Jews in Germany: An Interview with Henryk Broder

The Central Council of Jews in Germany claims to represent “all the Jews in Germany.” Shortly after the Second World War, when the Central Council was founded, that was not a lot -- according to the Central Council’s own estimate, a mere 15,000 persons. Up until the late 1980s, the number remained in the low tens of thousands. In the meanwhile, as a result of an influx of Jewish “refugees” from the former Soviet Union, it has reportedly ballooned to over 100,000. Henryk Broder, one of Germany’s best known and most controversial political commentators, has been a frequent critic of the Central Council. On October 21, however, Broder created a sensation by announcing that he was seeking the Central Council’s presidency.

“The official representation of Jews in Germany is in a miserable condition,” Broder wrote in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel:

The president [Charlotte Knoblauch] -- who is internally known as “Aunt Charlie” -- seems to be overwhelmed by the job. ... What the Central Council does or does not do is determined by its general secretary [Stefan Kramer], who is attempting to compensate for the increasing insignificance of the organization through tactical alliances and senseless hyperactivity. Most recently, he compared the former finance commissioner of Berlin, Thilo Sarrazin, to Hitler and Goebbels on account of Sarrazin’s critical remarks about immigrants who are unwilling to integrate. Then, he apologized for the faux pas in such a way as to prove one thing above all: that he has no idea what he is talking about.

(On the Thilo Sarrazin controversy, see the PJM report here.) “I am convinced that there are no particular Jewish interests,” Broder continued:

Whether someone eats kosher or halal or prefers pork chops is a private matter. The same goes for when and to which God one prays. Freedom of religion also includes the right to be unreligious or antireligious and to make fun of one’s own God and that of one’s neighbors without being threatened. Freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are the values that have to be aggressively defended. By Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and heretics, by Aryans and vegetarians, by women and men, heteros and homos. My yarmulke is in the ring.

John Rosenthal spoke with Henryk Broder for Pajamas Media. The following interview was conducted on Tuesday, October 27. On Saturday, October 31, Broder announced that he would not be seeking the Central Council’s presidency, after all. “Germany likes troublemakers, unconventional thinkers, and outsider candidates,” Broder wrote in an article in the weekly Der Spiegel, “but only so long as they make sure that everything stays the same.” Moreover, “the job is one for an early-riser,” he added

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John Rosenthal: You’ve long been a critic of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. You’ve said, for instance, that it has become nothing more than an official instance for accepting expressions of (German) remorse. So why do you want now to become its president?

Henryk Broder: I want to see if one can shake up this somewhat old and rusty structure. I know, of course, that my chances are slim: really, next to nothing. But as [the German author and filmmaker] Herbert Achternbusch once said: “You have no chance. So use it!” For me, it is not so much about becoming the president of the Central Council. But I’ve noticed how just the announcement of my candidacy has produced a kind of avalanche of discussion. People are talking about what is the Central Council, what it should be, what it accomplishes, what it doesn’t accomplish. So, it’s put the very question of the Central Council and the representation of Jews on the agenda. To that extent, it is already a small success.

J.R. Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany. You have said that as president of the Central Council you would militate for overturning this law. Why? And, above all, why should specifically the president of the Central Council of Jews do that?

H.B. Because otherwise no one in this country does it. The law is a kind of “law for protecting Jewish feelings.” It is the product of good intentions. The lawmakers wanted, so to say, to avoid irritating Jews. But I think that it should be, above all, Germans who are irritated when someone denies the Holocaust and that they should not refrain from denial out of consideration for Jews. Moreover, the law is totally counterproductive. In the first place, hardly anyone is ever put on trial as a consequence of the law. The application is purely theoretical. Secondly, the law gives the people who defend it a good conscience, inasmuch as they are doing something about the last Holocaust -- whereas they are completely indifferent about the next Holocaust that could be in the making in the Middle East. Thirdly, the reality is completely different from the impression created by such laws. Recently, there was a case where a young woman unfurled an Israeli flag at an anti-Israeli demonstration and she was accused of disturbing the peace and fined €300. So, apparently Germans are happy to condemn the last Holocaust, but they are closing their eyes to the possibility of an impending one. I don’t want to provide this sort of good conscience.

J.R. The German neo-Nazi Horst Mahler is presently in jail -- among other reasons, because he began an interview by saying “Heil Hitler!” The use of Nazi expressions and Nazi symbols is also prohibited in Germany. Do you think it should be allowed?

H.B. I think it was correct to prohibit the successor organization of the NSDAP [the National Socialist party] and it is probably also right not to permit the use of Nazi symbols. This has nothing to do with showing consideration for Jews. This has to do with Germany’s own self-image. Specifically as concerns Horst Mahler, one needs to keep in mind that the man’s entire importance derives from his being able to present himself as a martyr for free expression. Otherwise, he is politically completely insignificant. He needs such provocations, since without them no one would even notice him. Much the same could be said for David Irving. This is to say that in trying to combat people like Mahler and Irving, society is providing them a stage on which to promote themselves. But again: what’s crucial is not what Horst Mahler says about the Third Reich, what is crucial is what the German foreign minister does with respect to Ahmadinejad. In this regard, there is an incredible -- and to my mind, unacceptable -- asymmetry between declarations about the past and actions in the present.

J.R. Why should there be a “Central Council of Jews in Germany” at all? There is no such thing in the USA, for instance. The journalist Ernst Cramer has raised the same issue. He has pointed out that the precursor organization came into being under the Third Reich and that the Nazis in fact used it to promote the emigration of German Jews out of Germany. Isn’t the fundamental problem that “Jews in Germany” are still stamped as being “Jews in Germany” and as consequence they are not permitted simply to be Germans?

H.B. The Central Council regularly has discussions about whether it should be called the “Central Council of Jews in Germany” or the “Central Council of German Jews.” That shows that the Central Council is not clear about its own identity. The Central Council is the successor organization to the Reich Representation of Jews in Germany, which was created by the Nazis. The Central Council was founded after the War not because Jews needed it, but because the German government needed an interlocutor in order to be able to hold discussions with Jews. There was a time when the Council was important, because it aided the local Jewish congregations to obtain state aid. But that’s all in the past. In the meanwhile, the congregations have their own contracts and the Council serves strictly symbolic functions. To this extent, the Council is superfluous. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that it exists. But in principle the Central Council is an institution that the German authorities need much more than the Jewish congregations do.

J.R. In Germany, you are known as a “polemicist.” I wouldn’t call you a “polemicist,” but maybe sometimes a “satirist,” for instance. So, are you serious about this candidacy? What happens if you win?

H.B. The only possible answer to that question is an old Jewish joke. Do you know how to get God to laugh?

J.R. No, how?

H.B. Make plans. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.