Being Jewish is one of the rare identities in Germany that can earn an immigrant bonus points. Germany’s ongoing wrangling with historical responsibility and restitution around the Holocaust in some ways affords Jews a central location in German society. Though remembrance culture is an important part of modern German identity and Jews are a privileged minority, Germans somehow rarely know how to act when presented with a real live Jew in the wild. Worse yet, this discursive and political climate creates an incredibly one-dimensional view of Jewish identities that tends to render us as political tools instead of actual people. Nowhere is this more true than when Jews dare to step out of the lines meticulously painted by the German establishment to voice pro-Palestinian opinions.
As an American Jew, I am extremely fortunate to be among Germany’s most privileged immigrant populations. It’s hard to think of a better fit for ‘one of the good ones’ than a straight, white, Jewish male who can speak decent German. Maybe a white Dutch guy. But there’s no level of privilege in the world that can redeem what the Dutch call “food”. Plus, for all the privilege tied into being one of Germany’s few model minorities, Germans are remarkably bad at actually interacting with us.
Many Germans I’ve met seem a bit unsure of what to do when confronted with my existence. Here are a few tips: no, you don't need to personally apologize for the Holocaust; there's very little chance I will find a Jew joke funny; and sorry, but I don't think your IDF sweater is cool. As a rule, it’s probably a waste of time to tell me the political movements I support are anti-Semitic. And if you think it would be weird to mention your love of, I don’t know, Toni Morrison or Jay-Z, within 20 minutes of meeting a Black person, you should probably think the same about happening to bring up Seinfeld or Philip Roth immediately after learning of my religious background.
If Germans being socially awkward around a minority group were the biggest issue, there wouldn’t be much to complain about. Germans barely know how to interact with one another. More concerning is the light this sheds on the limits of Germany’s remembrance culture. Germany’s reckoning with its history and dedication to public acknowledgement and education about the Holocaust is to be lauded (especially when my country can’t even agree on whether massive monuments to slaveholding shitbags are bad), but it often feels remembrance culture has more to do with German feelings of guilt or pride of progress than justice or preventing future atrocities.
The fact that collective memory and responsibility are so important here, yet Germans are often puzzled when they meet actual Jews is telling. Most Germans still know next to nothing about Jewish life or even how to interact with us because their remembrance is almost entirely German-focused. Inward-looking and self-centered, it can feel the discussion around Germany’s remembrance culture is just as much about using Jews as a means for slapping themselves on the back for how much they’ve learned from their dark history as it is about fighting today’s anti-Semitism. Not to mention the inability to apply the apparently nation-defining lessons of the Holocaust to how Germany addresses its role in the first genocide of the 20th century, against the Herero and Nama in Namibia.
This self-serving engagement with Jews tends to view us as either an extinct population that you can learn about in a museum like a gaggle of kids gawking at a T-Rex skeleton, or as props used for political purposes, instead of seeing us as living, breathing humans with a wide array of thoughts, views and experiences. This is also true in discourse about Germany’s ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’, when Jews are suddenly elevated to founding members of German culture and no longer historically brutalized outsiders, incidentally always arising when it’s time to crap out op-eds about how Muslims just don’t quite fit in here.
There are few cities in Europe with more vibrant and varied Jewish life than Berlin. It’s home to one of the biggest Israeli diasporas on the continent, with 10,000 having moved here in the last decade alone. These Israelis live alongside thousands of German Jews and fellow Jewish immigrants from all over the world. Germany’s predominant understanding of Jewish culture and politics rarely reflects the diversity of Jewish life on offer here. Treating this group as a monolith with one prevailing identity or opinion is anti-Semitic in and of itself, yet it’s still the cornerstone of how Jews are shoehorned into German politics.
This occurs most frequently in debates around Israel and Palestine. Germany’s commitment to total support for Israeli policy results in a distorted interpretation of what ‘pro-Jewish’ policy means and leads to the active restriction of dissenting voices, even when criticism comes from Jews. And though many Palestinians also call Germany home (Berlin’s roughly 40,000 Palestinians makes it the biggest Palestinian community in Europe), they are rarely given visibility and often cut out of Germany’s discourse and political decision-making. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has become the most visible signifier for this conundrum.
In 2017, three pro-BDS protesters faced criminal charges and were accused of anti-Semitism for peacefully disrupting a lecture at Humboldt Universität by Israeli politician Aliza Lavie. That two of the protesters are Jewish didn’t stop the German tabloids, taking a brief respite from harping on the dangers of immigrants and antifa, from screeching about the protestors’ alleged ‘pure hatred of Jews’. In 2019, the Bundestag passed a resolution denouncing BDS and designating it anti-Semitic. When Berlin’s Jewish Museum’s director Paul Schäfer criticized the resolution, he was forced to step down in a wave of intense pressure.
All of this is built on conflating criticism with Israeli policy with criticism or hatred of Jews, which is made possible by Germany’s totalizing, tokenizing view of Jews. Not everyone who lives in Israel is Jewish, not all Jews support the occupation of Palestine, and to assume either is, again, actually anti-Semitic itself. And though the confrontative approach to anything that can be construed as criticism of Israel is ostensibly done to protect Jews, the resolution and public outrage are frequently levelled at Jews themselves. Thankfully, resistance has gained steam, with a number of cultural leaders in Austria and Germany (many of whom are again Jewish) criticizing the anti-BDS resolution late last year. All of this demonstrates just how overly-simplified the broader German views of Jews and Jewish people as a model minority are. Jews are great, unless they suddenly have pro-Palestine opinions, then many Germans will do mental gymnastics to accuse these very same Jews of being anti-Semitic themselves.
As someone laden with so much privilege it practically gives me back aches, I know I’m not exactly in a position to whine. But would I really be a good Jew if I let an opportunity to complain slip by? I can live with awkward interactions at parties (back when those were a thing), but Jews’ perverse role as model minorities in Germany truly becomes a problem when this is used as a political bludgeon against dissenting voices. And it’s not just about the inherent anti-Semitism of Germany’s often narrow and selective understandings and concerns with Jewish issues, treating critiques of Israeli policy as the greatest threat to Judaism while ignoring an emboldened and ever-growing far-right is actually dangerous for Jews living in Germany.
For a country so obsessed with its Nazi past I’m surprised this needs saying. Don’t tell me how big of a threat peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters are to my well-being (particularly when I’m one of them). They’re not the ones unleashing waves of right-wing terror throughout the country. Nor are they sitting idly as Nazis infiltrate police, military and government agencies. Nazis are the ones who want me dead, they’re the reason some of my relatives refuse to visit me, and why I regularly (and ever-less confidently) have to reassure my family that I’m safe here. Worry about them, not telling Jews what their interests are.
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