Being Jewish in Today's Germany
Jan 24, 2014
17 Min read time
In his new book, Yascha Mounk explores Jewish identity in Modern Germany.
“Two souls within a single body”—that is how the Israeli journalist and author Amos Elon described the tension of being Jewish and German in his 2003 book The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743–1933. But the challenge did not end with the Holocaust. There are still Jews in Germany, more now than at any time since the end of World War II.
Who are they, German Jews or Jewish Germans? The question has been frequently analyzed and debated. Even as the “new Jew” and the “new Germany” are proclaimed and defined, the intractable duality remains.
In his new book Stranger in my Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany, Yascha Mounk explores the duality via his own identity—Jewish and born in Germany. Mounk traces his family’s dispersal from Poland after Władysław Gomułka’s anti-Semitic Communist regime took power. They went to America, Sweden, Israel, and Germany, where Mounk himself grew up. He describes how his mother Ala came to West Germany and reluctantly obtained German citizenship through a first husband before Mounk’s birth. In 1982 Mounk inherited her citizenship at birth, thanks to a 1975 law that for the first time enabled matrilineal descent. Eventually, having been treated as a Jew apart, never fully German despite his citizenship and residence from birth, he rejected his Germanness and moved to the United States.
Mounk is hardly the first German Jew to feel like an outsider in his own postwar home. There is the 1979 anthology Strangers in One’s Own Land: Jews in the Federal Republic, co-edited by the provocative German Jewish journalist Henryk Broder. The following year, the German Israeli author Lea Fleischmann wrote This is Not My Country. Judged by its cover, Mounk’s book may seem redundant or anachronistic.
But Mounk’s alienation is of his particular moment, representative of the varied experience of Jewishness that emerged after the wall came down. This is not the new Jew of postwar Germany, sorting through the rubble, but the new Jew in an era of immigration, reintegration, vigilant memorialization, and a demonstrative national quest for normalcy. Germany is considered a paragon of formalized historical reckoning, compared favorably with her neighbors Austria and Poland and sometimes with the United States’ engagement (or lack thereof) with its own particular atrocities, especially slavery and its persisting effects. In school, Germans are extensively and repeatedly educated on the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust. Museums and monuments, such as the Topography of Terror and The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, punctuate the long list of sites to be visited in Berlin.
Mounk, for a time, inhabited the space between institutionalized confrontation with the past and wider cultural conceptions of difference, belonging, and identity. Weaving memoir and history, anecdotal description and political-cultural analysis, he describes his own experience of the German-Jewish duality, ultimately opting for an identity free from both classifications.
• • •
Growing up in several “reasonably idyllic places” across Germany—never, notably, in Berlin, but in cities such as Munich, Freiburg, and Karlsruhe—Mounk experienced the seesaw of anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, neither of which leaves much “room . . . for Jews to be regarded as ‘normal’ people subject to the ups and downs of mortal men and women,” according to Jeffrey M. Peck, author of Being Jewish in the New Germany (2005). The former is often more subtle than violence or hate speech and the latter more pervasive and complex than the Jew-less European Klezmer craze of the 1980s and ’90s detailed in Ruth Ellen Gruber’s Virtually Jewish (2002).
At one moment, Mounk’s fifth-grade teacher asks “Protestant or Catholic?”and the class is in stitches when he responds, “Well, I guess I’m sort of Jewish.” The next, an acquaintance at a party describes Woody Allen as creepy and then bends over backward to defend Allen’s entire oeuvre when Mounk arrives to the conversation, despite Mounk’s assurance that he has no horse in the race. There’s Klaus the neo-Nazi, a regular at fourteen-year-old Mounk’s chess club who becomes sheepish after discovering his opponent’s Jewishness. And then there’s Markus, whose guilt-induced conversion to Judaism and obvious attempts at friendship unnerve Mounk.
Mounk’s alienation is representative of the varied experience of Jewishness that emerged after the wall came down.
A coming-of-age heavily peppered with such encounters makes connection with non-Jewish Germans fraught, self-identification uncomfortably imposed. “For me personally,” Mounk writes, “it wasn’t primarily violence or hatred that made me feel that I would never be a German. It was benevolence. . . . The effect of their pity and their virtue was to leave both of us with the sense that I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with them.” As a result, “the simplest interaction between Jew and Gentile [can] degenerate into a politically correct comedy of errors.”
