A steady trickle of refugees from the Middle East is systematically seeking out Germany’s national Jewish welfare organization.
Located throughout the heavily migrant-trafficked eastern Germany, in the first six months of 2015, the ZWST or the Central Board of Jewish Welfare in Germany’s five immigrant absorption centers have seen some 1,000 adults seeking advice about settling in the country. Almost evenly split between genders and aged 18 and up, these potential immigrants have one thing in common — they speak Russian.
And while the majority of ZWST’s clients are Russian citizens or from other former Soviet Union countries, there is a growing number of asylum seekers from Muslim countries turning to the Jewish welfare organization. Reflecting Russia’s deep ties with Syria and the ongoing civil war, the agency has seen an uptick in applications from Russian-speaking Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Germany.
The Times of Israel approached over a dozen German Jewish organizations, journalists, individual activists and communities in the past week, asking what, if anything, German Jewry is doing for the influx of refugees and migrants. Although there are innumerable individual initiatives, the communities, largely not actively aiding the refugees, are keeping a very low profile with their aid efforts, deliberating their first steps or waiting until the November 15 annual Mitzvah Day to volunteer.
But the ZWST is already in the trenches, and has been for years.
As part of the Federal Association of Independent Welfare Agencies, the ZWST is one of six national bodies tasked with immigrant intake and its doors are open to all.
“This [immigration counseling] is an open offer for people coming to Germany with the will to stay here,” said Günter Jek, who coordinates the ZWST’s intake centers. All of its counselors speak German and Russian, and some Syrians, along with some other potential immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, seek out the ZWST with the help of Russian-language skills learned during higher education abroad.
“Funny as it is, Syrian refugees visit Jewish counselors because they speak Russian,” said Jek.
The ZWST processed the large Russian Jewish immigration wave that began in the early 1990s and continues to work with Jewish immigrants today, including over 100,000 Israelis and several thousands of Americans who have sought German passports based on their families’ expulsion during World War II.
The ZWST is the smallest of the six national bodies tasked with immigration counseling for the seemingly endless rivers of migrants and asylum seekers flooding the country. At least 800,000 are expected this year, and the government is scrambling to accommodate their varied needs.
But when asked how the agency is dealing with the sharp increase of refugees in the past few weeks, Jek, who has worked with ZWST for 12 years, gave an unexpected response.
“This ‘boom’ is media made,” said Jek, adding that the immigrants are constantly seeking asylum in Germany. “If you are in the migrant counseling business, this started to increase enormously at the beginning of last year. What’s happening today is a media-made thing.”
‘If you are in the migrant counseling business, this started to increase enormously at the beginning of last year. What’s happening today is a media-made thing’
In addition to opening people’s pocketbooks, however, the heightened media awareness has several other positive aspects, said Jek.
“If you take a look at Germany several weeks ago, there were protest against migrants, burning of their houses. Now the media is full of people helping migrants. Chancellor [Angela] Merkel is visiting refugee camps, they’ve opened the border for migrants from Hungary. It works,” said Jek.
Founded in 1917 to aid Jewish World War I veterans and their compatriots’ widows and orphans, the ZWST was instrumental in helping Jews leave Germany under early Nazi rule until it was shuttered in 1939 and its staff taken to camps. After the war, it was revived by German Jewry’s umbrella organization, the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany) and began its work of resettling Jewish Holocaust survivors.
“We have one thing in mind in our work — that 90% of the Jewish people in Germany came here as refugees, and were accepted and integrated. And still, our greatest work is to integrate people, into the Jewish community — and German society,” said Jek.
Today, ZWST’s resettlement work continues, albeit with a broader mandate. And for ZWST’s Jek, a non-Jew, this work is not fed by “Jewish values” but rather by humanitarian ones.
For the broader German Jewish community, however, the refugee issue seems to involve a stifling mixture of compassion, guilt, and fear.
Help others while protecting their own
The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said this week that the European Union and Germany “have a duty to help the refugees who are fleeing from war or persecution. The Jewish community in Germany sides with the refugees and has started a lot of local initiatives to help them.”
Particularly in eastern Germany, some Jewish communities and many more individual activists have begun to aid the refugees in their areas. From collecting and distributing food and basic necessities, to medical or dental treatments, while still lacking a broad unified communal response, many German Jews have created their own.
But, of course, there are those who don’t feel driven to aid the asylum seekers at all.
There is a Syrian refugee compound next to the Chabad Lubavitch Center in Dusseldorf, home to Germany’s third-largest Jewish community. According to director Rabbi Chaim Barkahn, the structure was recently repurposed for the refugees. There is a social worker onsite, and there are also armed guards.
