Photo Gallery: Circumcision Debate Unsettles Jews in Germany

Foto: dpa Picture-Alliance / Marcus Brandt/ picture alliance / dpa

'Great Anxiety' Jews Question Their Future in Germany

The bitter tone of the debate over the legality of circumcision has shocked Jews living in Germany and reopened old wounds. In light of what many report are ongoing difficulties, some are now wondering if the country truly wants them.

Arye Sharuz Shalicar was looking for a place he could call home. It wasn't an unusual wish. He doesn't wear a kippah and isn't a devout Jew. He grew up in Berlin's Wedding district, surrounded by Turkish and Arab children -- a difficult combination. Later he wore the uniform of the German army during his military service. Then he went to college. But at some point Shalicar could no longer stand Germany, where he was subjected to daily harassment, open animosity and anti-Semitism.

In 2001, at the age of 35, Shalicar moved to Israel and started a career there. For the past three years he's been an Israeli army spokesman. Shalicar isn't surprised about the most recent attacks on Jews in Germany. He says he grew up having to defend himself as a Jew -- even with his fists, if necessary. Shalicar has written a book about his experiences, and says he still likes Germany. He visits his parents twice a year in Berlin, where they still live, and he looks back fondly on his childhood. "Germany will always be a part of me. I have a German accent when I speak Hebrew, and I speak to my son in German," he says.

But Germany couldn't offer him the home he desired.

Charlotte Knobloch, the former chairwoman of the Central Council of Jews, has often had to explain to fellow Jews why she chose to stay in Germany after 1945, even though it was the country that had perpetrated the Holocaust. But Knobloch appeared to have settled the questions about her home for herself, writing a book about it entitled "In Deutschland Angekommen," or "Arriving in Germany," which will be published in October. It describes her dream of a Jewish homeland in the country, and how she saw opening a synagogue and Jewish community center in the heart of her hometown Munich six years ago as her life's work and the fulfillment of a dream. It sounds like a conciliatory book.

But that was before the debate about circumcision began in Germany.

Since late June, when the Cologne regional court ruled that doctors who circumcise a boy for religious reasons can be accused of committing bodily injury, it seems as if everything has changed for her. "I seriously ask if this country still wants us," she wrote  in an editorial for daily Süddeutsche Zeitung last week. In her view, circumcision is an essential ritual of the Jewish faith. She was surprised by how many opponents of the practice spoke out, especially doctors and lawyers. Some simply wanted to prevent children being circumcised, but others seemed to suggest that Jews and Muslims wanted to wantonly mutilate and traumatize their children.

Knobloch wrote that she had defended the continued presence of Jews in Germany for decades, "even though Jews are abused verbally and beaten so badly they need to be hospitalized." She also said that Jewish religious foundations were being "dragged through the mud" by the debate, which "casts doubt over the future of the already tiny Jewish population in Germany."

Ambivalent About Germany

Has being Jewish in Germany become harder and more complicated, if not impossible? Is the Germany of 2012 no longer a country in which Jews can feel at home?

Much has converged in recent months. First, there was the 40th anniversary of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, an event which once again highlighted the ignorance of Germany's police officers and politicians. Then there was Günter Grass' controversial poem  about Israel. Some have also been offended by the fact that Judith Butler, a vocal critic of Israel, will be awarded the Adorno Prize this week.

And then there are the repeated attacks on Jews, mostly by right-wing extremists, but also by Muslims. In the first half of 2012, there were 13 violent attacks, 11 of them carried out by neo-Nazis. Although Jews and Jewish establishments in Germany were attacked on only 16 occasions in 2011, compared with 114 in France, this is no cause for celebration. The reality includes an attack  on Berlin Rabbi Daniel Alter, who was beaten by Arab youths in front of his 7-year-old daughter two weeks ago, suffering a broken cheekbone.

