Israeli flags are being set on fire by brainwashed masses; Jewish schoolchildren are coming under attack at schools; national television networks are broadcasting anti-Israel propaganda during Christmas season; the foreign minister publicly accuses Israel of being an "apartheid state" – all these things are not happening in a hostile Middle Eastern country. No. They happened in Germany, which purports to maintain warm relations with Israel.
In the most recent parliamentary election, a problematic right-wing party became the third largest in the Bundestag, but it was this problematic party that was actually the only one in Germany to support U.S. President Donald Trump's Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. At the U.N., Germany voted against this recognition, while at home, three months after the election, there is still no new government. A renewed "grand coalition" bringing Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives together with the social democrats, if established, may prove unstable.
Josef Schuster, a physician specializing in internal medicine, is facing this tense interim period as the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. He may have been born in Israel, but he is a descendant of one of Germany's oldest Jewish families – a rarity among the uprooted and immigrant Jews who gathered in Germany after World War II.
Schuster, 63, was appointed to the position shortly before the start of the country's immigrant crisis, with its dramatic implications in Germany. He was the first to alert the public to the threat of the imported anti-Semitism brought into Germany by the hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants flooding the country. He was viciously criticized for this warning, but time only proved he was right. Now, however, he identifies a different threat as the main danger facing German Jewry.
Q: Are you concerned about Germany's current state?
"No, but I would be happier if a stable government were to be established in the near future. Too long without an elected government is a recipe for stagnation."
Q: The previous "grand coalition" played a destabilizing role in Germany. Isn't it dangerous to try for another coalition like that?
"I'm not convinced your assessment is accurate. There were decisions that certainly led to developments that were less desirable in my opinion, but I think that another coalition would have made the same decisions."
Q: What developments would be desirable for you?
"The immigration crisis in 2015. The chancellor's decision to open the borders, while I can understand her motives – any Jew understands too well what it means to be forced to flee your home – at that moment, no one foresaw that the sheer number of people that would arrive, coming from a completely different cultural background, would cause the kind of problems that ultimately emerged, or how difficult these problems would be to solve. As early as the fall of 2015, the chancellor arranged a meeting, inviting representatives of all the affected groups. I was the only one who used that forum to warn against imported anti-Semitism. The others viewed the influx of immigrants as positive. I didn't express a negative stance, only concern. Today, the situation is different in Germany. I am sure that we will not see another massive influx like we experienced then, regardless of the makeup of the future coalition."
Between the extreme Right and the populist Right
The Jewish community, headed by Schuster, maintains no contact with Alternative for Germany (AfD) – currently the third largest party in the Bundestag. "The way I see it, it is a populist right-wing party that has not yet fully committed to distancing itself from members who hold extremist right-wing views," he says. "As long as the party is incapable of drawing a clear boundary among its ranks between the populist Right and the radical Right, it cannot be a partner for dialogue with us."
Q: Where would you draw this line, then, between the populist and the radical Right?
"When party members, in senior positions, decry Germany's 'cult of guilt' and praise German soldiers' 'performance' during World War II, or talk about 'mulattoes,' then, the way I understand it, the line has been crossed."
Q: Were attempts made at dialogue?
"We didn't make any direct attempts. The AfD didn't initiate anything either. The absence of initiative in this instance doesn't bother me."
Q: Did the Jewish community display the same kind of sensitivities toward the radical left-wing party Die Linke, whose members were also known to be anti-Semitic?
"In the past, yes. The first meeting with the top echelon of the party was about two years ago, at the request of the vice president of the Bundestag, Petra Pau, who always expressed a very clear position toward Jews and Israel. We spoke very openly about the views voiced by some of her fellow party members about Israel, and we made it very clear that we consider general criticism against Israel – not criticism against the policies of the Israeli government – anti-Semitic. I think that party has undergone a very positive shift in its views on Israel.
Q: The Alternative for Germany party is the only party in Germany that supported the American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. How do you explain that?
"The AfD is always stressing its pro-Israel stance, on the basis of our common enemy: Israel has a problem with Arabs and Muslims and the AfD has a problem with them, so, for them, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Members of the party claim that they are the only ones who can guarantee Jewish life in Germany because they are against the Muslims. But if ever a situation arises where I need them to guarantee Jewish life in Germany, Jewish life in Germany will be in very bad shape indeed."
Q: Do you agree with the official German position that rejects the U.S. move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital?
