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'It can’t be that refugees are rejected like in the Third Reich era, where Jews were refused entry to other countries and were killed. That’s out of the question. But we need to talk about integration'

As refugees flood in, German Jews are torn between embrace and worry

The Cologne Jewish community’s dilemma over teenage refugees living opposite the city’s synagogue is a microcosm of German Jewry’s concerns over the migrant wave

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

File: Refugees who arrived by train from Salzburg, Austria, wait on a platform at the central station in Munich, Germany, on September 6, 2015. (Photo by Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP)
File: Refugees who arrived by train from Salzburg, Austria, wait on a platform at the central station in Munich, Germany, on September 6, 2015. (Photo by Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP)

COLOGNE, Germany — Last November, a handful of refugees were moved temporarily to a few containers in a public park across the street from Cologne’s main synagogue, an imposing 150-year-old building with clearly visible Hebrew inscriptions and a Star of David on top.

The containers were originally erected to house a kindergarten undergoing renovations and were to have been removed soon after the work was completed. But as a wave of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa swept into Western Europe, local authorities decided to use it as makeshift refugee center, housing a group of 10 to 12-year-olds who arrived without their parents.

The local Jewish community was unhappy about the containers, to say the least.

“When frustrated youths from Syria and Afghanistan in the right age for stabbing people have to stare at the synagogue for months, it’s enough for one of them to go crazy,” a local Jew who regularly attends events at the community center complained at the time. “I’d be scared to come to shul, because I cannot exclude the possibility that one of them follows me and then sees where I live. That itself is not yet criminal, but it would be a good reason for me not come to shul anymore.”

Eventually neither Syrians nor Afghanis were placed in these containers, but only refugees from countries where anti-Semitism is deemed less rampant. But weeks later, local Jews are still uneasy.

“I would say, three-quarters [of the Jews here] are concerned to a certain extent. The other quarter are very worried,” Abraham Lehrer, a senior leader of the Cologne Jewish community and the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told The Times of Israel last week.

In light of the municipality’s decision to house refugees directly across from the synagogue building, which also houses a community center, a kindergarten and a kosher restaurant, Lehrer and his colleagues at the helm of the Cologne community requested 24-hour police protection. The police refused. “The authorities’ security assessment has not changed due to the refugees,” Lehrer said unhappily.

‘It can’t be that [refugees are being rejected] like in the Third Reich. But we need to talk about integration and re-education’

At a time of rising anti-Semitism in Germany, which has manifested itself in vocal anti-Israel demonstrations and an increasing number of physical attacks against Jews in the wake of the last Gaza war, German Jews look at the government’s policy on migrants with no little suspicion and concern.

While officially in favor of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stance that a modern Germany cannot close its doors to people fleeing war and destruction, many in the Jewish community fear that the influx of Arab Muslims will inevitably bring with it more anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment.

Clashing identities

The attitude of Germany’s Jews toward the refugee crisis, which has already brought more than 1.1 million refugees to the country, could be described as a clash of two conflicting identities: On the one hand, as civilized and open-minded Western Europeans, they understand and support the moral imperative of helping people in need. On the other hand, as Jews, they are wary of the refugees’ non-Western world view, which they fear will ultimately cause great harm — to them as Jews in particular but also to German society at large.

Abraham Lehrer (Jörn Neumann/Zentralrat der Juden)
Abraham Lehrer (Jörn Neumann/Zentralrat der Juden)

“From the very beginning of the current wave, we said that the Jewish community strongly supports a policy of open borders and the intake of refugees,” Lehrer said. “And we’re still in favor of open borders. It can’t be that [refugees are being rejected] like in the Third Reich, where Jews were refused entry to other countries and were killed because of that. That’s out of the question. But we need to talk about integration and re-education, about bringing these people closer to Western values.”

As hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and other Arabs entered the country, the Central Council of Jews in Germany started to warn the government about possible negative ramifications, initially in internal discussions but, starting in the fall of 2015, also publicly.

“Many refugees come from countries in which Israel is the enemy; these sentiments are often transferred to Jews in general,” German Jewish leaders told Merkel at an October 27 meeting.

The council’s president, Joseph Schuster, caused a little scandal recently when he spoke of the need for a “ceiling” or limit to the number of refugees. But all he meant to say was that while borders should remain open, at some point in the future the country will reach the point where it will be unable to accommodate additional refugees, Lehrer said.

