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Brawl Exposes Berlin Jewish Community’s Rifts

Escalating cultural and financial tensions divide the community

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Berlin's Neue Synagoge. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Worshippers at Berlin’s Neue Synagoge last May were treated to an unusual sight: an all-out brawl between elderly members of the Jewish community, the AP reports. The reason for the fight, in which punches were thrown and and the police were called? Escalating cultural factions and financial tensions, and a divisive new leader under scrutiny by authorities, who cut off funding for the community’s salaries following an unexplained $800,000 personnel budget increase.

The ugly scene, described in interviews with witnesses and seen on an Internet video, is indicative of a Berlin Jewish community in crisis – riven by cultural rivalries, its finances under official scrutiny. It’s hard to say who is at fault, but the feuding is fed at least in part by a clash between an old guard of German Jews dating to before World War II, and a growing presence of relative newcomers from the former Soviet Union.

It’s a disturbing image—infighting among Jews, particularly in Berlin, where the 10,000-person Jewish community has experienced a striking rebirth. Precipitating the fight was the announcement that funds for communities salaries had been cut off after divisive community president Gideon Joffe, who was elected almost two years ago, authorized an 11 percent budget increase for personnel salaries (which are subsidized by the German government as detailed in a 1994 arrangement), but reportedly wouldn’t provide documentation of how many staff members the community employs—he says between 300 and 350; Berlin’s Senate wanted specifics.

While the financial irregularities are certainly troubling, the cultural tensions dividing the community are also cause for concern. The notion of dueling factions of Jews in Germany in 2014 is a unsettling reality to consider, but it appears to be the case.

Related: When Berlin Meant Business [Vox Tablet]

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Brawl Exposes Berlin Jewish Community’s Rifts

Escalating cultural and financial tensions divide the community

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