Having set out to conquer the mayoralty of affluent, bustling, cultured Cologne, an idealistic and innocent Henriette Reker presented her priorities on the Web, clueless about what she would soon come to face: downsizing bureaucracy, raising cultural funding, encouraging start-ups, upgrading infrastructure, nurturing the city’s logistical centrality, etc.
It was the agenda of a peaceful, enterprising and optimistic German liberal, a local politician who at 59 would find herself at the heart of a renewed collision between her country’s humanistic aspirations and xenophobic ghosts.
The clash came in three installments: first, as Ms. Reker campaigned, the summer’s influx of immigrants redefined the political agenda, particularly for the lawyer-turned-candidate who was running at the time her city’s social services, and as such presided over, and became identified with, the effort to welcome the thronging refugees.
Then, two days before her electoral victory, Ms. Reker was stabbed in the neck and severely injured by an anti-immigrant fanatic who resolved to punish her for personifying the immigration policy of her Christian Democratic Union colleague, Chancellor Angela Merkel.
And finally, last week, Reker’s pleasant metropolis on the Rhine, dominated by its trademark two-spired cathedral and adorned by a 628-year-old university and three major museums, became the site of a mass attack by hundreds of immigrants on scores of local women who joined the crowds that gathered outside the central train station to greet the new year.
The method, as reported in more than 90 individual complaints to police, was reminiscent of what happened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five years ago: a ring of men would eye a woman, circle her, and then grope and rob her. Some threw firecrackers at the crowd, others shoved firecrackers under their victims’ clothes. One woman said she was raped.
The assaults, and the system’s response to them, are emblems of a denialist Europe’s looming encounter with the real Middle East.
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IN LINE WITH the escapism that animated postwar Europe’s treatment of all things Middle Eastern, police and politicians refused to call the assailants “immigrants,” even though all reports made it plain that they mostly spoke Arabic and did not know German.
Witnesses readily reported what police effectively denied.
“We stood with our backs to the wall and could see how people were robbed and German girls were groped,” one witness was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “I was surrounded by a group of 50 to 60 people from Arabic countries,” he said. “They would come up to us, shake hands and then try to reach into our bags.”
A sense of alarm descended on Germany, so much so that fear of the immigrants crossed from the Right to the Center, where some in Merkel’s camp called to slash and cap immigration, and then proceeded to the Left, where some called to deport delinquent immigrants. Women’s rights groups then joined the evolving outcry, complaining that police have been underplaying reports of sexual assaults within the refugee centers.
Young as this new immigration is, the violence it triggered is already a two-way street.
In Berlin, gunshots were fired Monday into a refugee asylum, injuring one immigrant while in his bed. In Schwäbisch Gmünd, some 50 kilometers east of Stuttgart, an asylum built specially to house refugees was torched on Christmas Eve, one of 220 such anti-immigrant arsons in Germany throughout 2015.
Few places in Germany can warn more ominously than Cologne that all this is but the beginning of something much longer, bigger and nastier than several months’ worth of sporadic encounters between impolite refugees and unwelcoming hosts.
COLOGNE IS WHERE the Nazis issued one of their earliest declarations of intent, when in 1933 they deposed its mayor of 16 years, Konrad Adenauer, who had expanded the city’s port, built its exhibition grounds, and sprinkled the riverside metropolis with sports grounds, schools, infirmaries, libraries and parks.
Slipping past the SA storm troopers who by then were camped outside his house, the mayor took the train to Berlin in order to complain to the new regional governor, Hermann Goering, about election fraud.
Goering kept Adenauer waiting for three days, during which the mayor heard on the radio that Cologne’s Nazi boss, Josef Grohé, had entered city hall, emerged in its balcony, and from there – several blocks from where the crowds gathered last week to greet 2016 – announced Adenauer’s dismissal and replacement.
At 57, Adenauer lost his income, house, job and employability, and later also his freedom, all of which gave no hint of his subsequent role as the architect of a re-humanized and re-legitimized Germany – a legacy most memorably underscored by his visiting David Ben-Gurion in his shack in Kibbutz Sde Boker, and by Ben-Gurion attending Adenauer’s funeral.
Now Adenauer’s spirit is inspiring Germans like Merkel and Rekel to greet the current refugees in disregard of the Middle East that produced them, and at the same time confront the bigots who are Goering’s heirs.
Middle Israelis have nothing but admiration for Merkel, Rekel and the critical mass of Germans who have resolved to absorb so many victims of our region’s malaise.
Besides this moral salute, no one hopes more than us that Germany’s generosity will give rise to a tolerant and assertive Arab who will help undo the ignorance, hatred, misogyny, tribalism, triumphalism and bellicosity that have shaped the Middle East as we know it.
For now, however, Germany is meeting the real Middle East, the one whose despots abused millions while bribing Europe with oil and brainwashing it to believe that the region’s illnesses are the fault of the Jews.
Tragically, Israelis are the only ones intimately familiar with the unfolding German showdown’s two sides: We know the Middle East’s bigots, and our parents knew Germany’s.
God willing, the New Germany that Adenauer bequeathed will find a way to avert this clash and, better yet, to disarm its combatants and reprogram their minds. Alas, as the New Germans’ best friends, we must tell them from under our battle- tested Jewish nostrils that we smell calamity’s approach – and so does Cologne.www.MiddleIsrael.net
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