Welcoming refugees in Germany: Thoughts from the Jewish community

Eugen Balin

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Jews have lived in what is today Germany since the 5th century. They have seen good times, and of course, horrific times as well, culminating with the genocidal murder of 6 million innocent Jewish women, children and men during the Shoah (Holocaust).

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. By 1943, only 20,000 Jews remained and the country was declared “judenrein”, i.e. “clean of Jews”. Today, around 200,000 Jews live in Germany; the Jewish community therefore constitutes only 0.24% of Germany’s population of 82.7 million people.

In Germany today, there is a new reality of an influx of refugees from Arab and Muslim countries – a phenomenon occurring seven decades after the Jewish community was expelled from Germany itself.

Before discussing how Germany’s Jews have welcomed the refugees, let’s take a step back to understand why the German government opened the doors of this country.

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Since 2015, more refugees have arrived in Germany than anywhere else in the European Union. In August 2015, the German government decided to open the German borders for refugees fleeing war and seeking for a safe haven. The German chancellor, Dr. Angela Merkel, called it a “national duty”, in accordance with the German constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

The German constitution, which went into force in 1949, starts with the obligation to protect human dignity. This constitution is built on the nation’s murderous actions during the Second World War, as it was drafted just after the Shoah. It reflects the duty of future generations to never again repeat the deadly mistakes of the past.

German democracy must make clear that any form of hatred and both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia will not be tolerated by the state authorities and the people of this country

Eugen Balin

Jewish community in Germany

With that said, we can better understand the German government’s decision and will now discuss how the Jewish community in Germany has welcomed the refugees since the refugee crisis in 2015.

The president of the German Jewish Central Council, Dr. Josef Schuster, wrote an op-ed in September 2015 together with World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder stating that, “[i]t is with relief that we note that there are far more people who are welcoming the refugees than there are people who reject them openly… The Jewish community, both in Germany and world-wide, welcomes this evolution towards an open society. It is the right thing.”

In order to understand the Jewish point of view, you have to consider both Jewish law and Jewish history. The Jewish history is a history of exodus and expulsion. Every year during the Jewish celebration of “Pesach” (Passover) we commemorate the Jewish exodus from Egypt and the survival of the Jewish people from slavery under Pharaoh.

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This memory is engrained in every generation, and it is an essence of Jewish peoplehood. It became a lived reality, rather than a mere memory, when Jews tried to escape their certain deaths during the Shoah, but were mostly refused entrance across the world during their greatest time of need.

With our history in mind, many members of Jewish communities across Germany decided to help the refugees. The German Jewish Central Council initiated the “Mitzvah Day” in 2012, implementing the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, of “repairing the world” and making it a better place for all. One-third of the Mitzvah Day activities in 2015 were directed to helping the newly arrived refugees.

Offering asylum

The Jewish Community of Pinneberg, a town in the northern part of Germany, advocated for the protection of refugees from the very beginning of the crisis and offered asylum to people in need of protection irrespective of their religious affiliation.

On a personal level, my mother - a musicologist by profession - taught piano to a young adolescent refugee from Afghanistan. They have developed a close and trusting relationship. The process of integration into German society is a hard journey for refugees. Music is an international language of understanding and can thus be an effective door-opener.

During the piano lessons, he confided in her his sorrows and hopes. She was the first person he shared his joy after successfully passing his driving test. These personal moments are not connected to politics or even religion, but they demonstrate that, when people meet face-to-face, there are few barriers.

Furthermore, in 2016, my mother co-initiated an inter-religious integration project for female refugees. These women, who fled their homelands and were often abused during their escapes, now use music, singing, and dancing to heal and help with the process of integration, including learning the German language.

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The project has played a part in creating a sustainable integration and has been therefore a success – but there is no question that the process of integration will continue to be a long and hard journey.

While the Jewish community in Germany is a small minority, cases like these demonstrate that, on a personal level, we can offer support and help and make a genuine difference in the lives of some of the new arrivals.

While a significant segment of German society did not welcome refugees, the Jewish community represented by the German Jewish Central Council stood up for their rights and reminded German society of the Shoah’s lessons.

Numerous challenges

Of course, there are a tremendous number of challenges for Germany in general, and Germany’s Jewish community in particular. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism continues to be of grave concern, being on the rise again across all of Europe. Anti-Semitism is not an issue for Jews only – society as a whole must confront this hatred.

Sadly, there have been too many cases of anti-Semitic acts committed also by refugees in the last years. In April 2018 a young man wearing a kippa (a traditional Jewish skullcap) was attacked in Berlin, while the attacker, a young Syrian refugee, whipped the victim with a belt shouting “Yahudi”. In January 2016, a kippa-wearing Jew has been insulted as a “Jew” in Arabic and then robbed by refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

As the number of anti-Semitic incidents grows, a clear message must echo across Germany that the humanistic approach of giving a safe haven to people in need can never be met with an acceptance of hatred against another minority. There must be a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism.

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Part of the problem is that refugees coming from certain countries may have brought anti-Semitic sentiments with them, having been raised to learn and accept hatred against the Jewish people. Bringing these attitudes to Germany is unacceptable and incompatible with Germany’s values today. It’s a huge challenge for German authorities to ensure that fundamental human rights of all are respected.

For this reason, the refugees who are affected by such prejudice need to overcome it in order to become an integrated part of our society. There is no other option. German democracy must make clear that any form of hatred and both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia will not be tolerated by the state authorities and the people of this country.

As a society, we should be judged based on how we treat minorities and respect fundamental human rights. Having said that, there are many challenges and there is a long way to go for all of us, but in order to foster tolerance, mutual understanding and respect we need to overcome all racism and prejudice.

All sides have an obligation. It’s our common duty to follow this path in order to make this world a better place.
Eugen Balin is a German attorney-at-law practicing business and private law at BALIN LEGAL in Hamburg, Germany. He is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps (WJC-JDCorps), a flagship program of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) acting in the fields of diplomacy and public policy on behalf of world Jewry. Balin tweets @balinlegal.

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