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Who speaks for Jews in Germany?

Tensions within diverse Jewish communities increase following October 7th

Like others marking the first night of Passover on Monday evening, many German Jews left empty seats at their Seder table to remember Israeli hostages still held by Hamas.

Its October 7th attacks on Israel, and Jerusalem’s response, have increased tensions around the world – but with particular emotional heft in Germany, the land of the Holocaust.

Amid a heated debate over anti-Semitism and freedom of expression, October 7th has increased tensions, too, within Germany’s diverse Jewish communities.

Depending on how you measure it, Germany has between 118,000 and 250,000 Jews: far from the pre-war total of about 500,000 but still the fourth largest in western Europe and the eighth largest in the world.


As elsewhere, Jews in Germany run the gamut from liberal-secular to progressive and conservative religious as well as orthodox. So who speaks for Jews in Germany?

For Berlin’s federal government the answer is clear: the Central Committee of Jews in Germany (ZdJ). Founded by survivors in 1950, it was 2003 before the ZdJ signed a state treaty with Germany. For the “preservation and maintenance of German-Jewish cultural heritage”, it secured €3 million in annual federal funding which has increased over the years and, last year, reached €22 million.

Not all German Jews are happy with this arrangement, however, arguing it has allowed the ZdJ to acquire too much influence – and ambition.

Critics see the ZdJ as too close to Israel – and its increasingly extremist governments – and not afraid to use the tragic past to achieve political goals in the present.

Other Jewish groups accuse the ZdJ, a political interest group, of exploiting its central funding role to lean on groups and communities – even in faith matters.

Irith Michelsohn, general secretary of Germany’s Union of Progressive Jews (UPJ), points out how the nature of Judaism means it doesn’t have a pope or central, hierarchical structures: “Yet the central committee has increased its monopolist position from year to year.”

Her group was founded in 1997 to represent progressive congregations and communities in the German-speaking world that promote Jewish tradition in harmony with modernity.

Allowing leadership roles for women, for instance, the UPJ looks to philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and Rabbi Abraham Geiger as the founders of modern Jewish thinking that originated in this part of Europe.

“Given this tremendous German Jewish heritage here, you would think the politicians here would be interested in engaging with and promoting this – but no,” said Michelsohn.

For years the UPJ has sought – in vain – a meeting in Germany’s federal interior ministry with a view to changing the 2003 state treaty to allow direct funding of more than one Jewish organisation.

The ZdJ has 94,000 members in 104 affiliated congregations while the UPJ has 4,000 in 19 congregations. Now the UPJ has filed a constitutional court complaint, demanding somewhere between 4 and 19 per cent of annual federal funding – rather than less than 1 per cent at present.

Although the interior ministry declined an Irish Times request for comment, many in the Bundestag parliament are looking on with interest.

Lars Castellucci, religious affairs spokesman for the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD), told The Irish Times it was important that “the diversity of Jewish life in Germany is preserved and that religious communities can organise and manage their affairs independently”.

As well as a funding monopoly, not all Jews in Germany appreciate the ZdJ speaking on their behalf, in particular what some see as its negative messaging monopoly about a surge of anti-Semitism in the last months.

Such claims have been questioned by leading experts while some Jewish groups have warned of permanent alarmism.

Michelsohn says there is huge concern in her community about events in Israel – she has a daughter and grandchildren living there. But there is also huge concern among many who arrived in the early 1990s from the former Soviet Union about events in Ukraine.

Her hometown, the western city of Bielefeld may be an “isle of the blessed”, she says, but so far there have been no such anti-Jewish attacks on community members.

Many in progressive Jewish communities, she says, fear that ZdJ narratives create a pervasive, self-confirming atmosphere of fear that distract from “Germany’s living, vibrant communities in the 21st century”.

“We cannot be the Jews of 1933,” she says. “And, as a Jew, I don’t see it as my task to tackle anti-Semitism. This is a problem that German society has to address for itself.”

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