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Out of the ashes: A new German Jewry?

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Originally published in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture:


Dateline: POTSDAM, August, 2005--I am in Germany as part of a collaborative three-nation research study of the Russian-Jewish diaspora. The entire seven-person research team is meeting in Potsdam to go over our findings, discuss implications, and, yes, iron out the various disagreements that are an inherent part of collaborative work.

I am standing in front of a large building with many doors, one of which leads to the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, which had written the grant for this project. All the doors have signs, but my few words of German (guten tag) are grossly insufficient to determine which bell to ring, so I stand in front of the building trying to decide which door looks most Jewish. Fortunately, despite the light drizzle, I spot several pedestrians walking along the street. I walk toward them, intending to ask for directions, but as I draw near, I notice that their faces are wrinkled with age. It occurs to me that they were probably alive during the Shoah, and I find myself wondering what they had done those many years ago, how they felt about Jews back then, how they feel about Jews on this day. I am Jewish. This information seems important. I don’t want to talk to these men; I don’t want to ask them for directions to a “Jewish Center.”

I am somewhat uneasy about my feelings. My politics are liberal. I teach and write about stereotypes, prejudice and racism. I recognize my thoughts and feelings for what they are – prejudicial and irrational. The men on the street, old as they are, were probably in their preteens when the war ended. It is unlikely that any of them personally did anything worth holding against them, certainly not sixty years later. But what of their parents? Their uncles and aunts? They were old enough. What, I wonder, was their involvement? I have no way of knowing, of course. They could have been righteous gentiles. For that matter, they could have even been German Jews (a few remained after the war). I know avoiding the men would be irrational – well, mostly irrational. Truth is, many Germans didn’t much like Jews in those times. From what I hear, many still don’t. I let the men pass and wait in the rain for someone else to come by.

My wait in the rain was a fitting introduction to Germany, since the purpose of our study – at least in part – was to understand why Russian Jews were migrating to Germany in large numbers and how they experienced their host country and host people once they arrived. A comprehensive treatment of this question would fill a book – ours, and even then we do not pretend to have captured the entirety of this particular immigration experience.

In many ways, Germany’s decision to open its doors to Russian-speaking Jews is even more surprising than the Jewish immigrants’ decision to settle there. To begin with, it is no secret that Germany, like much of Europe, had a long history of anti-Semitism that predated Hitler by many hundreds of years. Then came the Shoah, which reduced an estimated Jewish population of 750,000 in 1933 to about 10,000 at the conclusion of the war. The few who returned from the camps or from hiding were hardly welcomed. Their homes vandalized or occupied, they were a reminder of both Germany’s defeat and its shameful behavior. Even if the passing decades have lessened the anti-Semitism and increased the remorse, Germany’s long-standing antipathy toward immigration of any sort (just months before the legislation passed, Horst Waffenschmidt, the Parliament’s State Secretary to the Interior Ministry remarked that “the Federal Republic of Germany is not a country of immigration) made an immigration policy that specifically targeted Jews, and only Jews, preposterous to even consider.

Interestingly, the initiative originated in East Germany and, for its proponents, became the nation’s moral imperative. In April 12, 1990, newly elected East German parliament (Volkskammer) issued a revolutionary declaration on the responsibility of Germans for Nazi crimes:

“The first freely elected parliament of the GDR acknowledges, in the name of the citizens of this country, that it shares responsibility for the humiliation, persecution, and murder of Jewish women, men, and children. We feel grief and shame in accepting responsibility for this historical burden on Germany. We ask the world Jewry for forgiveness. We ask the people of Israel for forgiveness for the hypocrisy and animosity of official GDR policy toward the State of Israel and for the persecution and degradation of Jewish citizens in our country, which continued after 1945. We declare we will do everything possible to contribute to healing the physical and emotional suffering of survivors, and to speak out for just compensation of material losses.” (Jarusch and Grasnow, 1994:138-139, cited in Harris, 2001)


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Within short order, the decision was made (reportedly behind closed doors, with considerable opposition, and not necessarily with the support of the majority) to rebuild the German Jewry. Knowing that more than 1.5 million Jews might be enticed to leave the Soviet Union following USSR’s collapse and subsequent lifting of the emigration ban, Germany decided to specifically target Russian-speaking Jews. (I refer to this group as Russian Jews for convenience, but it should be noted that this immigrant group originated from not only Russia but Ukraine, Latvia, and all of the other former members of the Soviet Union.)The resulting Contingency Refugee Act of 1991, which came on the heels of the unification of East and West Germany, not only allowed almost unlimited immigration for Russian Jews, but gave them an express lane to German citizenship.