"I would have hoped for a different position. After all, what did Trump say? He declared something that has already been a reality for decades. The Israeli government is in Jerusalem, and every official visit, including by senior German officials, takes place in Jerusalem. Everyone can think whatever they want of Trump, but in my opinion, he was very smart and diplomatic."
Q: Why is it so difficult for Germany to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?
"I feel that every German government has seen itself as committed to the U.N. and hoped that this way it would be easier to achieve a peace agreement."
Q: Where do you think the anti-Semitism is most dangerous: among the radical Right, the radical Left of among the Islamists?
"I see the most dangerous anti-Semitism in mainstream German society. There are obviously increasing influences from extreme right-wing currents, lines are being crossed. It is now once again acceptable in Germany to say things that I wouldn't have imagined 10 years ago, particularly on anything having to do with anti-Semitism disguised as criticism against Israel. 'Look at what the Jews in Israel are doing' – things like that. Criticizing certain actions by the Israeli government is legitimate. In Germany, too, not everyone is happy with everything Merkel or her government does. But when Israel is blamed for everything that happens, as is the entirety of the Israeli population, that is anti-Semitism.
"This phenomenon has been on the rise, and so has the online campaign. Online, people are allowing themselves to express their anti-Semitism in a more obvious, hostile way. It is coming from both the Left and the Right. Studies have been showing for years that a fifth of the German population holds anti-Semitic views, but on the internet, it is more conspicuous. Arab Muslim anti-Semitism may be more perceptible on the surface, like the protests after Trump's Jerusalem announcement, but it is certainly not the only thing worrying me right now."
Q: Is there a problem in Germany in acknowledging the anti-Semitic aspect of anti-Israeli criticism?
"I actually think it is a positive thing that after the latest protests in Berlin, where Israeli flags were burned, there are now political initiatives on a national level, as well as in Berlin, to outlaw flag burning. There is much more awareness."
Concern, not fear
Two years ago, Israel and Germany marked 50 years of diplomatic relations. Since then, the festive atmosphere has given way to mounting tension between the two countries. "The main problem is that some of the decisions made by the Israeli government are misunderstood here. The chancellor has told me that she sometimes has trouble understanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decisions. I also find it difficult sometimes to justify certain decisions, especially when it comes to settlement policies.
"I can imagine a solution based on the idea of two states for two peoples, but I know that in Israel there is a lot of mistrust toward this idea. I know it from my own family. I have a cousin in Israel who makes Netanyahu look like he's pro-Palestinian. Perhaps Israel is doing a bad job 'marketing' its settlement policies here, and they are perceived as an obstacle standing in the way of a peace process and it disrupts the relations between the governments."
Q: On the Israeli side of the equation, there are complaints that Germany is intervening in Israel's internal affairs by financially supporting organizations with problematic agendas and at the same time neglecting to pressure the Palestinians.
"The German side would be wise to be more careful in selecting who they speak to in Israel. Two weeks after Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel's memorable visit [in which a meeting with the prime minister of Israel was canceled over Gabriel's insistence on meeting with groups that slander the IDF], German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived, and himself met with organizations and bodies that are critical of the [Israeli] government. The difference was that they were all focused on a clear, practical objective: to work toward peace, not against the government. To support organizations with a constructive approach would be better than supporting groups that are destructive."
Q: What are your expectations from Germany in regard to the BDS movement?
"There has been a positive development in Munich, which was the first city to adopt an initiative forbidding events by this movement in municipality buildings. Later, the same attitude was adopted in Frankfurt and Berlin as well. People are beginning to wise up to the character of this movement, in the federal government as well, and to understand that this is not a harmless peace organization. It is an organization that is not only anti-Israel, but also anti-Semitic. I will welcome the Bundestag's decision on the matter. It will take some more time, but I think we are well on our way."
Q: The conservatives in the Bundestag want to deport immigrants and anti-Semitic refugees. Is that a possibility?
"The bill communicates a very clear message about what Germany is willing and unwilling to accept. However, it would involve revoking permits, not immediate deportation."
Q: Are you worried about the future of the Jewish community in Germany?
"At the moment, no. There are developments that obligate us to stay vigilant, inspiring concern, but not fear. I feel that the politicians and the public in Germany are aware, and I am convinced that it is possible to suppress the anti-Semitic voices, which have grown louder in the recent past."