Last week, a German branch of IsrAID, an Israeli NGO dedicated to disaster relief and long-term support for people in need, was founded. Funded by the American Jewish Committee and the ZWST, Germany’s main Jewish charity organization, the new group seeks to improve care for refugees. “It’s a wonderful sign for German-Israeli partnership when German and Israelis provide psychosocial assistance for the mainly Muslim refugees in Germany,” said Deidre Berger, director of the AJC Institute for German-Jewish Relations.

Germany, a country of 80 million with a Jewish community of about 250,000, could deal with 50,000, even 100,000 refugees, even if they have problematic world views, Lehrer told The Times of Israel last week, speaking in the rabbi’s office at the Roonstrasse synagogue. “But a million — that’s a massive problem headed toward us, and dear government, you need to slowly start getting to work and think about it.”

The interior of the Roonstrasse synagogue (photo credit: courtesy sgk.de)
The interior of the Roonstrasse synagogue (photo credit: courtesy sgk.de)

Many synagogues and community centers in Germany are near refugee centers — the sheer mass of the centers makes that statistically unavoidable, Lehrer explained — but so far there have been zero anti-Jewish hate crimes perpetrated by refugees.

‘We should get Israelis to take care of security’

In Cologne, Germany’s fourth biggest city and home to about 5,000 Jews, the discussion about the refugees is particularly sensitive due to the dramatic events of New Year’s eve. At a public square in front of the city’s central train station, about a thousand men — all of them apparently Arabs — committed hundreds of sexual attacks against local women, including several rapes.

During a recent visit, the square looked unremarkable, with a few empty police cars standing in a parking lot and two lone cops in orange vests unperturbedly strolling around. But the quiet belied the fact that the incident stirred massive criticism of the police and allowed critics of the government’s refugee policies to feel confirmed in their skepticism.

A police car passes the central railway station in Cologne, Germany Tuesday Jan. 5, 2016. (Oliver Berg/dpa via AP)
A police car passes the central railway station in Cologne, Jan. 5, 2016. (Oliver Berg/dpa via AP)

The failure of the police to prevent the attacks led not only to the ouster of the city’s police chief but has also further eroded the Jewish community’s trust that local security forces can adequately protect them.

“My nightmare is that someone is going to throw a molotov cocktail into the synagogue,” a regular attendant of services at the Roonstrasse shul said. “I am not really afraid to be here, but the police is only here occasionally. The truth is that they’re not really capable of doing anything. You know what their procedure is in the case of an attack? To lock themselves in their car and call for reinforcement.” Policemen ordered to protect the synagogue are not even allowed to enter the building, he added. “We should get Israelis to take care of security.”

He is not afraid to walk around walking a skullcap, the man added, saying that he was only yelled at once. However, he cautioned, there have been several anti-Semitic attacks in other German cities and Cologne could easily be next.

‘When frustrated youths from Syria and Afghanistan in the right age for stabbing people have to stare at the synagogue for months, it’s enough for one of them to go crazy’

In Germany, securing Jewish institutions is the responsibility of the local authorities and thus varies from place to place. While the synagogue in nearby Düsseldorf, for instance, has 24-hour police protection, the Cologne police only stations a van in front of the building when there are large gatherings planned. Some communities hire Israel security companies to reinforce the local police presence, but smaller one generally cannot afford this extra cost.

While the Cologne police dismissed the local Jews’ security concerns over the refugees, the agency that operates the refugee center did agree to not to house Syrians or Iraqis in the containers. Only refugees from countries where anti-Semitic sentiments are considered less rabid are being placed there, according to various members of the Cologne Jewish community, none of whom agreed to discuss the issue on the record.

The shadow of the New Year’s Eve attacks

For outside onlookers, the containers hosting the refugees appear utterly unthreatening. On a recent Wednesday morning, they did not disturb the serenity of the park where they are located — because they were empty.

Surrounded by a fence, the containers were uninhabited, with shutters down. The “asylum seekers” have been moved out temporarily, explained a middle-aged women carrying shopping bags and speaking with a notable Cologne accent.

Teenage refugees live in these containers, located in a public park in Cologne, Germany. In the background, the city's Roonstrasse synagogue (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Groups of teenage refugees temporarily live in these containers, located in a public park in Cologne, Germany. In the background, the city’s Roonstrasse synagogue (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

The New Year’s Eve attacks have led the public to be more circumspect and the police to be more vigilant, she said. “Since New Year’s Eve, women are afraid to take the train alone at night.” The refugees living in the containers near her home, however, do not bother her.

