The rapid growth of the Jewish community in Germany is a threat - says a fellow Jew

Click to follow
The Independent Online
YOU STILL have to drive a long way in Germany to buy a bagel, but not as far as 10 years ago. Europe's fastest-growing Jewish population is now able to support kosher cafes and delicatessen in the bigger cities, class sizes are exploding in schools where Hebrew is taught, and in some reopened synagogues it is impossible to get a seat on the high holy days.

Jewish life is thriving again on German soil. Since 1990, more than 45,000 Jews have arrived from the east, infusing a geriatric, backward-looking community with fresh vigour. The immigrants have brought their own customs and their own language. In Jewish clubs, Russian has become the lingua franca, notice board announcements are in the Cyrillic script, and former ghettoes have acquired the airs of the stetl.

Not everyone in Germany is delighted with that. The locals grumble about being swamped by the eastern hordes, and question the immigrants' commitment to the society embracing them. The newcomers, they complain, are just not prepared to adapt - to the Jewish way of life in Germany, that is.

The only people who dare to make bigoted comments about the immigrants are fellow Jews, and one in particular. Alphons Silbermann, a Cologne sociologist, last week ignited controversy by bringing the awkward discussion into the open.

"They only want to be Jewish Germans, but not German Jews," Mr Silbermann told the magazine Focus. "That is a huge difference whose consequence may well be that in 20 years' time we shall have no Jewish communal life in Germany. This is a real danger." The Jewish community, he suggested, was "committing suicide".

These are heavily-laden words in the land of the Final Solution, but Mr Silbermann says he based his conclusions on "empirical data". With the help of public funds, he has produced a 160-page study of Jewish immigration from the east, and copies have been sent to every Jewish community in Germany. Mr Silbermann, director of the Cologne Institute of Mass Communications, does not conceal his disdain for the newcomers. "The large influx has unfortunately increased only the number of Jews, but not the strength of German Jewry." The majority of immigrants, he says, "have no interest in religious or cultural integration. The immigrants must know that they are doing their Jewish community no favours when they refuse to learn German and Hebrew, thus locking themselves in a ghetto."

There is more. The Russian Jews, Mr Silbermann charges, are sponging off their generous brethren. "Russian immigrants must stop regarding the [Jewish] communities merely as a self-service store or a service centre, to be exploited when it is to their advantage, under the motto: 'You fetched us, now look after us'."

It is not often that Germans are treated to "good Jew - bad Jew" distinctions, and outraged community leaders were quick to distance themselves from Mr Silbermann's "insulting" thesis. Though none was prepared to engage in a public debate, they pointed out that the 89-year-old academic had a reputation for arrogance and eccentricity. "You cannot generalise about all immigrants," said a Jewish welfare worker. "Some are well integrated, some are not."

"The immigrants from the east have had a very positive impact on Jewish life," said a spokeswoman of the Berlin Jewish community. "One can see this in the clubs, where the children of Russian immigrants are especially active."

But this is exactly what seems to trouble Mr Silbermann, one of the rare German Jews actually born and raised in Germany. The arch-conservative scholar lived out the Nazi era in Australia, and was one of the few who returned to his native country. He fears that his culture is now in danger of Russification.

But Mr Silbermann's concept of "German Jewry", fellow "German Jews" point out, has not existed for 50 years. Most of the 30,000 members of the pre- Russian community were immigrants themselves or their descendants: concentration camp survivors and East Europeans who ended up in displaced persons' camps. Their lives and homes shattered, Germany was as good a place to start anew as any other.

Over the years, the original pioneers grew old and their children often opted for a new homeland. When communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe, German Jewry seemed again on the verge of extinction. In 1990, leaders of the community and the German government struck a deal, paving the way for the admission of large numbers of Jewish immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Resettling them has not always been easy. The immigrants are often dispatched to villages and small towns in eastern Germany where there are no job opportunities. A large proportion of the newcomers are highly educated, albeit with diplomas Germans do not recognise. Languishing for 70 years under a hostile regime, many Russian Jews struggled to find their Jewish identity, especially in a religious setting.

Mr Silbermann appears to resent that, though in his tirade he also takes a swipe at the "many rabbis who have come here from Israel", and the fact that in Jewish magazines "we read more about Israel than about Germany". If he remains alive long enough, he may well be forced to read more about Russia as well.

Comments