As president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel is called upon to comment whenever an anti-Semitic or racist crime is committed, and 56 years after the Holocaust, his words carry a special authority. Spiegel supports German state and federal government efforts to fight right-wing extremist crime, and he's a member of the federal commission on immigration. Spiegel, 63, who owns a booking agency for performing artists in Dusseldorf, says his job at the Council is to represent the Jewish community within the wider society, finding common ground with non-Jews and educating them about the contributions Jews have made to Germany.
At the same time, he uses his organizational skills to help the Jewish community cope with the practical challenges of what he has called a "renaissance" of Jewish life in Germany: Immigrants from the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe have made the country's Jewish community one of the fastest-growing in the world, increasing from about 30,000 a decade ago to nearly 90,000 today.
BusinessWeek's Katharine Schmidt recently spoke to Spiegel about the atmosphere for Jews in modern-day Germany. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for Germany's Jewish citizens and the fight against right-wing extremism in the country?
A: I am as optimistic as ever. For instance, at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg we inaugurated a training program for rabbis on May 10. It's a miracle, 56 years after the Holocaust, that there's a need to train rabbis. Ten or 12 years ago, we couldn't have imagined that.
I have also praised the federal government's exit program for members of the right-wing extremist scene and the increase in programs for youth. But every so often, my optimism is dampened. There are things that get me angry, such as a court decision recently to sentence the well-known right-wing extremist Manfred Roeder to a year's probation for his conviction on inciting the masses and disparagement of the state. I called the decision a "declaration of bankruptcy for the German justice system." These are the kind of things that shock you.
I am not an incorrigible optimist, but I am not a pessimist either. I hope that I am seen as a realist, one who neither prettifies things nor overdramatizes them."
Q: What has surprised you since you took office in January, 2000?
A: The sharp rise in right-wing extremist crime last year. No one had foreseen that such crimes would rise so much within a six-month period. There was an incident nearly every day, including attacks on homeless people, handicapped people, Jews, and vandalism against synagogues and in Jewish cemeteries. The level of crime has since dropped off.
Q: Do images shown abroad of anti-Semitism and prejudice against minorities in Germany accurately reflect day-to-day reality there?
A: People see pictures of right-wing extremists giving the Hitler salute at the Brandenburg Gate, and they don't know the other Germany. I can understand that when they see those pictures, they think, 'It must be terrible there.' There are a few thousand right-wing radicals, but the great majority of the 80 million Germans don't agree with them.
The saying goes, 'The only news is bad news.' When I meet with hundreds of young people, and they tell me they don't want anti-Semitism and racism in their society, there are no cameras and no journalists there.
Q: Is it time for Germany to take on the role within the EU and internationally that would befit a country of its population and economic importance?
A: There is no reason why Germany should not take on a role worldwide and within the European Union that is commensurate with its population and political and economic strength. All the post-war government leaders have affirmed their responsibility to remember the past and have done everything they could to ensure that it is never repeated.... What I don't accept is that the Germany of today should be compared to the Weimar Republic or the period from 1933 to 1945. That's simply not right.