“These kids are nice guys. They play soccer over there. One of them had me roll a cigarette for him the other day. They’re a nice bunch.” Also, she added, the teenagers were never alone — there was always a social education worker with them — and they stay in the containers only for a few weeks before they are being brought to more permanent quarters.

Another passerby, who said he lives right next to the park, said he had heard rumors that refugees live in these containers, but has never seen one. The idea of unaccompanied teens from Arab countries did not trouble him. “That’s fine with me. Just let them be,” he said.

Indeed, it appears that many locals still support Merkel’s refugee policies, despite the New Year’s Eve attacks. “For me, the issue is very clear: Germany is an affluent country; we all have a roof over our heads. There can be no question that we need to help those who have nothing,” said Jonas Ippen, a Cologne teacher who also routinely looks after a group of teenagers who came to Germany from Iraq, Morocco, Guinea, Afghanistan and other countries.

Participants at a pro-migrant demonstration in Berlin on September 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / AXEL SCHMIDT)
Participants at a pro-migrant demonstration in Berlin on September 12, 2015. (AFP photo / Axel Schmidt)

Ippen sometimes spends the night with these teenagers in their refugee centers. Many of them wake up in tears, tormented by nightmares. “Let’s face it: they did not come here because they were doing well at home. They came here because their lives were horrible,” he said. “One of the guys I work with was recruited to be a killer for a terrorist group, before his mother got him out.”

Other European countries need to do their part and agree to take in large contingents of refugees, Ippen added. “But the principle is obvious: we can afford to help them; so we can’t look the other way. I fail to understand how people can oppose Germany taking in refugees.”

Common wisdom says initial support for the government’s welcoming refugee policy is rapidly eroding, not least due to the events in Cologne (even though, ironically, they were apparently not committed by Middle Eastern refugees but by North African gangs involved in drug traffic).

The anti-immigration Alternative fuer Deutschland party is doing well in regional polls; demonstrations against the refugees draw impressive crowds, and recently the country was rocked by several instances of violent attacks against newcomers and refugee centers. Several people told this reporter that the national mood is slowly turning against the refugees.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at a former hotel that was under reconstruction to become a home for asylum seekers on February 21, 2016 in Bautzen east of Dresden, eastern Germany. (AFP / dpa / Rico Loeb)
Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at a former hotel that was under reconstruction to become a home for asylum seekers on February 21, 2016 in Bautzen east of Dresden, eastern Germany. (AFP / dpa / Rico Loeb)

However, others argued that the Cologne attacks did not change anyone’s opinion from pro to contra, but merely hardened people’s initial positions. Those who were skeptical of Germany’s embrace of refugees feel confirmed and agitate ever more forcefully, while Germans in favor of granting asylum insist that not refugees but organized crime groups were responsible for the New Year’s Eve incident. Germany, they insist, cannot escape its moral responsibility to care for those in need.

German Jews leaning towards the skeptics

The country’s Jewish community can be found somewhere between these two extremes, though it appears to lean toward the skeptics.

“As Jewish people we have experience with being refugees, and we have a religious and moral obligation to help other refugees — ‘because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” said Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg, of Berlin’s Orthodox Joachimsthalerstrasse synagogue. Still, there are many other countries refugees could choose to go, and the fact that many of them come to Germany shows they are mainly interested in improving their economic situation, he argued.

“We need to help people in despair. The question is how? I am in favor of supporting them, with money, clothes, medical equipment and whatever else they need. But they shouldn’t be allowed to become Germans. It doesn’t fit — Germany is not a Muslim country.”

Ehrenberg, who was born and brought up in Jerusalem, has served as a rabbi in Germany since 1989. He is also concerned about security. “Currently, we are witnessing many French Jews coming to Israel because of attacks against their brethren by Muslims,” he said. “There can be no doubt that this same problem is coming to Germany. It’s dynamite that will explode in our faces. Look at what happened in France. Why would Germany be any different?”

Besides the physical danger allegedly posed by Arab refugees, the Israeli ambassador in Berlin, Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman, points to a different problematic aspect of the current social and demographic trends in Germany. By focusing on refugees’ ostensible Jew hatred, society risks ignoring homegrown anti-Semitism, he argues.