“We were a bit frightened it was going to be there,” Barkahn told The Times of Israel this week. But Mayor Dirk Elbers, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, reassured the rabbi, saying it was a temporary operation to check in the refugees and then move them out.
‘We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists’
Although you wouldn’t know it while walking through the city center, said Barkahn, there are several hundred refugees in Dusseldorf. When asked if his congregation is providing aid, however, the rabbi said the municipality has everything well in hand and its help isn’t needed.
“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,” said Barkahn.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany’s Schuster shares Barkahn’s worries for the security of the Jewish community, as well as that of the refugees.
“There are also deep concerns because of the violent clashes against refugees by right extremists [German neo-Nazis].” Alluding to the rise in xenophobic sentiment in the country’s far right, Schuster said, “The successful integration of the refugees is an enormous challenge for the government and civil society, but definitely necessary.”
Shepherd the migrants to the ‘promised land’
European Union regulations state that refugees must register for asylum in the first country they reach. This entry point is usually in heavily over-taxed Greece or stuffed-to-the-gills Italy, not the desired endpoints of Germany or Scandinavia.
However, an Israeli NGO has an idea to connect the dots.
Shachar Zahavi of disaster relief organization IsraAid spoke with The Times of Israel in a brief conversation from Athens on Wednesday. IsraAid has been working with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Iraq/Kurdistan for several years and is currently setting up operations at a well-traveled entry point in Greece.
Zahavi said the organization is in talks with Germany to explore the idea of the NGO’s involvement in absorption centers there.
The plan, said Zahavi, is to create a more holistic approach, in which the NGO would begin working with refugees at their entry point, and then see them through to Germany, their desired destination.
‘They are people who are taught from birth that Jews are apes or pigs. They need a civil program to teach multiculturalism’
In Germany, IsraAid would use expertise gained from Jordan and Iraq to help at German absorption and trauma centers, with the goal of streamlining the refugees’ integration into society.
“The difference between us and other international organizations is that we’ve been working in Jordan with Syrian refugees and in Iraq and Kurdistan. We understand their mentality, which is an advantage we bring to the table,” said Zahavi.
And it is this Middle Eastern mentality that is worrisome to Jek of the Central Board of Jewish Welfare in Germany.
“They are people who are taught from birth that Jews are apes or pigs. They need a civil program to teach multiculturalism. And this is a point the German government doesn’t even think of,” said Jek.
Especially during last summer’s Gaza War, the influx of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries were a driving force behind the surge of anti-Israel protests that too often crossed the border into anti-Semitic tropes.
“We would like to see these new refugees in training classes to teach German values,” said Jek. Today all potential immigrants must attend a series of classes in which they learn German and are introduced to German banking, healthcare and transportation.
But religious tolerance, a main staple of German public school education, is not taught to these migrants, said Jek.
Dr. Georgette Bennett, an international expert in combating religious prejudice, was born into a Jewish refugee family and is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her organization, the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, provides funding and facilitates partnerships between Syrian and Israeli NGOs to aid Syrian refugees at the immense Za’atari refugee camp.
Asked this week if she finds it odd that Germany, the epicenter of the Holocaust that killed some six million Jewish people, is now a beacon of hope for potentially millions of refugees, she laughed.
“I find it ironic, but I don’t find it odd because Germany is among the very few countries, maybe the only country in Europe, that has confronted its past. And because it has confronted its past, it feels a great moral obligation to act differently than it did. It deserves to be commended for it,” said Bennett.
Bennett said there are very good organizations, such as the International Rescue Committee, that can facilitate education programs and help “ease the way of refugees into Western society and orient them.”
But, she cautioned, from war in Syria to the arduous journey to Europe, the refugees have encountered unspeakable challenges and disasters.
‘One of the things we have to be highly aware of is that the Syrian refugees are a highly traumatized population’
“One of the things we have to be highly aware of is that the Syrian refugees are a highly traumatized population. Without addressing the trauma, children won’t be able to learn, women won’t be able to function.”
There are huge levels of gender violence, said Bennett, and many women have experienced multiple rapes that, in some cases, their children witnessed.
Additionally, she said, the European countries upon which they are first making landfall “have the worst perception of Muslims.”
Proposing an immediate massive airlift mission on the part of countries such as Israel, which has experience in such operations, and even rescue efforts by private yachts at sea, Bennett said all hands must be on board to quickly shift the refugees and migrants from their points of entry.
“We must get them out of countries like Greece, where they are in terrible circumstances, and get them to Germany,” said Bennett.
And so far, Germany is one of the only countries that will welcome them “home.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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