Ausgabe 40/2007

Wooing the Diaspora: Israel Pursues Germany's Eastern European Jews

By Guido Kleinhubbert and

Many Eastern European Jews who emigrated to Germany have been rejected by local Jewish communities. Now Israel is sending envoys to Germany to try to encourage them to emigrate to Israel to boost the flagging population.

The newly opened synagogue in Berlin's Rykestrasse shows how Jewish culture has once more become an integral part of life in Germany. But Jewish communities in Germany are not doing much to welcome Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The newly opened synagogue in Berlin's Rykestrasse shows how Jewish culture has once more become an integral part of life in Germany. But Jewish communities in Germany are not doing much to welcome Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

At first glance, the story of Natalja Scheinbaum seems a prime example of an immigrant's successful integration into German society. Scheinbaum was 36 when she moved from Ukraine to Germany in 1991. She learned German in record time, studied at university and found a well-paid job as a network administrator. Her son, Jewgenij, received his high school diploma and then obtained a university degree in computer science.

But Natalja Scheinbaum's own integration into the Jewish community was less successful. Already a victim of religious discrimination in the Soviet Union, Scheinbaum has felt for the past 16 years that Berlin's Jewish community has erected an invisible wall between itself and her. "It's sad and absurd," she says.

The problem lies in differing ideas of what it means to be Jewish. For traditional Jews, a person's mother has to be Jewish for that person to be a Jew, whereas the Soviet Union had a looser definition. Although Scheinbaum's old Soviet Union passport states that she is Jewish, the Jewish community in her new home town takes a different view. It does not consider her to be a real Jew because, although she has a Jewish father, she has no Jewish mother. She was therefore barred from becoming a member of the community -- a fate she shares with thousands of others.

This state of affairs is one reason why the Israeli government has now begun to focus its attention on Natalja Scheinbaum and the many others who have been turned away for similar reasons. Traveling to Germany soon will be two members of Nativ -- the Israeli liaison organization founded as an arm of Israeli intelligence in the early 1950s to maintain contact with Jews living in communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War. They know that more than half of the 220,000 Jews who have immigrated to Germany since 1991 now have virtually no contact whatsoever with the Jewish community. They know about the conflicts between Eastern European and Western European Jews, conflicts that have brought many local communities throughout Germany to the brink of schism. And they will discreetly point out to their target group that, by virtue of their Jewish ancestry, they have the right to move to Israel whenever they choose. Under Israel's Law of Return, having one Jewish grandparent is enough to qualify a person for the right to immigrate.

The mission is diplomatically sensitive in every respect. In the view of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the visit by the two Nativ employees is tantamount to a slap in the face. Stephan Kramer, the Council's general secretary, grants that immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union was always "a story full of conflicts." But Israel's decision to send two Nativ employees without first informing the Council has prompted Kramer to pen a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In his letter, Kramer describes Israel's intervention as a "sign of mistrust that insults us personally." In part, the harsh words betray the fear of losing influence: What if the Russians and Ukrainians rally around Nativ and it becomes a counterweight to the Central Council?

That fear is nourished by the history of Nativ. The organization once worked clandestinely, tending to the oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union. Nativ's headquarters in Tel Aviv still exude something of the atmosphere of the organization's past as a secret service. There is no sign by the entrance, and the lobby is empty. Two employees of the domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, sit behind a glass door. Having passed the security controls, visitors are led by a female soldier to the office of 47-year-old Naomi Ben-Ami.

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote a letter of protest about the Nativ plans to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote a letter of protest about the Nativ plans to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The former ambassador to the Ukraine begins the conversation by saying: "We have nothing to hide." These days, Nativ's work is "really no different from that of the German Goethe Institute," she explains. The organization plans to organize exchange programs for young people from Berlin, set up religious education classes and organize public events informing people about Israel. It's all just a matter of making people in Germany more familiar with the Holy Land, the Nativ director says.

The question is: How familiar? Does Nativ want to encourage Russian-born Jews currently living in Germany to immigrate to Israel? Ben-Ami cites the official government position: "We are not working towards immigration to Israel." But of course no one would object if someone were to decide to "come to Israel" in the end, she adds with a smile.

That's the official version: The relationship between Germany and Israel must not suffer. And yet Israel needs nothing more than Jewish immigrants. Even today, one out of five Israeli citizens is of Arab descent, and the rate is increasing. If Israel wants to preserve its character as a Jewish state while at the same time remaining a democracy, the government in Jerusalem must take steps to ensure the majority of its population remains Jewish.

But the number of immigrants sank drastically last year. While Israel still received more than 60,000 Jewish immigrants in 2000, the number had dropped to 19,264 by 2006. Conversely, about 20,000 Jews will probably leave the country this year.

Given these figures, one group of people living in Germany seems especially attractive to Nativ: the younger Jewish immigrants. Those aged between 40 and 60 who arrived during the early 1990s often had difficulties establishing themselves on the upper levels of the labor market. Their qualifications as teachers, doctors and engineers were worth nothing in their new home. But they passed their level of education on to their children, who are now splendidly equipped for their careers: Many of them have high school diplomas, and most in that group are already studying at university.

Larissa Syssojewa from the World Congress of Russian Jewry (WCRJ) finds it "aggravating" that Jewish communities in Germany are not making more of an effort to woo this elite. She is particularly upset with the Central Council of Jews in Germany for sitting back "idly" and watching Berlin tighten the regulations on the immigration of Eastern European Jews in 2006. Now one of the preconditions for immigration to Germany is an invitation from a Jewish community in the country.

To Syssojewa, this is an unambiguous sign: "The German Jews don't want us," she says. "As many of us as possible should leave."

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