German Jews divided: Some fear Muslims, others welcome them
BERLIN, Germany — A leader of Germany's Jewish community spoke out against the flow of Muslim migrants to Germany. He was then called racist by a rabbinical student. The exchange has started a debate about the community's fears concerning the many migrants from Muslim lands. These countries are traditionally hostile to Israel, the Jewish nation-state.
The student, Armin Langer, was kicked out of the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, Germany, after he wrote that the leader of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Joseph Schuster, was wrong to want to stop the flow of Muslim refugees. Langer is a founder of an interfaith group called Salaam-Shalom. The group is committed to fostering dialogue between Muslims and Jews. He said his community should never be prejudiced toward other minority groups.
"If one minority is treated badly, it won't be long before all minorities will be treated badly," Langer, 25, said. He was interviewed in Berlin's Neukoelln district. The neighborhood is home to many Muslim immigrants.
Langer also participated in a small protest outside the Central Council's headquarters in Berlin. The protests happened the day after Schuster talked to a German newspaper. Schuster said that, "sooner or later, we're not going to get around upper limits (for migrants)."
Student Defends Right To His Opinions
Langer says he now regrets the harshness of his language in his newspaper opinion article criticizing Schuster. However, he says the college was wrong "to try to suppress my personal opinions."
Many in Germany's 250,000-strong Jewish community expressed outrage at Langer's published remarks last year. At the time, Germany absorbed a wave of 1.1 million overwhelmingly Muslim migrants. The Jewish community expressed support for Schuster's view that anti-Semitism was growing once again in Germany. They fear the newcomers are hostile to Jews and Israel. Schuster had already warned earlier that Jews should not wear their traditional skullcap, or kippa, in areas with large Muslim populations.
"Many refugees are escaping the terror of Islamic State and want to live in peace and freedom," Schuster said in his November interview. "At the same time, they come from places where hatred of Jews and intolerance are an integral part of the culture."
Muslim Extremist Attacks Raise Fears
Jewish fears of Muslim migrants reflect a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. There have also been anti-Israel protests by Muslim youths. These attacks and protests took place in Germany during Israel's 2014 war in Gaza, the Palestinian territory surrounded by Israel. Recently, there have also been mass killings by Muslim extremists in Paris, Copenhagen and Brussels. Jewish institutions also have suffered deadly attacks. Berlin today is home to about 40,000 Jews. Many are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Rabbi Walter Homolka is the college director. He said Langer's criticism of Schuster had caused widespread offense among German Jews. He told the AP that Langer had violated his contract with the school. The college requires students to avoid an "undue media presence." He said Langer had been suspended for a year in January, with a right to re-enroll in 2017, following meetings of the school's board of rabbis and the German General Rabbinical Conference.
Langer, a Hungarian Jew, said he would continue to pursue a master's degree in Jewish theology at Potsdam University. He said he would seek to complete his rabbinical training elsewhere.
Germany Has A History Of Prejudice
Schuster declined an interview with the AP. He said in a written statement that he played no role in Langer's dismissal but understood why it happened. He said rabbis should seek to promote balanced dialogue, not polarize opinion.
Shaked Spier is a German-Israeli activist who works in aiding recently arrived refugees. He said it was absurd to blame anti-Semitism primarily on migrants.
"There's a deeply rooted anti-Semitism in German society. We shouldn't pretend that it's now being imported by the refugees," Spier said. His grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, before the Holocaust claimed an estimated 6 million Jewish lives.
He said Schuster's call to cap the numbers of asylum-seekers made him particularly uncomfortable. It is similar to the position of right-wing German nationalists. Many German nationalists also hold anti-Semitic views.
Muslims, Jews Urged To Work Together
Levi Salomon is spokesman for a Berlin lobbying group called the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism. He said migrants' integration into German society needed to be swift. He thinks it should include classes "about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism."
Fears of Muslim immigrants are noticeable in some Jewish households. An Israeli mother of three said she no longer allows her children to speak in Hebrew outside their Berlin home.
"When we are outside, I tell my kids to speak only English," said the woman, who spoke on condition that she not be identified by name. "I'm too afraid that somebody will recognize that we are Jewish or Israeli and then harm us."
Langer said such fears could be overcome only by direct dialogue between Jews and Muslims. He said Germany's Jews should be more concerned about the steep rise of violence. There are almost daily attacks directed against the newly arrived refugees.
"What we really have to do now, as Muslims and Jews, is to fight together against anti-Semitism and Islam phobia in Germany," Langer said.