Germany is undoubtedly Israel’s best friend in Europe. For decades the country has made heroic efforts to atone for its Nazi past by actively championing the Jewish state’s cause abroad, engaging in a robust program of Holocaust education in its schools, and reaching out to Jews around the world.
Here in the Bay Area, the current German consul general, Stefan Schlueter, is a staple attendee at Jewish community events and maintains warm relations with local Jewish leaders. So I wasn’t surprised last week when he introduced me to Felix Klein, a buoyant and friendly man who is “special representative” to the Jewish community, an ambassadorial position within Germany’s Foreign Ministry.
What did surprise me, however, is how recently the job was created — just seven years ago. In establishing this position in 2009, Germany became the first nation to respond to the Berlin Declaration, a commitment to fight anti-Semitism that emerged from the 2004 Berlin conference on anti-Semitism, now an annual event hosted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since then others have followed suit in creating Jewish liaisons, including Greece, the United Kingdom, Poland, the Czech Republic and, late last year, France.
“It was felt that Germany needed a face, a focal point the Jewish community can call upon, a place where efforts to combat anti-Semitism are centered, someone to represent Germany at Holocaust commemorations,” explained Klein, who has held the job for four years.
His portfolio is wide-ranging. Within Germany he manages relations between the government and Germany’s fractious Jewish community, split as it is between the old-guard German Jews and the more recently arrived Russian-speaking Jews. He also deals with Nazi-looted art, Holocaust compensation and other matters that require a diplomatic touch.
Abroad, Klein is charged with conveying his government’s pro-Jewish message, as well as meeting with foreign Jewish communities and relaying their concerns back to his bosses.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2013, a move Putin claimed was partly to protect Ukrainian Jews from anti-Semitism, Klein was sent to Kiev to talk with Jews there and find out whether they indeed felt beleaguered. (They did, Klein reported, but because they were under attack like all Ukrainians, not because they were Jews.)
When Belarus put up a monument last year that for the first time recognized distinct categories of Nazi victims instead of calling them all “victims of fascism,” as was the wont in the communist-era Soviet bloc, Klein was on hand to congratulate them, in Germany’s name. He also organized seminars for history teachers in Belarus, at the behest of the Belorussian government.
And he does all this without being Jewish himself. “My name is Jewish, but I’m not,” he said, noting that his family was part of the prewar German minority living in Transylvania. Because of that experience as an outsider, Klein said, “I was a little prepared to see the world through Jewish eyes.”
In San Francisco last month — his first visit to the city — Klein spent an evening at the German Consulate hobnobbing with local rabbis and heads of Jewish organizations. What were they concerned about? What should he take back to his government?
Two topics were front and center: how Germany would deal with the influx of nearly 1 million Syrian migrants, and whether it would continue to oppose anti-Israel initiatives within the European Union.
On the second point, Klein was adamant: The Jewish community “knows it can count on Germany, and the other European partners know our position when it comes to anti-Israel issues.” True, he admitted, Germany went along with the recent EU move to label goods from the West Bank, but not because they didn’t try. “We were outvoted,” he said. “Personally, I think it wasn’t good.”
Germany is not about to abandon its “special relationship” with world Jewry anytime soon, he said. “It’s in Germany’s interest to foster critical discussion of the past; to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust is a mandate of the federal government.”