On December 2, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been awarded the Abraham Geiger Prize for her efforts in support of fundamental democratic values and the freedom of religion. The jury praised the Chancellor’s “unshakeable solidarity” in spite of increasing anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe. Refugees in Germany must unlearn the anti-Semitism fed to them in their home countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel said in accepting the award. “I consider this award a great honor – for myself and on behalf of Germany,” she added.
Praised for Services to the Jewish People
At Wednesday’s ceremony at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Merkel told her hosts:
“If you express concerns about anti-Semitism, I will always be listening.”
Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, thanked Merkel for her “open ear to the concerns of the Jewish population, who fear possible anti-Semitism within the refugee population.” Schuster stressed that Jews in Germany have a special empathy for refugees.
Religious Pluralism and Post-National European Democracy
The keynote speaker at the event was José Casanova, a Spanish American religion sociologist of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The top scholar spoke of the importance of religious pluralism in Europe. He used the context of the meaning of “the Jewish question” in modern European history and how it is inextricably intertwined with the dynamics of European state formation and nation building to reflect upon the Westphalian settlement of 1648. While bringing an end to the religious wars in Europe, it proved a problematic solution to the challenge of religious pluralism. He argued that the settlement implemented throughout continental Europe solved the problem of religious conflict by eliminating religious pluralism through the enforcement of religious homogenization. Modern European nationalism is grounded in the same logic of uniform homogenization, as if the imagined community of the nation were a secular translation of the imagined community of the national Christian church.
Casanova concluded that the solution for the current system’s failures depends on some form of post-national and post-secular democratic state that offers equal rights and liberties to all citizens—secular as well as religious—and on some model of diverse and pluralist societies that offer free and equitable exercise to all their religious communities, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other.
The German Basic Law Lays the Foundation for Peaceful Co-Existence
“Today’s event once again shows us what a great gift it is, that there is once again multifaceted and rich Jewish life in Germany,”
responded the Chancellor. The peaceful co-existence of religions is “a unique vote of confidence in the liberal and democratic fundaments of our country, as laid out in the German Basic Law or constitution,” said Angela Merkel.
The Basic Law, she continued, is also the base on which we must master the challenges currently posed by the refugee crisis. Article 1 of the Basic Law states, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” This stands at the heart of decisions made by the German government and means specifically “that everyone coming to us is entitled to be treated with dignity,” said Angela Merkel.
Integrating Refugees Will Require Time and Patience
The Chancellor thanked the Jewish community for its support in taking in and integrating refugees. “I know that you in particular are well aware of the scale of the challenge, because you have taken in and integrated so many immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the last 25 years.”
At the same time Angela Merkel appealed to her audience not to be afraid of changes.
“Yes, our country will change. People need change, if we want to develop and not merely stand still.”
Integration will not happen overnight. “For integration, those already living here must be open, and those coming to us must be willing to respect the way we live, and to respect our law and our culture,” she stated.
We Want to Help Shape the Future of Germany
Cantorial students and graduates from the Abraham Geiger College performed for the Chancellor, who is donating the 10,000 Euros the Abraham Geiger Prize is worth to the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk (ELES) to finance its inter-religious project, “Dialog Perspectives”. Three students supported by ELES a scholarship program for talented Jewish students, also addressed Merkel briefly, thanking her for supporting Israel and Jewish life in Germany. “We want to help shape the future of Germany,” said Olga Osadtschy, who immigrated to Germany from Kiev and studies in Basel, Switzerland.
The event was followed by a reception. More than 300 guests, including leaders of Jewish communities from throughout Germany, from Poland and the Czech Republic as well as representatives of the World Union for Progressive Judaism from London, Pittsburgh and Jerusalem concluded the memorable evening with animated conversations. This award ceremony was another milestone for the Abraham Geiger College and Progressive Judaism.