Jewish Cheers for Deutschland

By Eric Frey

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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Germany’s quest to become soccer world champion ended Tuesday with a last-minute loss to Italy, but the host country of the World Cup has won nonetheless. During the past month, the Germans presented a new image to the world: easy-going, tolerant, open-minded and funny.

Germans seemed at ease with themselves and with the rest of the world. They waved their black, red and golden flags just like other nations do. Their patriotism carried no trace of arrogance, and did not threaten anyone. Earlier talk of no-go areas for dark-skinned visitors were all but forgotten once the World Cup got under way. For the first time since Bismarck unified the Deutsche Reich, Germans actually find themselves well liked.

Still, it is not clear what the lasting Jewish reaction will be to euphoric masses shouting “Deutschland, Deutschland” in the sports arena built by Adolf Hitler for the 1936 Olympics.

Some here have warned that the belief in a new Germany is nothing more than a huge public relations project that will give way to old spectres once the last game is over. The Germany of 2006, however, is fundamentally a very different place than the rogue nation the world came to hate and fear in the 1930s and 1940s.

The new German qualities are best represented by national soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who lives on America’s West Coast most of the year and brought the best of Californian go-go optimism to a downtrodden German team. Before the World Cup started, he was viciously attacked by the soccer establishment and the tabloid press, but the victories of his team have quickly made him a national hero. There is also the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose down-to-earth style is so different from the pompousness of her predecessors, Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl.

But it is the regular Germans who seem to have changed the most. Germans may be unsure about their economic prospects and afraid of the forces of globalization, but all in all, it is a nation that has found its place in a peaceful world and no longer carries a grudge against anyone.

Perhaps most surprising, Germany has become a good place for Jews to live. Thanks to a policy of encouraging immigration from the former Soviet Union, the Jewish community in Germany quadrupled since 1989 to more than 100,000 people. This is still well below the half million Jews who lived here before Hitler’s rise to power, but it is a number large enough to permit an active Jewish cultural and religious life — thanks, not so incidentally, to generous financial support from the German government.

True, there are still some nasty antisemitic episodes, but polls show that Germans do not harbor any more anti-Jewish feelings than other European nations. And as Turkish immigrants in Germany are on average less politicized than North Africans in France and Belgium, antisemitism fueled by Muslim hatred of Israel is less of a problem here than elsewhere.

Most Jews in Germany are first or second-generation immigrants, with roots in Russia, Uzbekistan or Israel. They feel the same socioeconomic problems as other migrant groups: inadequate language skills, poor schools and uncertain job prospects. But despite all these hurdles, it is easier for a Central Asian Jew to integrate into Germany society than for a Turk from eastern Anatolia.

Jews today are part of the multicultural mosaic of German society. The multiple loyalties that Jews may feel are becoming quite normal in a Europe shaped by an increasing number of nations and cultures.

As Berlin tries to compete with London and Paris to be Europe’s capital of coolness and culture, its 12,000 Jewish residents and their culture have become a crucial element in the city’s branding strategy. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Musum and Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial are seen less as expressions of historical guilt than as great tourist attractions.

Sure, the shadows of the Shoah have not disappeared, and perhaps they never will. In Britain or France, a Jew can become prime minister or opposition leader without his religion becoming an issue of debate; such a thing happening in Germany is still inconceivable.

That, in part, is due to the ambivalent attitude of most Jews toward their homeland. Even though Ignaz Bubis, the former president of the umbrella body of German Jewry, called himself “a German citizen of Jewish faith,” most Jews today would still hesitate before referring to themselves as “Germans.” Even that last barrier, however, is likely to fade away eventually. Bubis’s post is currently held by 73-year-old Charlotte Knobloch, who was rescued by her parents’ former housemaid, but she will probably be the last president who lived though the Holocaust.

For the most part, the Jewish community’s new generation of leaders look at Germany with different emotions than their parents. They feel comfortable cheering when soccer stars Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose score for the home team, and 61 years after Hitler’s fall, some have even started to think again of Germany as home.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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