“I observe with great skepticism when people demonstrating against refugees suddenly wave Israeli flags. That happened occasionally in recent days,” he wrote in an article for a local political journal last month. “Xenophobic people speak of ‘us Jews and Christians’ and call Islam our common enemy. That is nonsense.”

‘Once they figure out how things go here, it’s possible that they will become politically active, and it’s not hard to guess in which direction’

Georg Potzies, a retired antiquarian from Berlin and a member of Ehrenberg’s community, is radically opposed to the government’s welcoming of refugees. The newcomers do not pose an immediate physical threat to the Jewish community, he said, but they could soon become a political liability.

“At the moment they are still busy with themselves: getting registered as asylum seekers and trying to get out of the crowded halls they’re staying in. They are focused on improving their personal situation, they don’t have time yet to attack other people,” Potzies said. “But after two or three years, once they figure out how things work here, it’s possible that they will become politically active, and it’s not hard to guess in which direction that will go.”

What about the Jewish community’s official position that hopes for the refugees to be taught respect for Western values, tolerance and democracy?

“This is the dream of leftists but it surely won’t happen,” Potzies replied. “Look at the Arabs who are already here for two or three generations. Even if you integrate them, that doesn’t mean they change their worldview. Those who were born here are just as anti-Semitic as those arriving just now.”

Potzies, who grew up secular and became religiously observant a decade ago, said he recently disguised himself as a journalist and interviewed 36 Arab refugees in Berlin. At first he asked them harmless questions to gain their trust and then inquired about their attitude toward Israel and Jews, he said. “The answers I got were exactly like those you would find in Der Sturmer: ‘You have to kill them, cut their throats, bomb them and throw them in the sea.’ There was not one exception.”

A video report published in a widely circulated German daily reached similar conclusions. Yonatan Shay, a skullcap-wearing Israeli, spent some time at Berlin’s massive Tempelhof refugee center and collected evidence of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments, such as drawings of a map of Israel in the Palestinian national colors or a Star of David with “666” written next to it.

“No neo-Nazis visited this place. That means that some Arabs wrote that,” Shay says in the video report, standing next to a swastika drawn on a wall.

Conversations with the refugees

During a recent visit to this refugee center, this reporter conducted several conversations with refugees. None of them seemed to be preoccupied by the Jews or the Jewish state.

“Israel is good,” a teenager from Iraq said. “Today there’s [a] problem,” he explained in broken English. “They [Israelis and Palestinians] kill each other.” But just a few months ago there was no problem with the Jews and their state, he opined, as the three other teens looked on and nodded in agreement.

Thousands of refugees, mostly from the Middle East, are currently at home at this center, located in the long-defunct Tempelhof Airport in the center of the city. The huge structure — one of the largest buildings in the world — has a storied history; built in the 1930, it was used to airlift chocolates and raisins to Berliners during the late 1940s. Today it is Germany’s biggest refugee camp, hosting refugees in small living spaces divided by temporary white screens.

The refugees who live here, in four huge hangars divided into several hundred spaces packing several bunk beds, have many worries. Learning German is the main challenge for almost all the refugees here; very few speak the local language or English. Some are trying to get their spouses, who arrived later, transferred to Tempelhof from other centers for refugees.

“The room is not good,” said Mustafa Said, 31, who escaped his hometown of Baglan, in northern Afghanistan, four months ago with his wife and three young children. “There are a lot of problems. For example the light. It never goes out at night; it’s hard to sleep like that.”

Mustafa Said, 31, of Baglan, Afghanistan, now lives in Berlin (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
Mustafa Said, 31, of Baglan, Afghanistan, now lives in Berlin (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

A good-natured man sporting a neatly trimmed beard and brown leather jacket, Said didn’t have a bad word to say about the Jews or their state. “They’re good people,” he said with a broad smile.

For Marwa Khatal, 24, the issue is a bit more complicated. A self-identified “Palestinian from Syria,” she initially said that there is no Israel — only Palestine. Her grandfather lived in Safed until 1948; Khatal, who was wearing a shiny red hijab, was born and brought up in Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp.

“I have two keys: one in Palestine and one in Yarmouk,” she said. But when this reporter, after a 10 minute conversation, pressed her on whether the State of Israel has a right to exist, she replied affirmatively. She is no big fan of either Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, she said, nor of the rival Hamas terror group. Without spelling it out, she indicated support for a two-state solution.

“In the end,” she said, “all I want is for me and my husband and my children to live in a house and be at peace.”

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