A harmonious relationship? Angela Merkel and the German Jewish community
As Angela Merkel steps down as chancellor of Germany, it is time to reflect on her relationship with the German Jewish community.
On the 26th September 2021, federal elections were held in Germany to elect members of the 20th Bundestag. The current chancellor, Angela Merkel, decided not to run again. This decision will subsequently bring an end to Merkel’s 16 years as the head of government and chief executive of Germany. But more specifically, the completion of Merkel’s term as chancellor marks the end of a special relationship between Merkel and the German Jewish community.
Throughout her time in power, Merkel was a “steadfast ally” to German Jews and Israel and the news of her departure has been a cause of sadness for many members of the German Jewish community. Moreover, there are concerns about how the new coalition will approach their relationship with German Jews. This article will assess the motivations behind Merkel’s attitudes towards the German Jewish community and how harmonious the relationship was in reality.
From 2000 to 2018, Angela Merkel was the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a centre-right party that is conservative on social issues. She served as the Leader of the Opposition for three years until becoming the chancellor of Germany in 2005.
There are a few factors that may have motivated Merkel to champion the needs of German Jews during her time as chancellor. Firstly, Merkel was raised Lutheran in Communist East Germany where her father served as a pastor. A Lutheran member of the Evangelical Church in Berlin, she has always been open regarding her belief in God and seen religion as her “constant companion.” Therefore, her Lutheran faith may well have played a role in her desire to do good and support minority religious communities.
Secondly, born in 1954, Merkel grew up in a society that did not recognise Israel and took no responsibility for the Third Reich or the Holocaust. Judy Dempsey, the author of a Merkel biography, says that Merkel’s past shaped how she viewed the world and emphasised that “Germany has this enormous responsibility to always protect Israel.” Clearly, the historical climate and the legacy of the Holocaust had an impact on Merkel’s choice to champion the German Jewish community. She was “highly aware of the gaps of memory” and made sure to make this a central part of her political message.
Ally to German Jews
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, remarks on how during her 16 years in power, Merkel was an ally to German Jews “not only in rhetoric but in decisive action.”
In 2012, a German court criminalised the non-medical circumcision of boys. Merkel disagreed with this decision and said that it put Germany at risk of becoming a “laughing stock.” She explained how she did “not want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews cannot practise their rituals.” As a result, parliament ensured the practice remained legal. Furthermore, in order to recognise the positive contribution of Germany’s Jewish community, in 2021, Merkel’s government launched a series of ceremonies and lectures entitled ‘321-2021: 1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany’.
However, many of Merkel’s actions to support the German Jewish community seemed to be focused more on Israel than the specific religious and cultural needs of German Jews. In 2008, Merkel became the first German chancellor to address the Israel Knesset, where she said that the “Holocaust filled her people with shame.” This was a significant acknowledgement of Germany’s historical wrongdoings, but Merkel herself continued to maintain a particular pro-Israel stance throughout her time in office. For example, in 2019, the CDU passed a resolution that called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as an antisemitic movement. Considering this, it is worth reflecting on whether Merkel was motivated more by domestic aims, such as a need to protect Jewish life and identity in Germany, or international goals, by promoting a pro-Israel agenda and good relationships with the then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Did Merkel do enough?
It is clear that during her time as chancellor, Angela Merkel worked hard to promote a pro-Jewish, pro-Israel rhetoric. For many German Jews, this rhetoric was positively received. The resolution that labelled BDS as antisemitic was widely supported by German Jews who felt the same way. Moreover, many Jews believed that Merkel was the last influential German politician who was committed to Israel as “a matter of the heart.” So much so that, in 2010, Merkel was awarded the Leo Baeck Medal, awarded to those who have worked to preserve the “extraordinary spirit” of German Jews in academia and politics. In her acceptance speech, Merkel said she saw the medal as “both incentive and obligation” to remain committed to building a “harmonious relationship” with the Jewish community.
However, there has been concern surrounding Merkel’s role in the rise in antisemitism, particularly Muslim-led antisemitism, in Germany. In August 2015, Merkel opened the nation’s doors to a large number of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While this has been positive in many ways for Germany, a 2016 survey of hundreds of German Jews who had experienced antisemitic incidents revealed that 41% said the perpetrator was “someone with a Muslim extremist view.”
Many German Jews feel that Merkel has not only been too quiet in the fight against antisemitism but, as Pavel Feinstein explains, “she [Merkel] is responsible for it.” This connection between an influx of Muslim migrants and the rise in antisemitism has been downplayed by the German government, a belief reflected in a 2018 EU survey that showed 74.8% of German Jews felt their government was not doing enough to combat the problem. Therefore, perhaps the relationship between Merkel and German Jews was not as harmonious as it first appeared.
The end of an alliance?
What is clear is that throughout her stint as chancellor, Angela Merkel dedicated a considerable amount of effort and time in trying to strengthen relations with the German Jewish community. Whether she was more preoccupied with international relations with Israel rather than domestic concerns, such as antisemitism, many German Jews still felt she had the right intentions.
However, it remains to be seen how the new coalition will approach their relationship with the German Jewish community. The AfD received 10.3% of the electoral vote and will have a seat at the decision-making table, albeit a small one. Yet, the presence of the AfD, a party that the Central Council of Jews in Germany branded “a hotbed for antisemitism, racism and misanthropy,” will be a cause for concern for many German Jews. Only the future will tell what the relation between the government and German Jews will be, but it is likely that the relationship will not be as harmonious as it has been for the past 16 years.
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 The Bundestag is one of the two legislative chambers of the Federal Republic of Germany.
 The Knesset is the Israeli parliament.