Jewish life in modern Germany
By TOBY LICHTIG
In the aftermath of the Second World War, there were some 250,000 Jews living in Germany, the vast majority "displaced persons", housed in temporary camps. After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, most emigrated, and the population quickly dwindled to one tenth of that amount.
But the small German Jewish community very gradually grew, bolstered in the 1950s and '60s by a trickle of returnees and, following the collapse of European Communism, an influx from the former Soviet Union. Today, there are over 110,000 Jewish Germans, an estimate that more than doubles if non-practising immigrants of Jewish origin – or with only Jewish fathers – is taken into account. There is also a significant number of Israelis living in the country – 18,000 in Berlin alone, according to a recent report. For many years now, Germany has had the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe.
The state of contemporary German Jewry was the subject that kicked off Jewish Book Week on Saturday night, in the form of a stimulating, if sometimes circumlocutory, conversation between Olga Grjasnowa, a German writer born in Azerbaijan, and Dr Rafael Seligmann, a history teacher, author and founding editor of the Anglophone German newspaper Jewish Voice from Germany. Chairing the debate, entitled "Dilemmas of Difference", was the filmmaker and broadcaster Tina Mendelsohn.
Seligmann, whose German parents moved to Israel after the war and returned to Germany in the 1950s when he was a boy, was pragmatic about the reasons for the ex-Soviet influx, concluding that, "for 90 per cent of them, it's to do with economics", rather than ethnicity or spirituality – a statement that wasn't in any way designed to downplay the importance of this community to Jewish cultural life. Seligmann took an equally unflustered approach to the eternal question of Jewish identity: "If he or she says 'I'm a Jew', they’re a Jew!"
A wry and playful debater, who celebrated the fact that Germany now boasts a thriving society of "Jewish writers and Jewish doctors and Jewish criminals", Seligmann argued that only in recent years have German Jews begun to feel "German" once again. He also stuck up for the new immigrants who, he claimed, continue to be marginalized within Germany, as evidenced by their woeful underrepresentation on the German Jewish Central Council (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland).
Less convincing was Seligmann's contention that "only in Israel" do Soviet Jews escape stigmatization as "not proper Jews" – a prejudice born from the decades of suppression of Jewish cultural life and religious practice under Soviet rule, and promulgated in Israel as much as anywhere else. Even if times are now changing, the Israeli assimilation story has been a fraught one.
Grjasnowa vigorously disagreed with Seligmann on this point, drawing on her experience of living in Israel, during which time she frequently felt pressured by the authorities to "prove" her Jewish legitimacy. As so often in contemporary debates about Jewish identity, Israel threatened to monopolize the conversation, and, on at least one occasion, Mendelsohn was forced to plead: "But let's talk about Germany!"
Anti-Semitism then became the focus of debate, with Seligmann drawing upon two recent furores to underline the prejudice that, both panellists felt, still bubbles below the surface in Germany. (Both were quick to underline their belief that this is no more or less endemic to their country than any other European state.)
The first controversy was Günter Grass's 2012 poem "What Must Be Said", which drew parallels between Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel's nuclear open secret – although neither commentator had much to say about the subject, nor about the endlessly fraught question of where opposition to Zionism (in its Likud-dominated, expansionist sense) ends and anti-Semitism begins.
The second controversy was the recent (and swiftly overturned) decision by a court in Cologne to ban circumcision, having equated it with criminal bodily harm. Seligmann rightly drew attention to the platform this debate provided for an outpouring of ill-informed xenophobia, a "nasty discussion about foreigners and foreign practices" (the whole thing was, he said, "an alibi for old prejudice"). What no-one on the panel mentioned was that this court decision was made in the light of a tragically botched circumcision on a young Muslim boy. There is a healthy debate to be had about the rights and wrongs of circumcision, and it doesn't need to bring in either anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.
Sights then turned on the Holocaust. Mendelsohn claimed that, "for Germans, the Shoah was a long time ago, for Jews it is not"; and Seligmann pointed out the difficulties faced by the non-Jewish German post-Holocaust generation, arguing, provocatively, that "it is harder to be the child of Cain than the child of Abel".
Where the evening, I thought, came up short was in its appraisal of the positive stories about contemporary Jewish German life: the very fact that there is now a newspaper called Jewish Voice from Germany. There was brief mention of a "German-Jewish Renaissance", but little indication of what this might comprise, and a dragging sense (from this small sample at least) that Germany's horrific past remains inescapable.
My own late grandparents, who were Berlin refugees, would have been interested to witness this debate, their conflicting personal outlooks highlighting the ambivalent attitudes harboured towards Germany by Jewish refugees of their generation. Following his escape in 1938, my grandfather expressed no desire to return to Germany and affected an American accent in a (futile) attempt to hide his Berlin drawl. My grandmother, who lived to see the new millennium, felt German to the core, and, in the years after her husband's death, made regular visits to her homeland with several of her German emigrant friends.
There is a fine line between commemorating, remembering, never forgetting and being hamstrung by the weight of history. A quick browse of Jewish Voice from Germany gives an indication of where we may be today. The newspaper, which is wide-ranging and well-written, features stories on an array of contemporary issues – the "flourishing" Jewish community, the circumcision debate, current anti-Semitism, Israeli science, Turkish politics, Azerbaijani gas reserves, Berlin fashion – and a slew of articles beginning with sentences such as, "Some eighty years ago"; "Before 1933"; "The persecution and annihilation of German Jewry"; and, simply, "Auschwitz.".
It may be argued that the real sign of healing comes when the impulse to look forwards outweighs the need to look back. We appear to be at least part of the way there. Perhaps in another generation the balance will be tipped.