In addition to careful philo-Semitism, Mounk identifies “resentment against the country’s supposed obsession with the past—a resentment that is voiced especially loudly by younger Germans.” During a recent trip to Berlin, I met a twenty-four-year-old non-Jewish German who attributes this, at least in part, to years of history class without much discussion of personal or familial connection to the events studied.
“What you really do not address is that there probably is something like a third-generation trauma,” Christian told me. Christian has worked for the local office of the American Jewish Committeeand, within his community, discussion of this trauma is common. But in school, he says, for the most part “you don’t even talk about the question of collective and individual guilt.” He identifies “latent anti-Semitism” among many contemporary Germans, often unconscious and born of a rebellion against guilt that they perceive as forced upon them.
Mounk sees this urge to be done with historical reckoning as a “fast-spreading movement” that became increasingly mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s. Its goal is to reach a “finish line” demarcating a new phase in Germany’s ties to its history. Although the intent to recognize Jews as regular people is laudable, Mounk argues that this finish line movement has instead cast German Jews as extras “in the country’s increasingly aggressive attempt to prove that it has finally left the past behind.”
Mounk looks to idealization of the 1968 protests in order to make sense of the finish line movement. Citing Hans Kundnani’s Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust (2009), Mounk argues that the ’68ers were fueled by anger and unease concerning their parents’ generation and by a simplistic reading of Frankfurt School theory that linked capitalism to fascism. To the ’68ers, this meant that the Federal Republic was a Nazi regime. Their anxiety around making a “clean break” from the past perversely drove the German left’s increasing violence.
The concept of the finish line was publicized by historian Ernst Nolte in his 1986 essay “The Past That Will Not Pass,” which, in turn, triggered the Historikerstreit, a year-long debate between historians and public intellectuals on the subject. This was followed in 1998 by a controversial speech from the novelist Martin Walser, who declared, “Auschwitz is not suited to become a routine threat . . . or a moral cudgel.” Soon after, opinion polls revealed that 63 percent of Germans were in favor of “drawing a finish line under discussions about the persecution of Jews.”
Mounk was sixteen at the time of Walser’s speech and remembers watching it on TV with his grandfather Leon, the man who’d had him memorize Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine’s work in his youth. Mounk realized that finish-line resentment underlay the philo-Semitism he often encountered. “It’s not that my classmates grew hostile,” he writes. “Nor did they start hurling anti-Semitic slurs at me. What they did was subtler, though, over time, equally alienating: they came to see me as a strange and slightly mysterious outsider who wasn’t bad, necessarily, but who also most definitely wasn’t really a part of their community.”
• • •
Some 15,000 German Jews survived the Holocaust, 8,000 of them in Berlin. After the war and before Israel was founded in 1948, displaced persons, many of them Jewish, found temporary residence in displaced persons camps built by the Allies. Some stayed.
Not long after the wall fell, the federal government passed the 1991 Quota Refugee Law whereby it agreed to accept Jewish migrants from the former Soviet Union. What followed was an influx of more than 200,000 people of Jewish background, mostly Russian-speaking. This massive change in the numbers and demographics frames any discussion of Jewishness in Germany today, especially in Berlin. The capital’s Jewish population grew from about 6,000 in 1990 to an estimated 50,000 by 2008. According to a recent report by American journalist Toby Axelrod, who has lived in Berlin since 1997, in Germany today there are “more than 240,000 people of Jewish background,” close to a third of the Jewish population when the Nazis came to power.
“Do you think that my son, two generations after the war, should feel as guilty towards Jews as I do?”
“Today’s younger generations will not forget, but they are not dwelling on the past,” Axelrod writes, reporting that religiously and culturally, the Holocaust serves less and less as a definitive theme in Jewish life in Germany. “With all its neuroses, its ambivalences and lurking threats, Germany is home.”
Not home for all, Mounk might say. But perhaps in Berlin, with the largest and most diverse Jewish community in Germany, there exists a freer and more varied Jewish experience than the one he reports. The capital has 11,500 registered members of the federally recognized and funded community, the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Approximately twice as many Jews unaffiliated with the official community also live in Berlin. Many of these are young and are among the 10–15,000 Israelis that have flooded the capital in recent years. Growth, fragmentation, and plurality characterize communities within and beyond the Central Council, which itself struggles to accept the diversity of Jewish identification.
