BERLIN (JTA) – Refugees in Germany must unlearn the anti-Semitism fed to them in their home countries, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in accepting the German Reform movement’s top award.
Merkel on Wednesday was presented with the Abraham Geiger Prize, worth more than $10,000, for her commitment as “guarantor of basic democratic values and freedom of religion,” according to the award jury.
The German chancellor is donating the funds to the “Dialog Perspectives” program of the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk, a foundation for talented Jewish students.
At Wednesday’s ceremony at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Merkel, 61, said she shared the Jewish community’s humanitarian concerns and worries, wanting to help refugees fleeing ISIS, but also wanting to protect democracy at home. An estimated 800,000 refugees, most of them Muslim, will have sought asylum in Germany by the end of this year.
In order to be integrated, the asylum seekers “must respect our culture and learn our language,” Merkel said. They also must adhere to laws that protect equal rights for women and gays, and that reject anti-Semitism, she emphasized.
Admitting that there might be differences on how best to achieve integration, 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, having accepted and integrated more than 140,000 former Soviet Jews over the past 25 years.
The keynote speaker at the event was José Casanova, a top scholar in the sociology of religion. Other speakers were Jewish Museum Director Peter Schaefer and Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. Presenting the award were Rabbi Walter Jacob of Pittsburgh, co-founder of the Abraham Geiger College rabbinical seminary in Potsdam, and the seminary’s rector, Rabbi Walter Homolka.
Three students supported by the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk 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.
Cantorial students and graduates from the Abraham Geiger College Jewish Institute of Cantorial Arts performed for the chancellor, who personally shook their hands, said a beaming Svetlana Kundish of Ukraine.
Geiger College was founded in 1999 and has been training rabbis since 2002. It established the prize in the year 2000, and opened its cantorial program seven years later.