Germany’s Jews Mull Future As Immigration Drops

Society | 27.11.2006
The Deutsche Welle

Germany's Jews Mull Future as Immigration Drops
Groansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: German Jews are worrying about their numbers again

Germany's Jewish community has been one of the fastest growing in the world. But concerns by Israel and German Jews and a new law have slowed Jewish immigration and led to questions about the community's future.

Olga Lystova arrived in Germany 16 years ago from Moscow. She was one of the first under a German program that welcomed Jews to Germany. The art historian, journalist and translator said she adjusted relatively easily to German society — unlike her husband, who returned to Russia four years ago.

“It wasn't that difficult for me, particularly because I had studied German at the university,” she said. “My husband had more problems because of the language and because he wasn't particularly religious.”

That is the case for many of the 206,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have arrived since the fall of the Berlin Wall — often with little money, no German and a very different concept of what it means to be Jewish.

The immigrants have caused tensions in Germany's Jewish community — so much so that German-Jewish leaders quietly supported a tightening of the German immigration law that took effect in January. It makes it very difficult these days for Russian Jews to immigrate.

“In fact, it was the German-Jewish community that put this issue on the table by complaining about the Russian Jews' lack of Jewishness, language skills or ability to integrate,” says one prominent member of the Jewish community. “But it makes sense: they feel their power is endangered.”

As a result, the number of Jewish immigrants to Germany fell to 617 in the first nine months of 2006, as compared to an average of 15,000 annually between 1995 and 2005, according to German interior ministry statistics.

An initial warm welcome

After the demise of the Third Reich, the once-flourishing Jewish community of about 600,000 before the war had only about 15,000 members left. Then, in 1991, German officials created a new law allowing Jews from the former Soviet Union, known commonly as Russian Jews, to immigrate with few restrictions.

Bildunterschrift: Groansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: The Jewish Museum in Berlin is the country's most visitedAs a result, thousands of Jews who were once stuck behind the Iron Curtain took advantage of the new rules and were given an initial warm welcome.

The immigrants quickly doubled the size of Germany's Jewish community. By 1991, it numbered 30,000. By September 2006, the number of Jewish immigrants from Russia totaled 206,000.

“The new immigration helped the established Jewish community retain and build a critical mass needed for more political influence,” said Sergey Lagodinski, a commentator and advisor to the American Jewish Committee, who himself is an immigrant from Russia. “They thought they needed this for the good of the future of the German-Jewish community.”

The growth certainly helped. Across Germany, there is evidence of a Jewish revival in the past few years: A memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust opened in Berlin last year; three new rabbis were ordained in Dresden in September for the first time in Germany since the end of WWII; and a brand new Jewish center in Munich was inaugerated this month.

Still, all of this belies tensions within the Jewish community of which German Jews that stayed after the war only make up 15 percent.

“(German Jews) expected a different kind of Jew than they got,” Lagodinsky said. “We feel Jewish but not exactly in the way they expect us to feel. As a result, they think we are not really Jewish and question why we are here.”

Straining resources

Bildunterschrift: Groansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Russian Jews have different views of the past
Much of the problem stemmed from a lack of understanding. Russian Jews who grew up under communism had a very different experience with, and understanding of, their religion. Their Jewishness was cultural and ethnic, and a cause of discrimination in Russia.

“The people emigrating from Russia were shaped by the Soviet system and are not used to civic involvement,” Lagodinsky said. “And they were not only not religious but often anti-religious. Also, some are not accepted as Jews by German Jews because their mothers are not Jewish.”

As a result, only about half of incoming Jews have joined the established Jewish community, to the congregations' dismay.

(Bildunterschrift: Groansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Munich's new synagogue is a sign of Jewish revival)

Additionally, most Russian Jews arrive with very little money or chances of employment: more than half are over the age of 60 and survive on government handouts, according to studies by the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Some in the German-Jewish communities — which number about 80 nationwide — say they have a hard time coping with the large numbers of immigrants, which are straining their resources and “endangering the community's existence.”

Israeli concerns

Meanwhile, starting in 2004, Israel began increasing pressure on the German government to tighten the immigration laws. They were concerned over the falling numbers of Jewish immigrants from Russia as well as Israelis choosing to emigrate because of political instability and poor economic opportunities at home.

For example, in 2004, about 20,000 Russian Jews went to Germany and 11,000 to Israel, according to Israeli government statistics. Also, about 70,000 Russian Jews have left Israel in the past decade.

“They stressed that we need to do something because the numbers are not only hurting the Jewish community already here but also Israel's existence,” said one German interior ministry official, who did not want his name published. “They take the view that Israel is the only place for Jews.”

That resulted in the new rules that include requiring prospective immigrants to speak German, be under 45 years of age and show they can support themselves. The new restrictions also require that the would-be immigrants prove they have Jewish ancestry — from the maternal side — and be accepted by a German-Jewish congregation that would then sponsor them. The rules only apply to Jews from the former Soviet Union.

“This is essentially the end of Jewish immigration to Germany,” Lagodinksy said.

'Now is the critical moment'

While most agree that the new visa restrictions make it near impossible for would-be Jewish immigrants to come to Germany, there is less agreement over the future direction of the community.

Bildunterschrift: Groansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Germany's Jewish community has been rejuvenated
Rafael Seligmann, a journalist and prominent member of Germany's Jewish community, said that it needs to find a way to attract younger people.

“We have to reach a critical mass for the future of the community and need young people for that,” he said. “But we also have to ensure a return to the history and the traditions of German Jewry of the past 1,700 years.”

Newcomers say instead that there is a need to look toward the future, to create a new common Jewish identity.

“Stop talking about integrating the Russians — you cannot talk about integrating 85 percent of people into 15 percent, it's paternalistic and impossible,” Lagodinsky said. “Instead we have to start a discussion about the new Jewish community and what it will look like. Now is the critical moment to start — the future of this community depends on what is decided right now.”