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Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to speak to you today. I’m delighted to be here. We assembled here today to talk about a subject that is very important to me personally.
I have made the culture of Holocaust remembrance and commemoration my concern ever since I was first elected to the German Bundestag in 1998, alongside the fight against antisemitism and all forms of social exclusion, stigmatisation and discrimination. Some of you may know that I am a member of the Board of Trustees at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Foundation. In January of this year, I had the honour of giving the speech marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Thessaloniki, Greece, at the invitation of the local Jewish community.
As recently as early March, I accompanied Federal President Gauck on his state visit to Greece, which took us to Ioannina and Lingiades – places where Germans, in the name of the German people, committed incomprehensible atrocities. Like many others there, I was deeply moved in Lingiades to hear the Federal President ask for forgiveness for the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and the Wehrmacht.
There was a piece of news at the end of last year that I imagine occupied your minds just as much as it did mine. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights published a study in November 2013 which once again showed that antisemitism has by no means been consigned to the past; it is still making itself felt in our societies today.
The study asked Jewish citizens of eight EU countries whether and how they were affected by antisemitic aggression.
The eight countries chosen are home to about 90% of Europe’s Jewish population. Let me recall just three figures here which should give us cause to take decisive action: 76% of those questioned thought that antisemitism had increased in the previous five years; 26% reported having themselves been victims of harassment motivated by antisemitic sentiment; and 30% are even thinking about leaving their countries because they no longer feel safe there.
Regrettably, Germany is no exception. When European surveys assess levels of antisemitism and find our country no better than average, that is cause for concern. It is shocking that antisemitic stereotyping should still, even in Germany, be the order of the day.
This subtle form of antisemitism, expressed in suggestion and insinuation, is what people of the Jewish faith experience on a daily basis in Germany; it makes life harder for them but is very difficult to counteract. As the Agency for Fundamental Rights clearly demonstrates, this is part of life for many Jews in Europe today. That is not acceptable.
It is therefore good for us to have the opportunity for dialogue here today. I know that all of you play significant roles in the Jewish communities and public life of various European countries. No-one knows better than you what issues Jewish people in Europe are thinking about and worried about, and what tasks we have ahead of us. That’s why I’m here with you today not only to give a speech but also to listen and to learn.
The Holocaust is Germany’s historical responsibility. It is the darkest chapter in the history of humanity, and it must never be repeated at any other time or in any other place. Even though my generation is not personally culpable for Nazi crimes, we acknowledge our responsibility – because we know one thing: we would make ourselves guilty of yet another wrong if we kept silent about or relativised, let alone denied, what the generation of our grandparents and great‑grandparents did to other human beings and nations.
Remembering the Holocaust, the expulsion and murder of Jewish citizens, is a perpetual task and an obligation for us Germans. For all the efforts already undertaken, we need to stay self‑critical and keep asking ourselves whether we are really doing enough in the fight against antisemitism, right‑wing extremism and xenophobia.
The NSU scandal and the rise of antisemitic crime are signs that we cannot let up in our endeavours.
At the same time, however, we ought to acknowledge the fact that Jewish life in Germany has developed positively in many areas over the last 20 years. Many Jewish people who live here and have made a conscious decision to stay confirm that trend.
We are thankful that the Jewish community in our country, numbering around 110,000 people, is one of the largest in the European Union these days. The vibrant Jewish cultural and community life that has returned to many German towns and cities is thanks in part to immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
More than 200,000 Jewish migrants came to Germany between 1991 and the end of 2010. Around half of them found their place in Germany’s Jewish communities.
We are seeing a renaissance of Jewish life, with rising numbers of synagogues, Jewish schools and other educational institutions. Jewish cultural events are very popular too. In Germany – we could take this as a sort of best practice – close dialogue is in place between the state and the Jewish communities, as represented primarily by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The Central Council enjoys the status of a non‑state corporation under public law, with guaranteed corporation rights.
In addition, the German state supports a range of research centres, such as the Central Archives for Research on the History of the Jews in Germany and the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg, founded in 1979. At the University of Potsdam, it supports the Abraham Geiger College, which was founded in 1999, Germany’s first rabbinical seminary since the Shoah. The Leo Baeck Institute, with its centres in Jerusalem, London and New York, as well as an archive office in the Jewish Museum Berlin, receives funding from the Federal Foreign Office.
The list could go on. My essential point is this: we are grateful that Jewish life has returned to Germany after the Holocaust, that Jewish people wish to live here again – alongside us and amongst us. This hasn’t happened as a matter of course. It is above all a sign of confidence in our democracy and the rule of law in this country.
And it is the very reason why we cannot allow antisemitism and far‑right movements to spread here. Members of the Jewish faith must never again be made to feel threatened, discriminated against or marginalised.
It is clear to me that our future lies in a Europe that is peaceful, tolerant and open to the world. Europe is much more than a single market and a monetary union. Above all, Europe is a unique community of shared values. Democracy, the rule of law, pluralism, cultural and religious diversity, social cohesion and the protection of minorities are all fundamental values which we have to fully respect ourselves in order to be credible when asking others to do so. Nor must we forget that
our shared foundations in common values are not to be taken for granted either. They need to be tended and defended each and every day.
To that end, I am convinced, we are going to need even more international and European cooperation alongside the efforts made by individual countries. Together, the states of Europe can and must find ways of counteracting these threats to our values. The OSCE has an important role there, as Rabbi Baker elucidated earlier. The work of international NGOs is vital too, though, as they monitor, analyse and bring problems to public attention. Europe would not be the same, it would be the poorer without them. Their work needs support.
In collaboration with other partners, Germany has launched an initiative to better protect European principles and the rule of law across the EU.
This initiative enjoys far‑reaching support in the Bundestag, the European Parliament and other member states. The European Commission has taken up the initiative and recently presented proposals as to how principles and the rule of law might be fostered in the EU. This is a major step towards a strong union of shared values which can withstand pressures and problems.
The success of populist and extremist right‑wing parties in Europe, such as the Front National most recently enjoyed in the French local elections, rings alarm bells. Increasing numbers are letting themselves be taken in by the crude slogans of far‑right groups, drifting further and further away from values like tolerance, cosmopolitanism and equality. This is a problem we need to face together. Germany cannot stand alone in the fight to defend European values. Our minorities cannot fight alone either.
But our community of shared values makes us strong – and it is worth fighting for. The European Union has unparalleled appeal that resonates far beyond its own borders. This is not simply due to our economic success but above all to the unique combination of freedom, security and solidarity that the EU promises. Let us fight side by side as committed Europeans to make sure that appeal stays intact.
Thank you for your attention.