A Boom, if not a Renaissance, In Modern-Day Germany

By Josef Joffe

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Michel Friedman may not be a household name in the shuls and temples of America. But this talk-show host extraordinaire, who until this month doubled as vice president of the Council of Jews in Germany and head of the European Jewish Congress, has lately been making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic — and not as a source of boundless pride to German Jewry. Confessing to various drug offenses, he has resigned from all his exalted positions in the community.

Were the antisemites out to get him? Hardly. Friedman’s was a typical case of vanity, grandstanding and media addiction gone ballistic. Compare him not to Captain Dreyfus, but to Gary “come and get me” Hart. The trite moral of this tale is an old one: “…the harder they fall.”

Two generations after the Holocaust, the spotlight is once again on Germany and the identity, role and future of its Jews. While many are asking how Friedman has fallen so far, so fast, here are two other questions worthy of inquiry: Where is the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world? And the third largest in Europe?

The answer to both? Germany.

Quite a surprise, isn’t it? Before we get carried away, let’s put this answer into perspective. During the first three postwar decades, the population of the German Jewish community was stagnant, indeed in decline — about 30,000, and growing older all the time. Then, during the 1970s, the “Jackson-Vanik Jews” began to trickle in, reversing slow shrinkage into hesitant growth. These were émigrés who did not want to go to Israel, but could not get into the United States, their first choice.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the trickle turned into a stream, for the same reasons: émigrés viewed Germany as the best available option. Germany’s attractiveness was based in large part on the government’s permissive policy toward Jewish immigrants. Not exactly welcoming to immigrants as such, Germany bestowed a generous exception on Russian Jews as a kind of moral restitution.

The Jewish community here has swelled to more than 100,000 — quite an explosion if you take the postwar population of 30,000 as a baseline. Then again, German Jewry numbered nearly 600,000 before the Nazis came to power; only 2,000 or so of them were left when the concentration camp gates were thrown open in 1945. So there is still a long way to go before today’s community can be compared to its glorious predecessor.

Will this community ever reconquer the heights of creativity and achievement held by German Jewry circa 1870-1933? Perhaps, but not in our lifetime, for several reasons.

First, Germany today is not what it was like then. Like all of Europe, it is an over-regulated economy, almost a closed shop. Like the rest, Germany is ill equipped to absorb the “tired and huddled masses.” How can an immigrant play out his natural competitive advantage if, along with everybody else, he has to close his grocery store at 8 p.m.? How can he offer his brain and brawn at a lower-than-mandated wage in one of the world’s most rigid labor markets? A hundred years ago, a Galician peddler’s son could rise from the ghetto to a tenured chair at Berlin’s Humboldt University in one generation. Today, his Turkish equivalent is still driving a taxi.

Second, in a high-welfare system like Germany’s, immigrants don’t necessarily have to bust their behinds. They can make a decent living on the largesse of the state, plus the many emoluments handed out by the Jewish community — which, in turn, is also subsidized by the government. So the incentives for ambition and exertion are a bit sparse.

Third, there is the skewed demography of the Jewish newcomers. They are old rather than young, and not as well educated as the “best and the brightest” from Asia who are flooding America’s top universities and research labs. Meanwhile, though the evidence is largely anecdotal, the sons and daughters of Germany’s Jewish “old-timers” — the survivors — still tend to study and stay abroad. Britain is the current favorite.

Hence, the future of German Jewry is still a toss-up. It all depends on how quickly the Russian Jews integrate — and on whether they are halachically Jewish or in fact ethnic Russians who fabricated a Jewish background in order to gain entry into the second-best Promised Land. It also depends on the children and grandchildren of the East European survivors — postwar German Jewry’s “Mayflower generation,” so to speak. Having acquired the cultural skills and credentials for a successful life in Germany, will they stay and work their way out of the marginal occupations of their forefathers?

At this point, many of them have turned their backs on the garment and real estate trades, instead pursuing their fortunes as lawyers, doctors and professors. But the numbers are still on the small side, and emigration, as the anecdotal evidence suggests, continues. There are but a handful of well-known journalists, and a Joseph Lieberman or Dianne Feinstein, let alone an Ed Koch, is not yet in sight.

Come to think of it, Michel Friedman is currently the most noted — or most notorious — Jew in Germany. What does this tell us about the state of Jews in Germany?

The good news flows from Friedman’s breathtaking career. Here is a “Schindler Jew” — his parents were saved by the German wheeler-dealer immortalized by Stephen Spielberg — who made it from obscurity to the very top. And he was undone not by prejudice, but pride — the stuff from which a decent pulp novel is made. Friedman, a brilliantly aggressive spokesman for Jewish causes, as well as for the moral verities of the day, tried to have it both: snorting coke and mainlining acclaim, mingling with high-priced call girls and rubbing shoulders with the Great and the Good. Such habits don’t mesh in any Western society for any length of time.

The not so good news? In a society like America’s, where a Joe Lieberman almost made it into the vice president’s residence, fame and power can be mined from more conventional veins. Yet as a TV personality, Friedman — a merciless, holier-than-thou Savonarola — made Mike Wallace look meek.

There may be a deeper moral to this tale. Maybe “Michou,” as Friedman was known, wasn’t so sure that normalcy had returned to Jewish life in Germany. Maybe he pushed the envelope so compulsively because he meant to relieve existential anxiety by way of unspoken, in-your-face defiance: If you truly love me, you’ll accept this prickly, I don’t-give-a-damn Jew — coke, call girls and all. But if you don’t, it’s quod erat demonstrandum: that Jews are back in — but not yet of — Germany.

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