After unpopular incumbent Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced his resignation Tuesday, Berlin’s new hope may lay in Palestinian immigrant Raed Saleh.
The popular Social Democrat Party (SPD) politician was born in Sebastia, near Nablus in the West Bank, and has dedicated his time to integration and unity among Berlin’s immigrants.
Saleh’s blanket condemnation of racism in Germany has led him to become a group leader for trips to Auschwitz where young Germans of immigrant backgrounds — many from Muslim or Arab families — learned first hand, and sometimes for the first time, about the Holocaust.
In an email correspondence with The Times of Israel, Saleh wrote, “We have a new generation of young Germans whose grandparents were either born after World War II or not even born in Germany. It is our task to keep alive the connection between being German and remembering the Shoah. Visits to concentration camp memorials are one possible approach to do that.”
The rising German anti-Semitic sentiment which dominated anti-Israel rallies during Operation Protective Edge was recently discussed with Saleh’s participation at a panel, “Antisemitism– a German problem?”
There, Saleh made it abundantly clear that he condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and refused to label anti-Semitism as an immigrant problem. To Saleh, it is a problem within all German society.
“Berlin is proud to be the home of the biggest Jewish community in Germany. We need to take care, not just for security, but also for the spirit of acceptance and peace that Berlin is known for. The anti-Semitic slogans in demonstrations in Berlin threatened that positive spirit of our city and will not be accepted,” Saleh told The Times of Israel.
The current mayor has focused on flagship and expensive projects like the still-in-progress Berlin airport and flashy slogans like “Berlin is poor but sexy.” Saleh sees his work in grassroots programs, focusing on the economy, education and integration.
He told The Times of Israel as a former worker turned entrepreneur, he stands for a strong economy and social mobility.
“I know the neighborhoods where young citizens don’t have the best chances for their future because I was raised in one of them… For me, education is the key to enable people to earn the money they need by themselves. We have to make sure that every child can profit from education.”
German language proficiency through intensive programs that encourage the parents to improve their children’s language skills, as well as midnight soccer games aimed at keeping immigrant youth off the streets at night, are only some of the programs Saleh has spearheaded.
Saleh’s personal story is a prime example of what an immigrant can achieve in Germany: From working in the kitchen of a local Burger King, he progressed up through management and into the corporate side of the company that owned his franchise. Now, he is seen as one of Berlin’s leading politicians.
Saleh is not alone in the race to replace Wowereit. Two other prominent SPD politicians have put their hat in the ring, SPD Berlin region chairman Jan Stöß and Michael Müller, who is viewed as a confidant of the current mayor.
And what do Jewish members of the SPD say about a candidate born in the Palestinian territories?
One Jewish SPD activist, who preferred to be interviewed anonymously, said, “There are three good candidates and I do not think that the biography of Mr. Saleh plays an important role when Jewish SPD members decide whom to support.”