BERLIN — Barely two generations after the Holocaust, Germany may be edging Israel aside as the world’s most sought-after refuge for Jews fleeing persecution.
That, at least, is the impression created by figures released this month showing that Germany had outpaced Israel last year for the first time ever as the main destination of Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Germany took in 19,262 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet republics in 2002, while Israel took in 18,878.
Observers here were careful to note that last year’s numbers did not represent a sudden surge in Jewish immigration to Germany but rather a sharp drop in immigration to Israel, due mainly to the security situation in the Middle East.
The numbers speak for themselves, however. As many as 100,000 Jews have come here since 1991, when Germany modified its refugee policies to welcome Jews fleeing antisemitism and economic chaos in the former Soviet Union. In little more than a decade, the newcomers have more than tripled Germany’s Jewish population, which numbered some 30,000 before the current wave began.
The numbers have touched off a quiet but tense debate among Israeli and American Jewish communal leaders over the emergence of Germany, the birthplace of Nazism, as a magnet for Jewish immigrants. Some Israeli officials, speaking privately, were sharply critical of a German policy that they said is deliberately luring Jews to Germany with financial benefits. But few were willing to criticize Germany openly, cautioning — in the words of one official — that “nobody here wants to be the first to attack Germany for treating Jews well.”
German officials say the benefits offered to Jewish refugees under the 1991 Contingent Refugee Act — including language courses, unemployment benefits, health coverage, pensions and even rent — reflect this nation’s “historic responsibility” to make amends for its Nazi past.
“Germany has a historic responsibility to accept all Jews who could make a better life here, and we have a responsibility to ensure they are treated well once they arrive,” said Isabel Schmitt-Falkenberg, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the immigration program.
Israeli and American Jewish leaders also complain that Germany’s refugee policy is deliberately scattering the Jewish immigrants among more than 80 different towns across Germany, rather than allowing them to join major Jewish communities in cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich.
The German goal, a senior Israeli official told the Forward, appears to be recreating the contours of the pre-World War II German Jewry.
Germany makes no secret of its effort to distribute the refugees across the country. The policy results from a little-discussed feature in the 1991 refugee act, requiring that newcomers be spread among Germany’s 12 federal states according to a numerical formula in order share the financial burden. Newcomers’ financial benefits are contingent on their remaining where they are sent.
But observers here dismiss the notion that Germany is trying to re-create its pre-war community. “It’s absurd to think Germany has some hidden intention in spreading the immigrants,” said Olaf Glöckner, who researches Russian Jewish immigration at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies in Potsdam. “Before World War II, most Jews were actually in the cities, and this is reversing that earlier trend.”
The distribution policy, he said, “arises from economic necessity.”
“If we all went to Berlin, Berlin would go bankrupt,” said Valeriy Bunimov, Ukrainian-born leader of the Jewish communal organization in the small northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of the new Jewish communities that raises eyebrows among observers.
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in former East Germany, is famous primarily as the center of Germany’s neo-Nazi movement and for its stagnating economy. Bunimov’s own congregation, in out-of-the-way Schwerin, has gone from zero to 900 Jews in less than 10 years.
Whatever the policy’s intentions, its results have been mixed at best. In addition to undercutting the community’s cohesion, the scattering of the immigrants could create security problems, several officials with Jewish organizations in America and Germany told the Forward.
“There’s no one there in these small towns to represent and defend these groups of immigrants, and the groups don’t have the language and experience to defend themselves,” said Dalia Moneta, director of social work for the Frankfurt Jewish community. She added, however, that “over time, that’s becoming less of a problem as communities start to settle in a bit.”
In the years since the refugee program was adopted, Jewish immigration to Germany from the former Soviet Union has hovered consistently between 16,000 and 20,000 per year. During those same years, immigration to Israel from the former Soviet republics averaged about 61,000 per year.
Immigration to Israel plummeted after the onset of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. During the first half of 2003, just 5,500 former Soviet immigrants arrived in Israel, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
America, which was the primary destination for Jews leaving the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and 1980s, received just 2,486 former Soviet Jewish refugees in 2002.
Immigrants and observers offer various explanations for Germany’s lure, including European culture, temperate climate and proximity to St. Petersburg and Kiev.
For many, however, a key factor in choosing Germany over Israel is Germany’s relatively relaxed attitude toward mixed-faith families.
“Russians making the choice believe that it is easier in Germany for mixed families and children of these families,” said Bunimov, the communal leader in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. “In Israel, if a Jew does not have a Jewish mother, they will not be treated equally, and in Russia there are many mixed families.” Bunimov said the newer members of his congregation are mostly mixed-faith families.
“In Germany, religion is much less central and so people don’t have to worry as much about it,” said Glöckner, the Mendelssohn Center researcher.
Not everyone approves. Last year the Central Council of Jews in Germany complained to the government that its rules for accepting immigrants were too relaxed. Only 70,000 of the newcomers have registered with a religious community in Germany, the council noted.
As in Israel, the German immigration authorities grant rights to newcomers based on broad definitions of Jewish ancestry, while those who define identity — the Jewish council in Germany, the rabbinate in Israel — use narrower definitions.
In Israel, the growing Jewish influx to Germany has helped reignite the debate over easing rules for conversion to Judaism. During a meeting of the Israeli Cabinet this week the minister of immigrant absorption, Tzipi Livni, cited “obstacles” placed by the Chief Rabbinate in the path of newcomers seeking to become Jewish as one reason Germany had outstripped Israel last year as a destination for former Soviet refugees.
Livni’s view was endorsed by Prime Minister Sharon, who declared that “demands should not be made of the immigrants that none of us could meet,” according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Israelis also cite Germany’s financial generosity to immigrants as a factor in the shift. The chair of the Knesset immigration absorption committee, Colette Avital, declared during a debate in April that Germany was providing “three times more benefits to former Soviet Union immigrants than Israel.” She predicted that Germany’s advantage over Israel would continue, estimating that 195,000 former Soviet Jews were “on the verge” of emigrating to Germany.
German experts counter that the economic lure is limited at best. According to a study underway at the Mendelssohn Center, new Jewish immigrants to Germany have a harder time finding work in Germany than those who go to Israel or the United States. Unemployment among the immigrants in Germany runs at a steady 40%, even among those here for several years.
In Israel, by contrast, unemployment among newcomers drops within two or three years of arrival to a rate roughly reflecting the larger population, according to the Mendelssohn Center. Currently unemployment among former Soviets in Israel is 12%, compared to 10% for the population at large.
“It is not easy for us to find jobs here,” said Bunimov, noting that nearly 60% of newcomers in his own community are unemployed. “Many of us are highly educated and our qualifications are not recognized in Germany.” Bunimov himself was trained in Ukraine as an engineer but now works as a communal administrator.
Several observers cited the unusually high proportion of academic degrees among working-age Jewish immigrants — nearly 70% are graduates — as one of the main causes of the high unemployment. “There is so much brain power that it creates a glut on the labor market wherever they go,” said the Mendelssohn Center’s Glöckner.
The problem is compounded, observers said, by the government’s policy of settling Jews in small communities where jobs are scarce. Employment among newcomers in Berlin is said to be far higher than among those in outlying areas.
For most immigrants, however, the promise of Germany is in their families’ future, not their own present. Bunimov said his two sons, both in their 20s, are receiving top-level university educations, and right now that is what matters most. In accepting the youngsters into its society, it is widely agreed that Germany has so far been successful.
“We came for our children. Our hope is in them,” said Bunimov.
With Reporting by Chemi Shalev in Jerusalem and Ami Eden in New York .