German Jews foresee good years with Merkel

Transatlantic relations, an issue of import to the Jewish community, are likely to improve.

angela merkel 88 (photo credit: )
angela merkel 88
(photo credit: )
As Germany stands on the brink of a new political era — about to have its first woman and first former East German as chancellor — Jews are peering over the horizon with cautious optimism. Seven years of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder turned out to be rather good for the Jews. But Angela Merkel isn't exactly an unknown quantity either. When it comes to relations with Israel and with Germany's Jewish community, a Merkel administration isn't likely to bring much change, observers say. And transatlantic relations, another issue of import to the Jewish community, are likely to improve. In coming weeks, Merkel's Christian Democrat Union and Schroeder's party, the Social Democratic Union, will craft their coalition. Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, reserved comment until the new Cabinet ministers are named, but others were less shy. “There's no 'getting to know you,' no breaking-in period needed,” Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Claims Conference, said of Merkel in a telephone interview with JTA. “We know her commitments.” Merkel “frequently finished a sentence that I began when we talked about Jewish issues. It's rare that you sit with somebody whom you don't need to win over and who is not only on the same page as you are, but on the same line as you are,” Singer said. Merkel has “demonstrated considerable interest in a positive and dynamic relationship with the Jewish world,” Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, who also has met frequently with the CDU leader, said in an e-mail interview. Merkel's track record on Jewish issues is “excellent,” said Michael Wolffsohn, a history professor at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich. “She has always been in touch with the Central Council and the Israeli Embassy,” Wolffsohn said in an e-mail comment. “Jewish-Israeli matters are close to her heart,” as they are for the leadership of her party in general. Merkel “is a direct, serious, knowledgeable, hands-on person who listens,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “and she has very clear views on issues of our concern.” “I for one feel comfortable that her leadership will continue the dual tradition of taking responsibility for the past and being guided by it,” Foxman said. Merkel was born in 1954 to a Lutheran pastor and a teacher. She studied physics and worked as a chemist before becoming involved in politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. She became a political protege of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and has headed the CDU since 2000. A proponent of economic and social reform, Merkel wants to make Germany more competitive by allowing longer work-weeks and removing barriers to firing employees. She is a strong advocate of transatlantic relations, and even supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq at a time when the view was most unpopular in Germany — a “high political risk” that Jewish leaders respected, Wolffsohn said. In keeping with majority German opinion, however, Merkel rejects Turkish membership in the European Union. For German Jews, the top items on the domestic agenda are integration of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, funding for cash-strapped Jewish communities, support for Jewish education and training of rabbis, security, and efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Internationally, the issues are close ties with Israel and the United States. Under Schroeder, Jewish communal life took a great leap forward with the signing of an historic contract in 2003 between the Central Council and the German government that placed the Jewish community on a legal par with the Protestant and Catholic churches. Schroeder's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, proved to be a great supporter of Israel, most observers agree. The Schroeder administration also took a strong stand against anti-Semitism, particularly at the 2001 U.N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where Fischer defended Israel, and at the conference on anti-Semitism in Europe convened by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and hosted in Berlin. Merkel was one of the speakers at the OSCE event. “I look to Mrs. Merkel for at least as much understanding” as the past administration showed, Singer said. She “has always been sympathetic to us when she was in the opposition, and helped us on every issue in the last seven years,” including the fight for homecare payments to Holocaust survivors. Growing up in East Germany taught Merkel “the importance of what it is like to live under the yoke of a system that is not amenable to human rights,” Singer said. Foxman said Merkel had made “her own pilgrimage” to come to terms with the Nazi past. “She said to us that her parents … tried to enlighten her contrary to what she was taught” in East Germany, which held that the Nazi perpetrators had all come from western Germany and which tended to deny the unique nature of the Jewish genocide. Merkel “is aware of the poison that was fed to millions of Germans on the eastern side for years,” Foxman said. The government “has the responsibility not only to be aware of it but to deal with it.”