BERLIN — Top German officials and immigrant leaders on Sunday condemned remarks by a board member of Germany's federal bank as racist and anti-Semitic. Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Bundesbank should discuss dismissing the banker.
Thilo Sarrazin of the Bundesbank came under fire for telling the weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag that "all Jews share the same gene." He also said Muslim immigrants across Europe were not willing or capable of integrating into western societies.
Last year, Sarrazin, who previously served as finance minister for Berlin, told a magazine that "I do not need to accept anyone who lives on handouts from a state that it rejects, is not adequately concerned about the education of their children and constantly produces new, little headscarf-clad girls."
He later apologized for those remarks.
However, Sarrazin, 65, would know full well that his country has had little tolerance for anti-Semitic remarks since the Holocaust, and that many of Germany's immigrants have complained about racist remarks and xenophobic behavior.
On Sunday, several German lawmakers demanded that Sarrazin step down from his post as board member at the Bundesbank and resign his party membership of the left-leaning Social Democrats – demands that Sarrazin rejected.
Merkel told German public Television ARD that "the choice of words, the discrimination of entire groups, the ostracism and the contempt is unacceptable and does not lead to a solution."
Asked whether she wanted Sarrazin to step down, Merkel said while the Bundesbank was independent in making such decisions, she was convinced it would discuss his replacement.
"I'm very certain that they will also talk about this at the Bundesbank. We know that they talk not only about financial problems, but that the Bundesbank is also representing our entire country, domestically and internationally as well," Merkel said.
She also said that while Sarrazin's comments on integration hindered a sober debate about the issue, it was important that "whoever lives here must be willing to integrate into society, learn the language and participate in school – and there we still have a lot of work to do."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in an interview with weekly Bild am Sonntag that "remarks that feed racism or even anti-Semitism have no place in our political discourse."
Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said Sarrazin had "overstepped the borders of provocation."
Leaders of Germany's Jewish and Muslim communities also condemned the banker's remarks.
Stephan Kramer of the Central Council of Jews in Germany told German news agency DAPD: "Whoever tries to identify Jews by their genetic makeup succumbs to racism."
A leading member of the Turkish community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, urged Merkel to expel Sarrazin from his Bundesbank post.
In his Welt interview on Sunday, Sarrazin said that "Muslim immigrants don't integrate as well as other immigrant groups across Europe. The reasons for this are apparently not based on their ethnicity, but are rooted in the culture of Islam."
While most lawmakers have condemned his accusations as racist, some newspapers and TV stations have said an open debate about the country's integration of Muslim immigrants is greatly needed.
Maria Boehmer, the German government official responsible for immigrant affairs, said in a statement Sunday that while it was undisputed that mistakes had been made in the integration of immigrants for decades, that had also been lots of improvement, which Sarrazin always failed to mention.
"Sarrazin paints a distorted picture of integration in Germany, which will not withstand any kind of scientific research," Boehmer said, adding that among other things, the education level of young immigrants had improved significantly during recent years. "We need to support this potential, not discriminate against them."
A government survey in 2009 found that the Muslim population in Germany likely is between 3.8 million and 4.3 million – meaning Muslims make up between 4.6 and 5.2 percent of the population. About 63 percent of those report Turkish heritage.
The overall number of Germans with immigrant roots – including Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants – reached more than 16 million, or nearly 20 percent of the country's 82 million inhabitants in 2009.
Sarrazin has a new book out on the topic that he will introduce next week in Berlin. In some of the excerpts that have already been published by German media, he writes that immigrants have profited much more from Germany's welfare system than they have contributed to it, and claims that immigrants are making German society "dumber" because they are less educated but have more children than ethnic Germans.
The head of the Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, called Sarrazin's comments "linguistically violent" and said last week "if you were to ask me why he still wants to be a member of our party – I don't know either."