The Role of Jewish and Muslim Communities in the Politics of Germany and the U.S.
Foreign policy issues play a marginal role in the daily lives of established minority communities on both sides of the Atlantic, but there are a number of important issues to highlight. The largest difference between the German and American Jewish communities is that the American Jewish community is very politically active whereas its German counterpart is smaller and less politically involved. German Jews’ impact on political life is heavily symbolic given the country’s difficult history, but this does not necessarily translate into electoral power. Foreign policy issues are generally a lower priority for American and German Jews during elections than issues like the economy or health care. According to a poll taken prior to the 2012 presidential elections, only about 2 percent of American Jews considered Iran a top issue when deciding their vote and just 10 percent considered policy toward Israel a top issue.
General support for Israel in the United States is nearly unanimous, even though support for individual Israeli policies is not. U.S. evangelicals also tend to be very outspoken supporters of Israel, but some also hold anti-Semitic views. It was stressed that Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) are not agents of the state of Israel. In Germany, support for Israel among the general population remains strong, though the small Jewish community is careful not to be perceived to be engaging in advocacy. It was noted at the workshop that minority activist organizations are most effective in foreign policy when they align their interests with the national interest.
The American Muslim community is the most diverse religious community in the United States. The term “Muslim-American” did not really even enter into the public discourse until maybe the 1990s. Most thought of themselves as Pakistani, Egyptian, or Indian, before many were thought of as “Muslims.” Civic lobbying is not the main priority of Muslim immigrants and American-born Muslims in the U.S. in part due to the diversity of the community and its nascent organization. The primary goal has been preserving their cultural heritage and ethnic identity while defining their role as citizens in the United States. While many Muslim immigrants in the United States originally wanted to earn money and eventually return to their home countries, this turned out often to be impossible due to unstable political and economic circumstances back home.
Apart from the ingrained nationality that historically has been stronger among Muslims than among Jews, there are more obvious reasons that Muslims are not as politically active as the Jews in America. After 9/11, there was a certain anti-Islamic or at least Islamophobic fervor in the Western world. American Muslims were reticent to speak out in this period and mosques tended to avoid controversial issues. On the one hand, there was the argument that Muslims should use their rights of free speech and the right to assemble to distance themselves from extremists. On the other hand, the Muslim community did not want to be scrutinized by law enforcement or become the target of Islamophobic fervor.
Five percent of Germany’s population is Muslim, in contrast to just around 1 percent in the United States. The German population is primarily composed of Turks, who came to the country after World War II as guest workers, and their descendants. Whereas a high percentage of Muslims in the U.S. have graduate degrees and are well educated, most Turks arrived in Germany from rural parts of the Anatolian subcontinent and moved into heavily industrial areas. This helps explain, in part, the dissonance between Turkish immigrants and ethnic Germans. Socio-economically speaking, Muslims in Germany have more in common with Hispanics in the U.S. than American Muslims. Muslims in Germany tend to be more politically active than their American counterparts, particularly on socio-economic issues and immigration policy. Too often, the cultural differences between immigrant communities from the Middle East or South Asia are dismissed and are simply referred to as “Muslims.” Many noticed this as a concern in both Germany and the United States after 9/11, when Turks or Turkish-Germans were considered “Muslims” even though many only think of themselves as Muslim in culture or heritage and not necessarily in terms of religion.
Domestic Issues and Political Organization
The Jewish community in Germany has had a long history of believing that political advocacy meant existing rather than doing anything—the idea of being Jewish was a political act within itself. Therefore, the Jewish community has not been an effective political force beyond stressing the symbolism of its presence. Only professional organizations like the American Jewish Committee, which has an office in Berlin, have a clear political perspective and agenda on how to drive commemoration and foreign politics in Germany. One speaker argued, however, that the Jewish community believes that German politicians and German society have an historic responsibility to them and are vigilant regarding how Germany treats Germany’s past, and Jewish history and culture.
The Muslim community within Germany is facing similar issues as their Jewish counterparts. Muslims perceive they are merely identified according to their origin, even though many Muslims raised in Germany do not want to represent their parents’ home countries. Since at least 2000, there has been a strong network of Muslims in Germany. Increasingly, a coalition of Muslim and Jewish communities in Germany has fought against anti-discrimination in general and worked together on common challenges such as criticism by the larger society of the religious practices of circumcision and ritual slaughter common to both Muslims and Jews.
Prior to and post 9/11, elements of German society have questioned the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women and have taken offense at Muslim immigrants not fully integrating into German society. However, surveys show that Muslims are fully knowledgeable and accepting of European values and adhere just as much as non-Muslims to the principles of human rights as written in the German constitution. Until recently, Muslims in Germany had difficulty advocating for themselves due to an older generation of individuals who ran the major Muslim organizations. Now, they strive for recognition at the European level via organizations in Brussels, Berlin, and the other major European capitals. Overall, Germany is becoming an immigration country, but tensions over immigration and integration will continue.
The American Jewish community has seen acceptance differently. In light of the April 2014 Kansas shooting, which affected the Jewish community, Jews felt that their acceptance in America was declining. The Jewish communities are now requesting protection, similar to what German Jews have established, to prevent future hate attacks. However, the Kansas shooting demonstrated how various minorities banded together to speak openly against hate crimes in general. Additionally, the Jewish communities are not subjected to anti-Semitic propaganda in the media, as they have been on a variety of occasions in Germany. The misuse of the term Holocaust in the political realm has diminished its value, which may signify that genuine understanding about the Holocaust may be fading in society. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution presents challenges because it allows hate groups to spread their beliefs worldwide via the internet. Therefore, the Jewish community as well as other minorities must depend on politicians to marginalize hate speech.
Muslim organizations in America emerged over fifty years ago. The Islamic Society of North American (ISNA) has instituted 2,000 to 3,000 Islamic centers throughout the United States. ISNA elected its first woman to serve at the local level over ten years ago. This created a new sense of direction. However, there has been concern for the Muslim and Jewish communities in America, which are growing rapidly but also must contend with radicals who teach hate to one another. ISNA decided several years ago to bring together both groups at an annual convention, which is funded by the Muslim organizations and Reform and, more recently, conservative Jews. Together the Muslim and Jewish communities in America try to instill in their faith groups around the world the importance of dialogue and togetherness.
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