Dateline: JERUSALEM, June, 1997 – I am visiting Israel as part of a predissertation grant to study Russian Jewish immigration. In between the work meetings, I am doing some sightseeing, mostly with some relatives in Tel Aviv, but on this day, feeling the need for some space, I insist on taking a tour of Jerusalem on my own. Well, sort of. Although English is my best language, I decide to save money by taking a Russian-language tour of the city.

The tour is supposed to take me by bus to Jerusalem and stop at four or five main attractions before heading back to Tel Aviv. The first stop is Yad Vashem. The bus driver gives us an hour. At the end of the hour, I don’t even consider rejoining the tour. The exhibits are so extensive and so powerful, I want to do nothing but spend the rest of the day there. They are so personal, I am glad to be alone. But of course, I am not truly alone, and at one point I find myself within earshot of an English-language tour. The guide is talking, and, for a moment, I stop to listen.

“Living in America,” he tells the group of U.S. students, “you don’t think that this sort of thing could ever happen there…that’s what the German Jews thought in the 1930s…they thought they were Germans…they thought they were safe…but a Jew is only really safe in Israel, because only Israel has a Jewish majority.” I wonder if the tour guide is right. I don’t want him to be. I make a compelling argument (to myself) to that effect, and I’m convinced he’s not. Completely convinced… but when I find myself in Germany eight years later, I remember his words. Of all the places to go, I think, why here? Why this place? Given the history, can a Jew really feel a connection to Germany? Can a Jew ever again really feel German?

Despite the opposition and Germany’s lack of experience with immigration, the Contingency Refugee Act of 1991 was remarkably well conceived. Indeed, it seemed to have all the necessary ingredients for success: it provided a variety of social benefits, including subsidized housing, access to medical care, and, for the elderly, eligibility for a German pension. It even spread the costs equitably among the German states, mandating that each state accept a number of immigrants in proportion to its population. Moreover, since the purpose was to rebuild the Jewish communities, the legislation gave the funds, along with the responsibility of tracking the immigrants and allocating the necessary resources, directly to the Jewish religious communities.

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In the context of the former Soviet Union’s economic uncertainty and its own history of anti-Semitism, the German legislation turned out to be an attractive proposition for Russian Jews: more than 200,000 have immigrated to Germany since the Refugee Act’s inception. Considering that this group now comprises about 90 percent of Germany’s total Jewish population, it would seem that the legislation is an unmeasured success and that this immigrant group now constitutes, for all practical purposes, the new German Jewry. Our research interviews and survey data, however, suggest otherwise. In many ways, they present an immigrant group alienated from its new homeland.

The reasons for the alienation are not altogether obvious, as Russian Jews had some real incentives to come to Germany. In addition to the promise of considerable social benefits, Germany’s European culture, political stability, geographic proximity to the former Soviet Union, and advanced (and socialized) health services were all attractive to Russian Jews.Perhaps the alienation is the result of the harsh economic reality that greeted the new immigrants.At the time of our data collection (in 2004), unemployment was high, even among the college educated, and almost 85 percent of the immigrant sample reported that their gross household income was “much lower” or “lower” than the nation’s average. Moreover, over 60 percent reported that their standard of living was “much lower” or “lower” than it was prior to migration. Or perhaps, the alienation can be best attributed to the fact that after 1991, Russian Jews might have felt they simply had no other place to go. While the vast majority of Russian-Jews migrated to either Israel or the United States in previous decades, those destinations became less viable after 1991. The United States had granted Russian Jews refugee status to facilitate the immigration process as part of the Cold War maneuvering, but that status was lifted almost immediately after the USSR collapsed in 1989. Israel continued to be a popular destination for many Russian Jews, but by 1991, the First Intifada was in full swing, and the violence was a disincentive for many potential migrants.

Whatever the reason, once Russian Jews arrived in Germany they have felt little connection to either the host country or its people. According to our data, without exception, they value their Jewish and Russian identities over being German. More telling, 60 percent feel “not at all” and another 30 percent only “a little” part of the German people, and even that, for most respondents, meant nothing more than the place they were currently living.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)

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I know American and British ex-pats who have lived... by Mark E. Smith on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 6:49:55 AM
Why did not our loving  Germans  decide ... by Mark Sashine on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 10:11:38 AM
"Assimilation" is not necessarily the mo... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 11:24:09 AM
I don't think a researcher- anthropologist ( a... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008 at 1:00:12 PM
Marc, first of all, thanks for engaging with me in... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Wednesday, Sep 10, 2008 at 9:58:05 AM
Pyschologist or anthropologist you decided to stud... by Mark Sashine on Wednesday, Sep 10, 2008 at 11:10:23 AM
(Sashine). It sounds to me as if you're taking... by Tony Forest on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 11:15:57 AM
Mikhail, I found one such document. Have only skim... by Tony Forest on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 11:32:13 AM
Thanks for the comments, Tony.  I am in full ... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 11:37:33 AM