(February 21, 2023 / JNS) About half of Germany’s 200,000 Jews consist of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, and their German-born children. That could make for a tense environment in Jewish communities, in which the war overseas can trigger loyalties to their homelands and play out in proxy in synagogues and Jewish communal gatherings.
“The communities’ aim, in general, is to keep such discussions out of the door,” Olaf Glöckner, a researcher at Potsdam University’s Moses Mendelssohn Center, told JNS. “The community leadership is scared of disastrous outcomes of such discussion.”
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, an equal number of Russian and Ukrainian Jewish émigrés arrived in Germany. Most joined state-sponsored Jewish communities and integrated, according to Glöckner. And following Russia’s attack on Ukraine nearly a year ago, German Jewish communities mobilized quickly to welcome Ukrainian Jewish refugees.
Abraham Radbil is a rabbi leading a 350-member, Orthodox synagogue in Konstanz, a town near the Swiss border. He came to Germany as a child with his family in 1997 and remains in touch with former classmates in Ukraine, receiving real-time war updates.
“We said that inside the community, there shouldn’t be any political fights,” he told JNS.
The congregation mostly supports Ukraine, and politics is off-limits on the community’s WhatsApp group.
“We have one pro-Russian congregant, and he’s very much into it,” Radbil said. The congregant, who knows a lot of people fighting in the war on the Russian side, sends him videos and “sees a very pro-Russia side.”
When Radbil added a prayer for peace in Ukraine to Shabbat services, the congregant threatened to protest publicly. “I told him: ‘Listen, that’s not the way to talk to me,’” said Radbil. “If you want to protest, then protest, but you will just make a fool of yourself.”
They compromised. The added prayer now includes a call for peace in Ukraine and the entire world.
The minority of individual Jews who take Russia’s side in the war tend to have immigrated to Germany as adults and repeat talking points from Russian media smearing Ukraine. That includes calling the latter a Nazi hotbed, and some believe Russia saved Jews from World War II, according to Radbil.
‘People don’t realize how deep it sits’
Alon Meyer, a Berlin-based artist born in St. Petersburg, is puzzled by Jews who support his former homeland and what he calls a “war of annihilation” against Ukraine. He has gone to Kiev to lend support and mounted a Berlin exhibition of paintings of and by Ukrainian children.
He told JNS that most Russian Jews never liked the Soviet Union. “There are many Russian Jews who love Russian literature, intelligentsia,” said Meyer. The language, after all, is the only one they know, and it can be tough to learn another.
“They try to be pro-Russia. But now, with the situation in Ukraine, it’s hard even for someone who loves Russia, if you’re not crazy in the head,” he said. “Some still manage.”
Having been victims at times of Russian imperialism, most Jews are naturally more skeptical of the Russian narrative than the general population.
“For Russians, it’s harder to take out the imperial narrative and, in most cases, straight-forward lies,” said Meyer. “It’s in everything—language, culture, the view of life. People don’t realize how deep it sits.”
‘Not all Russian people in general’
Dmitry Khmelnitsky, an architect in Berlin who writes on Russia, came under fire on social media for criticizing Ukraine. It didn’t seem to matter that he is a longtime and strident critic of Putin. Criticizing how Ukraine is handling the war is not the same thing as being “pro-Putin,” he told JNS.
“I wouldn’t like it if Ukraine, after the war, becomes a nationalistic state,” he said. Most Ukrainians know Russian, and for a majority, it’s their mother tongue. Still, he said, Russian language and culture are gradually being purged from public Ukrainian institutions.
“Their fighting against all Russians is racist,” he continued. “They can fight against Putin and Putin supporters, but not all Russian people in general.”
An unaffiliated Jew, who came to Berlin from former Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) in 1989, Khmelnitsky observed that Russian-Jewish Berliners tend to side with Ukraine more than does the general Russian-German population. But Russian Jews who support Ukraine tend to have a more critical eye towards Ukraine’s government and its policies than do Ukrainian Jews.
“With what happens in Ukraine itself—people must be very honest that this regime, the politics, is not so sympathetic,” he said.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Jewish prime minister, received mixed reviews from the stridently pro-Ukrainian interviewees. “I’m not a big fan of Zelensky, although I’m a big supporter of Ukraine,” said Meyer. “He’s too small a man for this job. He does what he can. What he says without a script is not always smart.”
Radbil thinks Zelenskyy set the right tone from the start. “The fact that the Russians were already in Kiev and he was offered to run away, that he didn’t get scared, and that he stayed, I think it gave a big motivation for the whole country.”
Far from the frontlines, the de facto policy of banning political debates and focusing on maintaining Jewish life in Germany has largely kept the peace between German Jews of Russian and Ukrainian descent, and the new refugees.
“The local Jewish communities, irrespective of any discussion inside and outside about the problem of the war, gave a lot to help the Ukrainian war refugees,” said Glöckner. “On this, there was clear consensus.”
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