Some 104,000 members of the Jewish community live in Germany. Yet all of this raises the question of how German society deals with the Jewish people living in its midst. Does it view Jewish traditions, customs and achievements as an asset? Or do many people have difficultly suppressing their anti-Semitism and muffled hatred of otherness?

Looking around Germany's larger Jewish communities , it's easy to see that many Jewish Germans feel ambivalent about a country that time and again makes it so difficult for them to consider it their home. Because, for example, it would be dangerous to openly profess their faith.

'They Can't Push Us Around'

The Jewish Abraham Geiger theological college in Potsdam advises its 28 student rabbis against wearing a kippah -- the Jewish head covering -- in public. Out of concerns for its students' welfare, the orthodox Or Avner school in Berlin has long issued similar guidelines. Whenever its pupils go on trips to the zoo or the museum, they are warned: "Speak German, not Hebrew, and put a baseball cap over your kippah so you don't give stupid people something to get annoyed about." Camouflaged in this way, young Jews travel on Berlin's metro trains.

Just last week, female Or Avner students were accosted and called "Jewish pigs" by a group of youths. School principal Heike Michalak says she has to fight hard to defend what should already be self-evident. "They can't push us around," she says defiantly. "Jewish life must be a visible part of our society."

Jewish journalist Philipp Peymen Engel, 29, discovered just how difficult things can be when he polled sentiments in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg for the Jewish daily Jüdische Allgemeine. There he met a 23-year-old Lebanese man called Adil, who was hanging around the metro station with half a dozen friends and a pit bull on a leash. "Scum" was how Adil described Jews to the reporter. "I hate Jews," he said. "They're a dirty rabble." Did he know any Jews personally? No, but he'd watched lots of documentaries about Jews on Arab-language TV. "They rule the world and oppress Muslims," he said.

Then, Peyman Engel reports, Adil looked at him and his colleague and asked, "What newspaper are you from, anyhow? Are you Jewish, or something?" The two men said they weren't. At first, they felt relieved, but "the relief quickly turned to the shame of having been too afraid to tell the truth."

Just a few months ago Peyman Engel moved from the Ruhr Valley to the German capital, where some 10,600 members of the Jewish community live. He says he has repeatedly been insulted or addressed harshly when recognized as a Jew, but it has gotten worse since the circumcision debate began. "There is great anxiety among Jews," he says.

'Something is Wrong'

Berlin has Germany's largest Jewish community. Many Jews emigrated there from former Soviet bloc countries after German reunification in 1990. Many praise the fact that Germans built a Holocaust memorial right next to the Brandenburg Gate, a national symbol. Many were relieved that people took to the streets recently in solidarity to protest the brutal attack  on the rabbi in Berlin.

A colleague of his in Hamburg, Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky, still feels safe in his city even after the attack. He always wears a dark suit and a kippah. "Some days I stay in the office until 3 a.m., but I can walk home afterward without being afraid," Bistritzky says.

Even so, he gets the impression that something has changed. "You never know what people are really thinking," he says. "And it's obvious that the debate about circumcision has prompted many people to voice their opinions." It has become "really clear that something is wrong with the relationship between Jews and Germans," Bistrizky adds. "When it comes to living together we don't appear to have come as far as we had thought."

Still, Hamburg's Grindelviertel neighborhood has a lively Jewish community. A Jewish school opened there in 2007. The community center has a seniors' club, a chess club, a library a Jewish sports club. A nearby supermarket stocks kosher products, there's a café run by Jews, and a shop selling kosher wine, much of it from Israel.

Ulrich Lohse owns the wine shop. Standing in front of a shelf containing some 100 varieties, the 66-year-old is wearing a suit, though he's slung his jacket over a chair. The discussion about circumcision has also changed his relationship to his home. "I had hoped the Germans would be more accepting," he says. He thinks it's absurd that people even entertain the idea that Jewish parents might want to hurt their children. "It's discriminatory to make such claims about Jews," he says.

