Germany has never been high on my list of places to visit. However, I jumped at the opportunity when I was invited to participate in a leadership exchange program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – of which I serve as a vice president in the Atlanta/Southeast regional office – and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF). My participation was entirely in my personal capacity, and not as an elected official.
AJC is the leading global Jewish advocacy organization. It is at the forefront of the most important issues facing Jewish people, including combatting antisemitism, promoting Israel’s place in the world, and advocating for democratic values. AJC’s Atlanta office regularly engages with elected officials in Atlanta and throughout the Southeast, to advocate on issues affecting the Jewish community and its partners.
Following German reunification, AJC was the first American Jewish advocacy organization to establish a permanent presence in Germany, with the opening of its Berlin office. With approximately 200,000 Jewish citizens in Germany, AJC plays a critical role in ensuring Europe and Germany remain a home for the Jewish people, a friend of Israel and an indispensable ally of the U.S.
When I arrived in Munich in September, I joined 13 AJC lay leaders from across the U.S. Our first activity was perhaps the most meaningful, a visit to the Olympic Park and the memorials to the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches taken hostage and slain by Palestinian terrorists.
As a child, one of my earliest memories of world events was the 1972 Olympics, and those horrific images broadcast live on television. I remember the haunting words delivered by sportscaster Jim McKay: “They’re all gone.” Now, 50 years later (almost to the day), our group stood in front of the infamous apartment building where a masked terrorist defiantly stood on a balcony for the world to see. Our group chose to quietly remember the dead. We recited Kaddish.
Over the next week, we met with many elected officials (including two current members of the German Bundestag), along with government officials, diplomats (German, U.S. and Israeli) policy experts and leading media figures. While we discussed a wide range of issues, including the German/US transatlantic relationship, Iran, and Germany’s critical economic and security ties with Israel, perhaps the hottest topic was the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As one of our speakers observed, “nothing focuses the mind like 100,000 Russian troops on the border and a looming energy crisis.” While Germany has provided significant support to Ukraine, the common opinion of our hosts was that more could and should be done.
Changing demographics, immigration, and the rise of antisemitism (from both the left and right) are a significant concern in Germany. We heard a mix of views on the outlook for the Jewish population in Germany. Along with the rise of extremism and threats to democracy, parallels to the situation in the U.S. are unmistakable.
Germany’s approach to its troubled history and in combatting antisemitism and extremism were evidenced – at least in our visits to Munich and Berlin – in the many Holocaust memorials and education efforts. “Never Again” and “Never Forget” are taken seriously. But challenges remain. Following far-right terror attacks in 2019 and 2020, Germany expanded criminal laws that prohibit public denial of the Holocaust and disseminating Nazi propaganda and symbols. The prohibitions on hate speech, especially around antisemitism and racism, go far beyond what would be allowed in the U.S. because of the free speech protections in the First Amendment.
Our group’s final dinner was with the newly appointed Israeli Ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor. Ambassador Prosor’s previous postings include stints as ambassador to the United Nations and as Permanent Representative to the United Kingdom, where he presented his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II. And, yet, despite a resume that includes prestigious assignments at the highest level of international diplomacy, Ambassador Prosor shared with our group, with a hint of a tear in his eye, that having his parents join him in Berlin as he presented his credentials – nearly 90 years after his grandfather had been forced to leave Germany following the 1933 mass book burning by the Nazis – was the highlight of his career.
It was at that point, listening to Ambassador Prosor, that I sensed what a remarkable moment this was for our group and for me, personally. I thought of my grandparents, all who had emigrated from Eastern Europe long before the Holocaust, and how they would have marveled at their grandson meeting in Berlin (along with other Jews from the U.S.) with Israel’s ambassador to Germany.
There are many challenges for the German Jews in Germany as there are throughout Europe and even in the U.S. We can all play a small role in advancing common interests and understanding.