Germany Is Moving To End Mass Immigration of Jews From Russia

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 24, 2004, issue of December 24, 2004.
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The mass migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Germany likely will come to a swift end with the introduction of a new law drawn up by Germany’s 16-state governments.

German authorities presented the new restrictions on Jewish immigration to Germany’s two national Jewish organizations last week. As put forth, the restrictions effectively will end the wave of migration that has brought almost 200,000 Jews and their relatives to Germany from the former Soviet Union, causing a Jewish renaissance in the most unlikely of places.

The law drew praise from Israeli authorities, who have long been uncomfortable with Jewish immigration to Germany, especially since it began topping immigration to Israel in the last few years. Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-government agency responsible for immigration to Israel, said the changes were “positive.” Jankelowitz said that his organization aggressively had lobbied the German government for the new law.

But the new restrictions provoked concern in German and Russian circles. “This means the death of our immigration,” said Larissa Sysoeva, European director of the World Congress of Russian-speaking Jews.

The law has created confusion among German Jewish communal leaders, who were informed of the changes only on December 13 and soon will be responsible for administering parts of the new law. In particular, communal officials are scrambling to understand the consequences of a clause requiring that all new Jewish immigrants to Germany be certified as Jewish by one of the country’s two national Jewish organizations.

Even the representative of the Jewish Agency stationed in Germany, Anat Kagan, seemed to echo the ambivalent response that has greeted the new laws.

“I believe it will help Israel to get more immigrants in the next years,” Kagan said. “If I look at the side of the Jews, though, I must admit it’s not a very pleasant set of restrictions.”

While the law has not been released in its final form, the German interior ministry confirmed that the interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states had drawn up regulations on Jewish immigration as part of a broader immigration law that the German parliament passed in July.

Until now, anyone from the former Soviet Union who has one Jewish parent has been allowed to come to Germany, along with any immediate family. Now the Jewish immigrants will be allowed only if they are under 45, able to speak German and require no social welfare. Some sort of Jewish certification will be necessary also, but that has not been clearly defined.

This set of restrictions would have kept out almost all the immigrants who came. In Berlin, for example, almost 80% of the Jewish immigrants, most of whom are elderly, live on social help.

Paul Spiegel, the president of the official body representing Jews in Germany, the Central Council for Jews in Germany, said in a statement that the new rules are “worthy of discussion in a few areas, and in others fully unacceptable.”

The broader German immigration law will come into effect January 1, 2005, and it appears that from this point forward, any new Jewish applicants will come under the new regulations. One controversial section of the new rules requires that even immigrants who have applied, but not been approved, start the application process over again. The Central Council says this includes 27,000 applicants, some of whom have been waiting up to five years. Another 27,000 who already have been approved will be allowed to come.

The Central Council and the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany — the other national organization representing German Jews — are both scrambling to determine the ramifications for their organizations. A politician from the Green Party called on Monday for an open debate in parliament about the rules, but a spokesperson for the German Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that “no formal participation for the parliament is foreseen,” and indicated that the final document would emerge soon.

Notwithstanding the complaints, officials at the Central Council and the Union for Progressive Jews are not entirely opposed to the idea of limiting Jewish immigration to Germany. The newcomers, with their strong reliance on social welfare, have been a heavy financial burden for a community of Jews that only numbered 30,000 at the end of the 1980s. A rabbi for the Union for Progressive Jews, Walter Homolka, told the Berliner Zeitung that given the “economic difficulties,” the new rules are “justifiable.”

Spiegel has complained in the past that too many of the immigrants who have been allowed in are not actually Jewish. Only about half the immigrants who have come are registered as Jews with the Central Council. In his statement, Spiegel said, “We recognize the essential need for new regulations, but not with such methods.”

Until now, refugees have come under an administrative act that Germany inherited from the East German government in 1991, which allowed Jews into Germany as “contingent refugees.”

The use of the term “refugee” has particularly rankled Israeli authorities, who believe that the existence of a Jewish state means that there can be no such thing as a Jewish refugee. The issue has become particularly heated in the last three years, when more Russian Jews have chosen Germany over Israel. In 2003, 15,442 chose Germany while 12,383 immigrated to Israel.

A year ago, the Jewish Agency appointed a former ambassador to Germany, Benjamin Navon, to lobby the German government for a change in the rules.

The immigration program has long been one of the most delicate issues between Israel and Germany, said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, the only American Jewish organization with an office in Berlin.

Harris, who said he thinks the new law is “reasonable,” remembers that in discussions with then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the leader said: “If I do admit Jews to Germany, Israel accuses me of undermining Israeli national security. If I don’t admit them, I’m accused of being a German antisemite.”

Controversy has also arisen over the German government’s policy of spreading the newcomers out in small communities across Germany. This was done to distribute the economic burden of the immigrants, but it also has taken them away from the infrastructure that might ease their absorption into both Jewish and German society.

Jankelowitz said that with the German program, Jewish immigrants “assimilate into general society much more quickly than even if they remain in the Soviet Union. It’s a no-win situation not only for Israel, but also for the Jewish people.”

But for Sysoeva, the immigrants who came to Germany were seeking services from Germany’s welfare state that are not available in Israel.

“We get good help,” Sysoeva said, “and now the Jewish Agency will destroy all that.”

To protest the new law, Sysoeva is planning marches in Germany with Jews wearing yellow stars.

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