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Too little, too late? Antisemitism and Germany’s new naturalization test

Its purpose is to project, gently but firmly, Germany’s core values and the need for prospective citizens to conform to those values.

The flag of Germany reflected in a puddle. Credit: wal_172619/Shutterstock.
The flag of Germany reflected in a puddle. Credit: wal_172619/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

What do you call a Jewish house of prayer? When was the State of Israel founded? Which cities in our country have the largest Jewish communities?

These are just three of the 20 questions about Israel and Jewish life that Germany will be introducing into its naturalization test for prospective citizens. Announcing the changes last week, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said their purpose was to root out and exclude the bigots. “Anyone who does not share our values cannot obtain a German passport. We have drawn a crystal-clear red line here,” she stated. “Antisemitism, racism and other forms of contempt for humanity rule out naturalization.”

Some of the additional questions are more philosophical in nature and deliberately so. For example, the question “What is the basis of Germany’s special responsibility to Israel?” carries four possible answers: “membership of the EU,” “Germany’s Basic Law,” “the Christian tradition” and the correct response, “from the crimes of National Socialism.” That, of course, underlines the centrality of the Nazi Holocaust to postwar Germany’s commitment to a democratic order. Similarly, the question “On what legal basis was the State of Israel founded” includes the options “by a resolution of the Zionist Congress,” “a proposal by the German government,” “a proposal by the USSR” and the correct answer, “a resolution of the United Nations.” That emphasizes, rightly, that Israel’s sovereign legitimacy was recognized by the world’s leading international organization. Another question, “Who can join the Jewish Maccabi sports clubs?” includes the options “only Germans,” “only Israelis,” “only religious people” and the correct answer, “everyone.” The point here, which escaped The Washington Post’s reporter on the story, who called this question “mysterious,” is to puncture the antisemitic myth that Jews only look out for other Jews and only provide services to other Jews.

Generally, I think naturalization tests for immigrants are a good idea. When I became an American citizen seven years ago, I remember some of my native-born American friends joking that I likely knew more about the United States than most Americans because you have to swot up on the answers to questions like, “How many judges sit on the Supreme Court?” and “Why was the Civil War fought?” And in the U.S. naturalization test, you are also asked about political affiliations—my examining officer, noticing my very Jewish name, was apologetic and a little embarrassed when she asked me if I was or had ever been a Nazi, but anyone who admitted as much, or indeed to having been a Communist, would be rather unlikely to pass. In that sense, there is a trustworthy precedent for what the Germans are introducing now.

The larger consideration is how effective such a test might be. You don’t have to be particularly bright to memorize answers like “synagogue,” “1948” and “1,700 years ago”—the correct answer to the question, “When was the first Jewish community in Germany established?” So, if you’re a hardened antisemite who wants a German passport, you have the option of acquiescing to this distasteful test in the name of a higher purpose. No doubt, there will be many prospective immigrants who will try just that.

However, just because the test can’t guarantee that antisemites won’t slip through the net doesn’t mean that the proposal is faulty. The test’s purpose is to project, gently but firmly, Germany’s core values and the need for prospective citizens to conform to those values. And if you can’t or won’t do so, the message essentially says, then you are free not to come here in the first place.

The test is also an acknowledgment that antisemitism can be imported. For much of the postwar period, antisemitism in Germany was mainly a problem on the far right; however, with the explosion of political violence in the 1960s and 1970s, it became a problem on the far left as well. But during the last 20 years—and particularly with the arrival of around 2 million immigrants from the Middle East in 2015, as civil war raged in Syria—the problem has taken a distinctly Islamist turn. In the weeks since the Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7, Germany has witnessed up to 29 antisemitic incidents per day, many of them executed by Arab or Turkish-origin immigrants. Not all the incidents involve violence—indeed, most of them concern vandalism and the spread of ugly antisemitic propaganda online and at demonstrations—but there is little doubt that whatever the nature of the offense, the German authorities want to minimize the amount of antisemitism in their midst.

To my mind, there’s another deeper question here: Are these measures, however welcome, too late in arriving? After all, it’s fair to say that with a Jewish community of just over 100,000, Germany is presently experiencing a genuine crisis of antisemitism that won’t be resolved by filtering out prospective immigrants who give the wrong answers on a naturalization test.

Much the same can be said for the rest of the European Union; in the Netherlands, for example, where a Jewish community of 30,000 has endured an 800% increase in antisemitic incidents since the Oct. 7 atrocities, Jewish leaders have run out of patience. “Our youth is no longer safe at educational institutions: they are canceled, attacked, intimidated,” Chanan Hertzberger, the chair of the CJO Jewish communal organization, told the newspaper De Telegraaf last week. “It is rife, and we have had enough. We are normal Dutch people and also want to be considered and treated as such. Our civil liberties are at stake; more and more Jews feel threatened and intimidated, and are hiding Jewish symbols.” Like Germany, Holland is home to large numbers of Moroccan, Turkish and other immigrants from cultures where hostility and enmity towards Jews is a fact of life. Just as in Germany, any efforts by the Dutch authorities to be discerning about who they admit in the future won’t address the problem on their streets and in their universities right now.

The flip side of the naturalization test is what it tells us about the status of Jewish communities in these countries during the present period. If antisemitism is such an overwhelming problem that it needs to feature prominently in a naturalization test, it suggests to those Jews in its sights that insecurity will be a permanent feature of their lives, however much the authorities might wish otherwise. Perhaps they should think about moving somewhere else—like Israel, which was created as a haven for Jews. European governments may not be giving up on their Jews, but they shouldn’t be surprised if their Jews give up on them.

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