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Speech of Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the beginning of the year of celebration of 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany on 21 February 2021 in Cologne

22.02.2021 - Artikel

When a 14-year-old boy set foot in Berlin in autumn 1743, no one imagined that he was to become one of the most significant scholars of his day. Moses Mendelssohn, subsequently a friend of Lessing and Nicolai, who arrived in the Prussian capital as an unprotected and vulnerable Jewish boy, this Moses Mendelssohn is inextricably linked to the German Enlightenment in the 18th century. He prepared the way for emancipation and equality for the Jews.

The age of the Enlightenment was undoubtedly a turning point, despite the fact that it was to take another hundred years before Jews finally received equal rights. Yet Jewish life in Germany today goes back so much further into our past. Here in Cologne we can trace it back 1700 years to the edict passed by the Roman Emperor Constantine – what a long time! And what a dignified setting in which to begin this year of celebration, here in our country’s oldest Jewish congregation!

In this anniversary year there is a wealth of treasures to discover and rediscover. Whether in the area of philosophy, in literature, art and music, in science, medicine, or business, Jews have been instrumental in writing and shaping our history and illuminating our culture. Judaism has played a crucial role in Germany’s advancement into the modern age. In rural areas, too, many smaller towns and villages bear witness to the diversity of Jewish everyday life, with a heritage that takes us back to the early Middle Ages.

Yet we must be honest when looking back on these 1700 years of history. That is the only way we can learn lessons for the present and for the future. That is and remains our responsibility. Jews were almost always regarded as aliens, or at the very least as people who were different. The history of the Jews in Germany is one of emancipation and

prosperity, but it is also one of humiliation, exclusion and disenfranchisement.

The great scholar Leo Baeck was convinced that „the epoch of the Jews in Germany is over once and for all“ following the betrayal of all civilised values that was the Shoah, following the murder of millions of European Jews, following the destruction of Jewish culture. And yet, today Jewish life is back, in fact it is flourishing again thanks to those who returned, thanks to the migrants from the states of the former Soviet Union. And thanks to the young Israelis who are attracted to Germany. What an amazing gift for our country!

Yes, Jewish life today is diverse, multifaceted, vibrant, full of dynamism. I am profoundly grateful for this. Yet it is still under threat, indeed even more threatened again in times when antisemitism is being shown much more openly, when a hatred-driven perpetrator attacks a full synagogue – on the holiest day of the Jewish year, of all days.

Prejudices, clichés, ignorance – young people at the gathering of the Jewish community in Berlin told me how often they are confronted with all this on a daily basis. They belong to a group which goes out to people and explains to them what Judaism actually is. I was impressed by the dedication and the openness of these young people. Yet they also spoke of how much they long to be what Jews in Germany have fought to achieve for centuries: to not be regarded as aliens, as different, but as young people with a Jewish background in a diverse and tolerant society here in Germany.

If, as Federal President, I may make a wish for this year of celebration, it would be this: not only a clear commitment to the fact that Jews in Germany are part of us, are a part of our common identity, but also that we take a decisive stand against those who still - once again - call this into question. Looking back on 1700 years of shared and varied history teaches us that the Federal Republic of Germany can only be completely true to itself if Jews feel completely at home here. Ensuring that this is the case is the task incumbent upon us from the 1700-year history of Jewish life in Germany.

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