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Berlin’s Palestinian mayoral candidate proud of city’s Jewish revival

West Bank-born Raed Saleh says Holocaust education should start earlier for first-generation Germans who need to learn ‘the positive and negative aspects of German history’

Palestinian born German politician Raed Saleh (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)
Palestinian born German politician Raed Saleh (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

BERLIN — A German politician who has been outspoken in promoting the need for early Holocaust and anti-Semitism education is poised to be the next mayor of Berlin. Seeking to succeed the German capital’s incumbent, Klaus Wowereit — the city’s first openly gay leader — Palestinian-born Raed Saleh may become Berlin’s first immigrant mayor.

Saleh, 37, who was born in the West Bank and came to Berlin at age 5, offers a story of social advancement and tolerance he hopes will win over voters and set an example for others.

The son of a Palestinian “guest worker” who brought his family to then-West Berlin in the early 1980s, the 37-year-old Saleh started out working at Burger King and later co-founded a company that provides printing services.

“At the moment, a lot of young people have the feeling that they don’t have a share” in society, he said. Berlin is home to a large immigrant community, including many people with Turkish roots, some of them poorly integrated.

Berlin mayoral candidate Raed Saleh. 'With young people with foreign roots, I regularly visit Auschwitz and Birkenau to explain that German history is also part of their history.' (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)
Berlin mayoral candidate Raed Saleh. ‘With young people with foreign roots, I regularly visit Auschwitz and Birkenau to explain that German history is also part of their history.’ (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

A growing new generation of disenfranchised first-generation Germans is a major cause of rising anti-Semitism in a society long-known for endemic racial hatred, Saleh told The Times of Israel.

But Saleh said this trend can be easily reversed. The cure? Experiential education.

“With young people with foreign roots, I regularly visit Auschwitz and Birkenau to explain that German history is also part of their history… because they were born here and must be acquainted with both the positive and negative aspects of German history,” Saleh said.

However, anti-Semitism education must begin earlier than it does now, said Saleh, “especially where we have classes in which 70 percent of the children are of foreign origin.”

For the past eight years Saleh has promoted mutual respect among Berlin’s religious and ethnic groups through a “Dialogue of Religions” program. There, Christians, Jews and Muslims discuss and learn about each other’s religions and volunteer in their communities.

If elected mayor, Saleh promises to ensure law and order and has taken an outspoken stance against anti-Semitic slogans chanted during protests against the Gaza war. “You can criticize if you have a different political view,” he said, “but nothing justifies hatred of Jews.”

Self-made politician

Saleh joined the center-left Social Democrats of the current mayor, Klaus Wowereit, at 18 and rose steadily the local party hierarchy. When Wowereit announced in August that he was stepping down, Saleh — now the party’s regional caucus leader — became a natural candidate to succeed him.

Members of the Social Democrats are choosing between Saleh and two other contenders to be their party’s pick in a postal ballot that closes October 17. The mayor will be elected by the Berlin state parliament in December. Since a Social Democrat-led coalition has a majority in the legislature, the party ballot’s winner is all but guaranteed to get the job.

Saleh says his election could help give “courage and hope” to millions of people, showing that everyone is equal regardless of where they were born.

“This would of course be a great signal, and we would make history together here in Berlin,” he said.

‘A homeland is a place where you care about what is happening around you’

“Young people with immigrant roots must, in addition to the Turkish and Arab cultural associations that they visit, start to feel at home in the larger [German] society overall. A homeland is a place where you care about what is happening around you. I would want these young people to be engaged in [German] political parties and social organizations,” he said.

“I’m proud that Jewish life has become so well developed in recent years. We again have Jewish cafes and restaurants, Jewish culture… and I’m proud, because that shows that we have regained the trust of the Jews from all over the world,” he said.The revival of Berlin Jewish life and the Jewish community’s sense of belonging to the city is a subject that Saleh repeatedly references as a point of pride.

Saleh is also pleased about the strong Israeli connection to Berlin, which has only grown in recent years. Berlin has become a controversial mecca for Israeli artists, musicians, students, tourists, and entrepreneurs.

“The relationship between Berlin and Israel has a lot of potential… a lot of people from Israel come to Germany, many of them as tourists or as students. That is a big compliment for Berlin.”

No more ‘poor but sexy’ Berlin

If elected mayor, Saleh pledges to focus on education and to take personal control of attracting business to the city.

Berlin has developed a reputation as a hub for high-tech startups, but is industrially weak and has not developed a strong financial center. Wowereit dubbed the city “poor but sexy.” Its 10.8 percent unemployment rate is still the second-highest of any German state, well above the national average of 6.5 percent.

“Berlin is growing, Berlin is developing very positively, but many people have no share in this growth — for many, everything that is happening is passing them by,” Saleh said. “I would like us to share prosperity around better.”

Wowereit’s decision to step down midterm gives the new mayor nearly two years before the next state election to shore up his party’s support. That has slid amid disillusionment with the once-popular Wowereit, whose personal reputation suffered from persistent delays in opening Berlin’s new airport.

Saleh’s chances are hard to gauge in a battle with local party chairman Jan Stoess and city development minister Michael Mueller, the best-known of three candidates who are hardly household names.

Islamic and anti-Israel activists waved Palestinian flags and anti-Israel posters at the Berlin rally against anti-Semitism's edges on September 14, 2014. (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)
Islamic and anti-Israel activists waved Palestinian flags and anti-Israel posters at the edges of the Berlin rally against anti-Semitism on September 14, 2014. (Micki Weinberg/The Times of Israel)

Ethnic minorities are poorly represented in leadership positions in Germany, though a co-leader of the opposition Greens and the federal government official responsible for immigrant issues have Turkish roots.

Saleh said in a letter to party members that he has heard questions about whether Berlin is ready for a mayor with an immigrant background.

“I think that is asking the question the wrong way,” he wrote. “It should be: Are we ready? Are you ready?”

And his answer to a more burning issue? Saleh, as a Palestinian born in the West Bank, cannot preclude himself from arguably the most controversial and possibly unresolvable subject in the Middle East: Who makes the best hummus?

Saleh smiled and, showing off his diplomatic skills, quickly answered.

“The best hummus is what I make for my family on the weekend,” he laughed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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