On Friday, the state treaty for the introduction of a Jewish military chaplaincy will be signed. In an interview, Rabbi Walter Homolka talks about the treaty and the relationship between German forces and the Jewish community.
CBA: Rabbi Homolka, it was a long piece of work, as you can hear. Are you relieved that there will now soon be Jewish military chaplains?
Rabbi Walter Homolka (Rector of Potsdam’s Abraham Geiger College for the Training of Rabbis and Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserve): Distance and mistrust have given way to relaxed coexistence. Previously, the focus was primarily on commemoration and coming to terms with discrimination and rejection. In the last 15 years there was a forward orientation. As a reserve staff officer, I am relieved that today Jewish members of the armed forces meet with their comrades on an equal footing.
For about two years now, the topic has been in the air. In April 2019, the president of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, and the then Federal Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, agreed on the principle of reinstatement. Since then, Central Council Executive Director Daniel Botmann has succeeded in building the structural framework with Federal Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and negotiating a military chaplaincy agreement that allows liberal and Orthodox Judaism to participate in military chaplaincies. I consider this expansion a paradigm shift. Military chaplaincy will be pluralistic in the future.
CBA: Why did the introduction take so long? The state did not see the need?
Homolka: The relationship between the German armed forces and the Jewish community had been strained since the wars of liberation against Napoleon. In the past, Jews were not welcome in peacetime, especially as officers. Reich Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau drew the conclusion from his unsuccessful candidacy as a reserve officer during the Weimar Republic that as a Jew, one would remain a second-class citizen. In wartime, Jews often went above and beyond the call of duty, but were denied recognition.
CBA: But Jewish military rabbis did exist in the past.
Homolka: During World War I, Jewish soldiers were cared for and accompanied by field rabbis for the first time. After World War II, there were long reservations between the German army and the Jewish community. Numerous missions by German soldiers in recent decades to secure and restore Jewish cemeteries have helped to counteract the speechlessness.
For about 15 years, prospective rabbis then did internships with the two major churches to approach the topic of military chaplaincy. In 2006, the Association of Jewish Soldiers was founded; in 2010, the Center for Internal Leadership of the German Armed Forces published a handout for Jewish soldiers; and in the same year, the Central Council of Jews was given a seat on the Advisory Council for Internal Leadership of the German Armed Forces. So the resumption of Jewish military chaplaincy is based on a whole series of steps in the right direction.
CBA: What is the significance of the introduction of Jewish military rabbis for Judaism in Germany??
Homolka: In my opinion, it erases the injustice that Jews in German armies used to experience. The resumption of Jewish military chaplaincy by the Central Council of Jews in Germany shows: Jewish community has confidence in Bundeswehr as a pluralistic, democratic army. And: We Jews intend to help shape this community in all its aspects.
CBA: What do you say to those who say: "For only 300 Jewish soldiers nationwide, there is no need for a separate chaplain?."
Homolka: German military chaplains are there for all soldiers, including those of a different religion or of no confession. Other countries like the USA, France or the Netherlands have shown us the way with their military rabbis.
Military chaplains of whatever denomination have an open ear and ensure the free exercise of religion for all. In Germany, military chaplains also teach life skills classes, which are ideologically neutral. It is a good sign that rabbis are now also visibly on duty here. I am pleased that among them will be graduates of the Abraham Geiger College, because Jewish military chaplaincy is to be provided on an equal basis by liberal rabbis together with their Orthodox colleagues. Union of Progressive Jews in Germany and the Central Council of Jews in Germany agree here.
CBA: You yourself are a lieutenant colonel in the reserve and know some of the troops: To what extent is anti-Semitism an ie there??
Homolka: I have personally never experienced anti-Semitism in the Bundeswehr. As in all social groups, however, I do not rule it out in principle among soldiers either. Bundeswehr rabbis will give the signal: Our army serves a pluralistic society and is open to all who stand on the free democratic basic order.
CBA: Are there particular religious questions and ies that Jewish soldiers are concerned about??
Homolka: In the area of fighting, killing and dying, there are a whole series of essential questions that concern us humans. I don’t exclude us Jews. It is important for Jewish soldiers to encounter their own tradition here. The Jewish voice should be heard in these ethical and moral considerations.
CBA: Are there still voices in the Jewish community who, against the backdrop of the Shoah, say: "Becoming a German soldier as a Jew is out of the question?."
Homolka: There may be. But the military chaplaincy agreement between Germany and the Central Council of Jews means that the Jewish community and the Bundeswehr are looking to the future with confidence. I feel this is a big step forward and I see broad support for it within German Jewry and also abroad.
The interview was conducted by Karin Wollschlager.