Is Brandenburg Safe for Jews? Rabbi Fears Anti-Semitism in Eastern German State
The leading rabbi in the eastern German state of Brandenburg says Jews in the community there are warned not to wear yarmulkes or other visible symbols of Judaism. He says the state has a problem with anti-Semitism, but Brandenburg officials claim they are doing all they can to make Jewish culture part of everyday life.
Some 65 years after the end of World War II, is it safe yet for a Jew to walk through the streets of Germany wearing a yarmulke? Not in Brandenburg, home to Potsdam and its famous UNESCO-listed palaces near Berlin -- at least according to the eastern German state's new chief rabbi, Shaul Nekrich.
A former resident of Berlin, Nekrich said in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung newspaper published Wednesday that he had been perfectly comfortable walking around the capital city, wearing a yarmulke and traditional Jewish hat. Not so, however, in Brandenburg, where he now leads the state's six Jewish communities. Nekrich said he now eschews wearing the kippah or hat head coverings when walking the streets of towns and cities in the state.
Asked by the newspaper whether he believed the state has a problem with anti-Semitism, 31-year-old Nekrich, who emigrated to Germany from Russia after studying in Israel, said: "I think so, even if I haven't been here for very long. I hear the stories from the communities. They are wary of being recognized as Jews on the streets. The only way we announce events now is by e-mail. In (the town of) Bernau, the synagogue has been defaced with swastikas several times."
In the interview, Nekrich also recounted an experience he had on a train in the state three years ago, in which he was harassed by four drunken young men with short hair. "I'm not saying that they were neo-Nazis," he told the paper. "But they had very short hair." He said he began reading a prayer book and that one of the men approached him, asked if it was written in Hebrew and then threw it on the ground. He got out at the next station and took a taxi the rest of the way home.
He told the paper that, as a Jew, it was dangerous to wear a kippah or hat in Brandenburg, unless "someone is versed in martial arts."
The rabbi said he hadn't complained to state officials "because it makes no sense." The community there is too small and it's not possible for the police to provide protection for individual Jews, he said. The state's six Jewish communities together have around 1,300 members.
'The State Government Is Doing Everything it Can'
Nekirch's statements have raised eyebrows in the state, where officials claim that great inroads have been made towards re-establishing normal Jewish life in Brandenburg.
"The state government is doing everything it can to ensure that Jewish life again belongs to everyday life in Brandenburg," Antje Grabley, a spokeswoman for the state's Culture Ministry, which is responsible for the promotion of religious communities in the state, told the Berliner Zeitung. She said that the state's cultural minister, Martina Münch, would take up contact with the rabbi.
Grabley noted that a study from 2009 showed that anti-Semitic tendencies in Brandenburg were the lowest of any German state. And the State Office of Criminal Investigation said the total number of crimes motivated by anti-Semitism in Brandenburg had been 109 in 2009 and that during the first half of 2010, 42 had been reported, a downward trend.
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"I don't want to be recognized as a Jew in Brandenburg. That means that I travel without a hat. And we don't publicize events that we are planning. Community and event rooms in Brandenburg aren't provided with police protection (as they are in some German cities). In (the town of) Bernau, there is a ritual: When the community hangs up a sign, they also take it back down. The students at the rabbi seminary are also advised not to wear a yarmulke on the street. If you like, why not try walking through (the streets) of Potsdam with a kippah?"
But Nekrich also had positive remarks about Jewish life in Germany:
"Today, you can live very well as an Orthodox Jew in Germany. I can work, my wife can go to university and our children can also obtain an education and religious training at school. We have the possibility and the freedom to practice our faith. The question is how the people of Brandenburg will deal with a growing Jewish community and a growing presence of Jews on the streets. That will show whether or not Jews are welcome here."