The Central Council of Jews was founded in 1950 to represent Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust. Noting that many Holocaust survivors couldn't imagine a future in Germany, she said the council originally was envisioned as a provisional entity to help them emigrate.
But the decades since German reunification in 1990, in particular, have seen the Jewish community in Germany gain size and strength.
“We can be glad of flourishing Jewish life,” Merkel said during a ceremony at a Berlin synagogue. “But that is only one part of today's reality. The other part of today's reality is that many Jews don't feel safe and respected in our country, and it causes me great concern.”
“It is a disgrace, and it shames me deeply, how racism and anti-Semitism are expressed in our country in these times,” she added. “Racism and anti-Semitism never disappeared, but for some time now they have become more visible and uninhibited.”
“We know how quickly words can become deeds,” Merkel said, pointing to the botched attack on a Halle synagogue last year by a German man who had posted an anti-Semitic screed online.
The chancellor said education and dialogue were the best means for preventing acts of hatred but when those tools are insufficient, the full force of the law must be applied.
Merkel pointed to German government efforts to improve security at Jewish facilities and make social media networks report illegal content, and its appointment of a government point man on anti-Semitism.
Before the Nazis came to power, Germany had a Jewish population of about 500,000. The country's population of 83 million now includes some 200,000 Jews. Many of them are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were taken in after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a gesture of atonement for Nazi crimes.
Central Council leader Josef Schuster said that “the majority of the population stands behind us, as do established (political) parties.”
“But on the whole, love ... for us Jews could be greater — or at least respect,” Schuster said. “That is more and more frequently lacking.”
He said the coronavirus pandemic is acting as a “catalyzer,” with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulating online and some participants in demonstrations against virus restrictions wearing Stars of David - which Shuster described as a “disgusting instrumentalization” of the yellow badges persecuted Jews were obliged to wear under Nazi rule.
“I know some elderly people who had to wear this star back then, people who had to spend years in hiding, people who only narrowly survived,” Schuster said. “And they are people who are bravely accepting the corona rules and see no reason to complain about them.”