Jews. At the same time, the Central Council faces the phenomenon of a new anti-Semitism which at times is disguised as criticism of Israel and which puts a strain on the relationship with the other major religious minority in Germany, the Muslims.

On the other hand, Secretary General Kramer also believes there is a risk that the Central Council will be perceived by the public “as a body for admonishment and victims”. He thus warns against fulfilling a widespread expectation in society “that forces us into the role of moral guardian.” There are, in other words, many problems – but they are problems against the backdrop of a renewal of which the founders of the Central Council in 1950 could hardly have dreamt.

Gregor Taxacher
is a theologian and works as an editor for German broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk and as a freelance author (focusing, among other things, on Christianity, Judaism and Islam) in Cologne.

Translation. Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2010

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