When the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was first commissioned more than two centuries ago by the Prussian monarch King Frederick William II, it was intended as a symbol of peace.
Generations later, after Hitler rose to power in Germany, it became the setting for some of the most notorious mass gatherings known to man, as numerous large-scale Nazi propaganda events were held in front of this historic structure.
At the conclusion of WWII, the Berlin Wall closed off access to the Brandenburg Gate and this site came to symbolize yet another type of evil — the Iron Curtain and Communist rule.
It was near this gate that President John F. Kennedy famously attacked the Communist blockade of Berlin, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Decades later, President Ronald Reagan would stand near the gate and demand, “Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the gate became a symbol of the reunification of Germany and a popular tourist attraction.
Next Sunday, a mass rally is scheduled to take place at the historic site, and once again the subject is the Jews. But in contrast to the vicious rants of Nazi propaganda, this time the rally is intended to protest the growing signs of anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere.
Eight decades ago, the then-German government did all it possibly could to incite the populace into attacking the Jews, and led and oversaw the genocide of six million of our people, Hy”d.
This time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on the country’s citizens to attend the rally against anti-Semitism, and plans to address the gathering personally.
“We need to resolutely pursue every sign of anti-Semitism,” Merkel said, expressing her concern that Jewish institutions need police protection and underscoring that seven decades after the Holocaust, making Jews feel safe remains a top priority for Germany.
The fact that instead of leading the masses in persecuting Jews, European governments are now issuing vocal condemnations of anti-Semitism is a very welcome development.
Chancellor Merkel recognizes that fighting hatred of Jews is not only the right and moral thing to do, but a vital step needed to protect her country from the dark side of German nationalism. She is well aware of what happened the last time her country was consumed by the forces of evil, and this is undoubtedly inspiring her to act at this time.
In addition, there is a growing realization in the EU that the manifestation of anti-Semitism among both the pro-Muslim elements on the left and the neo-Nazis on the extreme right is only one symptom of a radical extremism that is a threat to all of European society.
Regardless of the precise motivations that lie behind the efforts to fight anti-Semitism, we are deeply grateful.
While neither mass rallies, fervent denunciations, nor a marked increase in security will eradicate the scourge of anti-Semitism, they do have a significant effect on the general atmosphere, and make it harder for hate-mongers to publicly spread their abhorrent rhetoric.
In a sad twist of fate, while much of the blatant anti-Jewish hatred is rooted among the many Muslim immigrants in Europe and their supporters, among those who are being targeted in the resultant backlash are religious Jews.
As we have previously noted, some of the very laws officially promulgated to restrict and limit Muslim communities are oppressing European Jewish communities.
Milah and shechitah are the two best examples.
In December 2012, German lawmakers passed legislation ensuring parents the right to have their sons circumcised. This law, strongly promoted by Chancellor Merkel, came after months of legal uncertainty following a regional court ruling equating circumcision with bodily harm.
That this law was necessary, some of its details, and the very fact that there is ongoing debate about bris milah in Germany and several other European countries tells much about the real threats to religious observance in Europe.
Shechitah, banned in Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, has come under attack in Poland.
Unlike the United States, where the constitution not only prohibits laws establishing a religion but also ensures the free exercise of religion, a growing and dangerous movement in Europe is seeking not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.
In the battle for religious rights, the Jewish community should and often does work closely with the Muslim community. While we may strongly disagree on some subjects, this should never preclude close cooperation with local Muslim leaders on areas of common interest. We must take pains to avoid generalizations that paint entire communities with a broad brush.
In Brooklyn, for instance, b’chasdei Hashem, a large Jewish community lives side by side with a sizable Muslim community in peace and mutual respect. They work closely together in some areas, and agree to disagree in others.
As Germany prepares for a mass rally and other European countries express their own concerns about growing anti-Semitism, the level of governmental dedication to religious liberties will be an excellent litmus test to see just how committed they really are to fighting hatred of Jews.