To demonstrate this living diversity, last spring Berlin’s Jewish Museum unveiled the exhibition “The Whole Truth . . . everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” which included the controversial “Jew in a box” installation that sat a Jewish volunteer on a platform bearing the caption, “Are there still Jews in Germany?” Whether you find the conceit offensive or applaud the self-critical engagement with the complicated nature of Jewish-Gentile relations, a showcased Jew answering visitors’ questions certainly forces one to consider issues of authenticity, identification, and representation.
Bill, a 27-year-old Jewish American who’s lived in Berlin for four years and has no plans to leave, sat in the box three times. “On some level [Germans] know Jews live in the world,” he told me, “but they don’t really see Judaism as a living, breathing, evolving culture with real people. It’s either the Holocaust or Israel, neither of which I’m so thrilled being represented or identified by.”
Linda, 29, who was born and raised in Cologne, sat in the box only once. She figured since she’d been answering Germans’ questions about Judaism her whole life, she might as well do it officially. “It was always a problem for us in German schools to be a kind of Jewish ambassador for the entire community,” she told me. Most visitors approached her tentatively.
When one German man asked his four-year-old son to sit next to her on the bench, Linda knew things were about to get interesting. “So, Linda, do you think that my son, two generations after the war, should feel as guilty towards Jews as I do?” the man asked. “This was not a question I was prepared for,” Linda recalled. “I asked, ‘What do you mean, why would you feel guilty?’ and he said, ‘The media tries to tell me day by day that we Germans still need to feel this.’”
But when Linda asked what he knew about Jews or Judaism, the man was unable to give much information beyond stereotypes about ruling financial classes and undeserving German guilt. “He just didn’t want to leave,” Linda said, describing their twenty-minute conversation, in which she felt the man used her as a sort of shrink to parse the guilt around his own family’s involvement in the Holocaust, which he admitted and apologized for. “I can’t give you this approval,” Linda told him, “I think you should try to get clean with your past and not with me.” He agreed, but, Linda said, “it seemed like he was kind of relieved after talking to me.”
Linda’s grandparents, who’d fled to Bolivia and then to Israel during and after the war, returned to Germany in the 1950s. “My great grandmother said that she want[ed] to go home.” Like her grandmother, Linda tried living in Israel. She also spent a year in the United States. But she, too, “wanted to come home” so she moved to Berlin. “That’s why I feel, unlike maybe other Jews of the community, a very strong connection, maybe not to the German people, but to the country,” Linda said. “I actually never struggled with the feeling of not being part of this place.”
• • •
One’s own sense of Jewish identity, like other aspects of self-conception, can be sculpted by internal feelings and actions—adhering to Jewish cultural norms, observing the holidays and rituals, believing in a higher power—as much as it can be influenced by outward perception—the repeated experience of being treated as Someone Who Is Jewish.
While Mounk was in Germany, it was the latter that shaped his Jewishness, as well as his Germanness. “My family’s Jewish identity has never been strong,” Mounk writes in a New York Times op-ed anticipating the release of his book. “I had neither a bris nor a bar mitzvah. When I was young, my mother gave me Christmas presents so that I wouldn’t feel left out. Even so, as I grew older, I felt more and more Jewish—and less and less German.”
At the heart of Mounk’s alienation is the historic conception of a national identity inextricably tied to ethnic Germanness and Christianity. Within this purity-based notion of German identity, there is no room for diversity or multiple allegiance. Leitkultur, or “leading culture,” a conservative concept introduced in the late 1990s, still frames national political discussions about immigration, integration, and multiculturalism. “Germany’s debate about the past is ultimately about much more than memory politics, or even relations between Jews and Gentiles,” Mounk writes, “it is about the policies Germany should pursue in the present.”
Mounk’s call for Germans to rethink their conceptions of who is and is not German is not only ethical advice but also economic.
In large part, what he has in mind are policies and attitudes with respect to immigration—especially Turkish. Invited legally as contract workers in the 1960s during Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) and afforded permanent residency in response to corporate lobbying, people of Turkish or Arab descent—as well as Tunisian, Moroccan, South Korean—even those who are German citizens, are still thought of as guests. Words such as Gasterbeiter (“guestworker”) and Auslander (“foreigner”) are commonly used to describe them. While laws have changed, conceptions of identity are more rigid: Germanness is still associated with ethnicity, religion, and monoculture rather than civic membership.
At a time when Germany’s population is decreasing and anti-immigration lobbyists are advocating “zero net migration,” Mounk’s call for Germans to rethink their conceptions of who is and is not German is not only ethical advice but also economic. Rapid depopulation will shrink the economy, make the welfare state unaffordable, and escalate social tensions. “Germany’s prosperity, the fate of immigrants already in the country, as well as—last and probably least—the long-term future of Germany’s Jews now depends on” a new vision of German identity, Mounk argues.