Unreported Incidents

To try to understand how hurt many German Jews feel, it may be useful to briefly consider what it would be like to be accused of being a pedophile. That's more or less how Alexa Brum describes it. The 64-year-old has been a teacher for four decades, and currently heads the Jewish community's Lichtigfeld School in Frankfurt. She says she used to feel "great" in the liberal-minded city, where this spring voters in Frankfurt even elected a man of the Jewish faith -- Peter Feldmann -- as their mayor. The Times of Israel reported the story, and even the World Jewish Congress found it noteworthy.

Brum believes that all people should be able to coexist without tension and tolerate each another in modern Germany, just like students at her school, where Jewish and non-Jewish children think nothing of learning side-by-side. But then came the claim that Jews were hurting and traumatizing their children by circumcising them, a suggestion the teacher considered an attack not only on her religion, but on her personally as well. "I was devastated," she says.

Just like Knobloch, she asked herself if she still wanted to live in Germany. She doesn't fear attack, but the loss of Germany's openness, and "that the country's smart alecks will one day have the upper hand in the debate and get to decide how minorities should lead their lives and practice their religion."

Brum wants to stay where she is for now, as it appears most other Jews in Germany plan to do, appalled as they may be. One of these is 38-year-old Alon Meyer, the head of Makkabi, a Jewish gymnastics and sports club in Frankfurt with some 1,300 members.

People like Meyer, who spend much of their time in sports halls and on soccer fields on the edge of town, get a clear view of the reality of religious coexistence in Germany. The city may now have a Jewish mayor, but there are lots of incidents that are never reported in the newspaper. For example, Meyer regularly requests police protection when the first team of TuS Makkabi plays against their local rivals, many of whose players are Muslim or Palestinian. "We get a lot of verbal abuse," he says. About once a year, there is a serious clash that results in injuries.

Bringing Differences To Light

These sorts of threats are part of the daily lives of Jews in Germany, both on the soccer field and even in places where Jews are common.

The main synagogue of the Israelite Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, situated near the central Viktualienmarkt square in Munich, is perhaps the most powerful symbol of where Jewish life belongs in Germany: In the heart of the city.

And yet the building resembles a fortress. Squad cars guard access to the synagogue around the clock. Security increases when children arrive and are picked up at the synagogue's Jewish school and kindergarten. Authorities believe there is a serious threat of attack -- even on individual schoolchildren.

Aaron Buck, the spokesman of Munich's Jewish community, says that long before the circumcision debate began he has experienced anti-Semitism on a daily basis. People call him on the phone, write e-mails or letters, and many even give their names. Whether they want to express their personal dislike of an individual (say, Jewish TV talk-show host Michel Friedman), regurgitate the tired old myth of the greedy Jewish businessmen (bonuses for US bankers, for example) or rant about Israeli foreign or security policy (such as criticizing Netanyahu's hawkish stance), Buck is forced to listen to every single complaint. "People just vent all their anger on the phone," Buck bemoans. And they often add rhetorically: "There's no law against saying this."

In light of this, any desire for a "relaxed relationship" between Jews and other Germans would appear somewhat naïve. It's almost as though the circumcision ruling by the Cologne regional court had only brought the truth of people's real differences to light. Israel's former chief rabbi, Meir Lau, who survived Buchenwald concentration camp as a boy, recently said on Israeli radio, "It's amazing to see that Germans are becoming sensitive to the cries of a baby. It wasn't something I experienced in my childhood." Charlotte Knobloch writes that she's fed up with "giving Germans the feeling that time can heal even the greatest conceivable wound."

Last year, 122 German Jews applied for Israeli citizenship. These figures have been constant for years. Even so, Israel is becoming an increasingly interesting option for a young generation of German Jews. Some emigrate permanently, while others study in Israel for a year, just like their non-Jewish friends who move to New York or Barcelona. But all of them agree on one thing: They're looking for a place where they can feel at home as Jews.


Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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