Theodor Herzl Award recipient Angela Merkel vows firm stance on online hate

German chancellor makes promise for remaining months of her term at World Jewish Congress event in Munich


German Chancellor Angela Merkel, considered by many the most powerful politician in the western world, was honoured this week in Munich by the World Jewish Congress for her commitment to fighting anti-semitism and her support for Jewish life in Germany.

The bestowal of the WJC’s Theodor Herzl Award, which was not without its controversy, was as much a charge for future action as it was an applause. And that is the rule for such awards, given for a job not yet complete. Ms Merkel became chancellor in 2005 and is due to step down after elections in 2021.

It was no surprise that some critics decried the honour ahead of the ceremony. Germany has seen an increase in antisemitic crimes, election successes for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, and eroding support for Israel in higher political echelons.

Some blame Ms Merkel, noting her support for the now-withdrawn Iran nuclear deal, her opposition to the move of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and her open door to more than a million Muslim refugees since 2015. Her position was greatly weakened by her handling of the resulting social and economic stresses.

But missteps were not in the spotlight at Monday’s ceremony in Munich.

Calling Ms Merkel the “icon” of Germany’s success in post-war rebuilding and confrontation with the past, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder also said she was a “dam” against instability. extremism, racism and antisemitism.

The latter is “not a Jewish problem,” WJC President Lauder said, “it is a German one.”

The ceremony at the Jewish community centre in Munich was co-hosted by Charlotte Knobloch, who is president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria and also serves as the WJC Commissioner for Holocaust Memory.

Ms Knobloch, who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Germany and has often spoken of the proverbial “packed suitcases” that Jews have ever at the ready, called on Ms Merkel to do more with her remaining time in office.

But she also said she could “not imagine an individual more worthy of this award,” based on “commitment to Jewish citizens in our country, to Europe, and to Israel as a Jewish state.”

Ms Merkel said she felt humbled by the award and the charge to intensify the fight against antisemitism and hate.

She said she was deeply troubled by recent antisemitic crimes, including the attack on the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur in which two people nearby were killed and two injured, and noted that her government is set to pass laws this week designed to crack down on incitement to hate, including online incitement.

Such crimes “flow from a deep hatred of democracy,” Ms Merkel said, warning that “antisemitism and racism do not begin with violent acts.

“It is much subtler. We must make sure not to wake up only after words have become deeds.”

For his part, Mr Lauder urged that several steps be taken to ensure public safety, including police protection in all synagogues, increased and substantial penalties for those convicted of an antisemitic attack, prohibition against all hate speech on the internet, commitment by political parties to expel any member who engages in antisemitism, and outlawing all political parties that espouse a neo-Nazi ideology.

“German democracy must defend itself, defend its citizens, and defend its Jews from the dark forces now rising, on the extreme right and the extreme left,” Mr Lauder said.

Ultimately, such awards are meant as a challenge. And Ms Knobloch underscored this, saying that “the values of this prize must remain our guiding light, a hope that we express always, not just in the aftermath of terrible attacks against us.”

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