The World Jewish Congress has given the Herzl Award to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This may, admittedly, appear paradoxical in light of the recent attack on a synagogue in eastern Germany and repeated acts of hate speech and violence directed at Jewish institutions and people across Germany. In fact, life has not been this threatening and dangerous for Jews in Germany since 1945.
This state of affairs has gone hand in hand with an unprecedented development in the post-war history of Germany: The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that spouts hatred, has become the strongest opposition force in the German Parliament today. It has been voted not only into the Bundestag but also the 16 state legislatures by millions of Germans who know full well what this party stands for.
AfD leader Alexander Gauland has downplayed Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich and therefore by extension also the Holocaust as a “speck of bird dropping” in German history. His party’s rhetoric has played on anti-Semitic and racist tropes and created a climate conducive to violence. And studies show that the hatred of Jews and the propensity to use violence against them have risen sharply in Germany.
Yet despite all these grim developments, the vast majority of Germans today still stand for democracy, liberty, human rights and the conviction that a person’s dignity is inviolable. So even though a growing minority increasingly questions the inviolability of people’s dignity — especially with regard to Jews — most Germans are doing what they can to counter this disturbing trend. But their protest is often drowned out, or they are too timid and ineffective. A part of this German majority is simply not pushing back hard enough against the country’s anti-democratic forces.
But it must also be clearly said at this point that certain elements of the German police, the public prosecutor’s office and judiciary have failed to adequately analyze and act on the threat represented by the far right in Germany. Some politicians, too, have often refused to accept the danger of far-right extremism, far-right terrorism and anti-Semitism as real and have thus not loudly and offensively acknowledged that these are problems affecting society at large — and not just the country’s Jewish minority.
A clear stance
Regardless of all this, Chancellor Merkel still deserves to be this year’s recipient of the Herzl Award. She has, from the very beginning, taken a clear stand both personally and officially, in public as well, and spoken out against far-right radicals posing as centrists. But even she must face questions about why more has not been done by state institutions to counter these problems in the more than 10 years that she has been chancellor of Germany.
Merkel has shown exemplary commitment and a proactive stance against anti-Semitism in Germany. And she has made it abundantly clear that any attack on the country’s Jewish community equates to an attack on German democracy. Anti-Semitism is not a German invention, but Ausschwitz was.
But it should be noted: The Herzl Award is a sign of recognition, yet also denotes a responsibility to ensure that in future, respect and human dignity once more take precedence over hate and ostracism.