Mounk also draws a parallel between the experience of Jews in contemporary Germany and that of black Americans. He is not naïve about the historical, cultural, and experiential differences (phenotypic being the most obvious), but he focuses instead on broad similarities of philo-exoticism and liberal guilt to link his experience as a Jew in Germany with “the situation of middle-class African-Americans in predominantly white, self-consciously politically correct circles.” But while finish-line resentment may resemble the pernicious notion that slavery’s effects are over—both speak to an aggressive desire to, impossibly, separate history from the present—the comparison doesn’t quite line up.
Mounk considers the white appropriation of hip-hop culture analogous to philo-Semitism and cites “the false tones of self-conscious admiration for African-American culture.” But hip-hop, originally created in black and brown communities, has altered mainstream popular American culture—like German Leitkultur, alsowhite, Christian and invested in exclusion—in a process very different from recent philo-Semitic curiosity or two millennia of Jewish-German mutual influence. And while the German-Jewish relation is a historic dichotomy, issues of race in America are more complex, since other groups of color inflect the black-white dichotomy. But any oversimplification about race on Mounk’s part takes place within a much broader context in which he is self-conscious about the limits of his knowledge.
Apart from this critique, there is the issue of the rose-colored glasses through which he views America, specifically New York City, his current home when he’s not in Boston or Italy, where his mother now lives. It reflects the gap between German and American understandings of multiculturalism. What Germany calls multiculturalism is a post–Word War II phenomenon for the most part, and it remains at the center of active political debates. The United States, by contrast, was built struggling with its multiplicity. It continues to do so—clumsily, violently, and under the cover of euphemisms. In the United States, “multiculturalism” and “diversity” have become buzzwords with which the establishment disingenuously champions the melting pot, a metaphor Mounk actually invokes. The terms are often meaningless propaganda; one finds “post-racial” not far behind. Perhaps more masterfully shrouded in conservative concepts of “respectability” or “family values,” our own national sense of Leitkultur—of who is and who is not deserving of civic membership—is alive and well.
This is not to say that the differences Mounk experiences as a Jew in Germany and in New York are insignificant. Thanks to his move, Mounk discovers freedom in identity. New York allows him to realize, unexpectedly, that being Jewish is not especially important to him. “New York has given me the same liberty it has afforded generations of immigrants: the freedom to be true to myself,” Mounk writes in the Times. “In an age of identity politics, we assume that this must mean the freedom to proclaim one’s identity. But, for me, it has just as much to do with the liberty to shed an identity to which I’d long been reduced.” His Jewish identity, built up from the outside in Germany, is allowed to recede from within in New York.
Mounk’s story is one of globalized identity-formation: of multinational allegiance and dispersal of home, where a sense of belonging can be found and allegiance chosen, not imposed. Mounk could not find this sense of belonging in Germany, but he allows that things have greatly changed there, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and others have found what he could not. “Smaller [German] cities are seeing their ‘new’ Jewish communities dwindling,” Axelrod writes. “But there is definitely a much livelier, more diverse and ‘in-your-face’ Jewish life in Germany’s major population centres today than in 1989.” Mounk would have to agree.
If this trend is to continue, and if German citizens who are not Christian or ethnically German are to stay, the country must take a hard look at what it means to be German. This will involve not just a superficial tolerance or conditional inclusion, but rather an uncomfortable grappling with and acceptance of multiple identities within a national culture ever in flux. Germans will have to acknowledge multiple allegiances on the part of any one individual. This necessitates not only changes in individual interactions, but in state policy. One such change is now underway, as public schools have begun to offer an official curriculum in Islam, in an attempt to better integrate the country’s large Muslim minority. Another much-needed education reform could eliminate the tracking of children as young as ten, some bound for university, others for clerical work, still others for manual and technical jobs. The tracking is less a measurement of potential than an assured disadvantage for children from less-educated, lower-income backgrounds, many of them not ethnically German.
“For real integration,” the Turkish-German scholar Zafer Şenocak writes, “one must cultivate, in encounters with others, a sense for multiplicity and contradiction. In the process one would have to analyze sources of knowledge beyond preconceived opinions and identities.” We would do well to heed these words on both sides of the ocean.
January 24, 2014
17 Min read time