“Your papers, please,” she said rather stiffly. Judging from her pronunciation, I could tell she didn’t speak English very well. I placed my passport on the counter. “Ein Jude!” she exclaimed, as she inspected the Menorah-inscribed cover.
“I’m an Israeli citizen,” I politely replied in English. Already uncomfortable with having been identified as a Jew, I felt it important to assert my national identity. Turning to her colleague, she said it again: “Ein Jude.” I broke out in a sweat. I didn’t know what to say.
“Sprechen sie Deutsch?” (Do you speak German?) her colleague asked me. “Nein,” I replied. “Je peux parler Francais, or l’Espagnol, si vous preferez.” (“No,” I told her. “I can speak French or Spanish, if you prefer.”) She shook her head. She spoke neither.
Luckily, I’d completed the paperwork I’d come to file in advance, having had it translated into German by my wife’s employer. I handed it to the clerk, hoping that it would formalize the exchange. If it had been completed properly, there would be little else to talk about. Scanning the documents, the woman at the counter asked me how long I planned to stay. “Funf jahre,” (Five years) I said, after taking a moment to find the right words. The women behind the counter looked surprised. She looked back at her colleague.
Exiting the office door, I felt a little uneasy. All I’d come to do was register my American dogs. But I got my first lesson in German anxieties about foreigners instead. I’d learned that I was a Jew and, further, that being one meant that I would eventually have to leave the country. Live in Germany permanently? No chance.
“You must forgive them,” a Protestant theologian told us over Vietnamese food in Kreuzberg a few weeks later. “They were probably Ossis [Easterners). They grew up in an intensely monocultural society, that had not processed the war the way we did in the West.”
Given how much has been made of the reactionary politics of the East over the past twenty years, whether far right or far left, it was no surprise to hear this. Those who resided in the late German Democratic Republic had lived under authoritarian rule since 1933. The Nazis exterminated us. The Communists didn’t trust us. Why wouldn’t the people who grew up there be suspicious or even hostile towards us?
Still, the encounter came as a shock to me. I had arrived in Germany with an open mind, but with inadequate preparation for dealing with close-mindedness. And I certainly wasn’t expecting to have to parse the differences between the two Deutschlands that were once again one. How should I have known that I would be interacting with easterners when registering for dog licenses? What would have led me to conclude that their behavior meant they were Ossis, rather than generic Germans?
I had thought that with nearly three degrees worth of background in German philosophy” I wrote a bachelor’s thesis on Gershom Scholem, a master’s thesis on Theodor Adorno, and most of a dissertation centered on Jurgen Habermas. I’d be prepared. But, like many humanities-trained intellectuals, I wasn’t. I never learned German. My interest in German philosophy was guided principally by its utility to my political interests, not its original cultural context. In this regard, I was a typical philosophy student.
Whatever I knew about Germany beyond philosophical debates over culture was gleaned from the arts. Ever since high school, I’d been a big fan of the unique art noise band Einstrzende Neubauten. Towards the end of college, I began reading Christa Wolf. In graduate school, I fell in love with the films of Fassbinder. In other words, great names to cite at parties. Academic parties, that is. But it was not the stuff of graduate exams in German history. And my area of specialization, Frankfurt School critical theory, didn’t help much either. Its leading lights were more bothered by America than Europe; they taught me more about capitalism than Germany.
Maybe I shouldn’t denigrate my lack of savvy in this way. A friend who spent many years working for the BBC once told me that of course the World Service is better than domestic BBC programming. Why? Because its job is to represent the best version of the country. The German culture I’d been raised to consume performed the same kind of function. I could relate to it precisely because it communicated stereotypically left-wing, culturally sophisticated values. The kind that define what it meant to be post-war or post-Nazi.
If you wanted to rehabilitate Germany after Hitler, there was no better way to do it than to sell it to youth courtesy of such cutting-edge culture. It wasn’t just a con job – what Israelis call Hasbara, or pro-Israeli propaganda – in German drag. Not at all. A better way to put it would be that the Germany that foreigners like me came to appreciate in the 1980s was a real one. But it was a politically liberal, socially adventurous and highly educated Germany, the kind that would be in the minority in any country, but, which, in certain instances, best represents it to the outside world.
Ironically, though, it was not this Germany that I finally came to know personally, but one dominated by minorities. Not just any minorities, either, but mostly people with origins in the Middle East. The translator I hired to help us deal with our visas is Jewish. The attorney who represented us in the purchase of our apartment also turned out to be Jewish. One real estate agent was Turkish and the one before that Israeli. My wife and I are the only non-Muslims in our apartment building. I could go on.
We did not choose to work with these people on the basis of their ethnicities. They were simply the persons we came into contact with as a consequence of our requiring their services. It was only ever by accident that we would learn of their backgrounds. So, for example, in filing papers, once again, with a local government office in Kreuzberg, I found our translator puzzling over the copy of the Ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) we had to supply. “I never got one of these,” the blonde-haired woman told me.
The Germany we live in now is every bit the multiethnic, liberal bubble of art and politics persons like me were raised to desire, whether abroad or at home. The export market version of Germany has definitely not caught up with it yet. It may never. Yet, this is also why unsettling incidents that speak to a very different conception of Germay, such as what happened when I went to register my dogs, are so significant. For an equal number of Germans, if not more, there is a fervent hope that the version of the country represented by my translator, by my attorney, and by me, for that matter, will one day pass away.
Preparing to return to Berlin after working in England and Italy for eight months, I tried to catch up by reading newspapers and magazines about Germany. The experience did little to alter my expectations. Immigration remains at the top of the list of the country’s concerns. For example, no less than four stories in the English-language The Local during the third week in June were about racism.
One story discussed the Muslim community’s fears about new government efforts to combat Islamic extremism. Another covered the Greek immigrant community’s concerns over anti-Greek prejudice, in light of Germany having to rescue Greece from insolvency. A third story looked at the case of a university fraternity that was almost kicked out of its national association for admitting an ethnically Chinese German. And a fourth examined the substandard public housing pushed on Berlin’s Roma (Gypsies).
Capping it all off was a feature in Der Spiegel that highlighted anti-Semitism in Germany’s Die Linke. Alleging that the left-wing party is indulging racism in its stance on Israel – from promoting symbols reconciling a Swastika and a Star of David, to advocating boycotts of Israeli products, supporting 2010’s Gaza flotilla and creating Mideast maps without the Jewish state – the piece takes no prisoners.
Is it all true? Considering Der Spiegel’s politics, the situation probably isn’t quite as bad as that. Some of the incidents that the periodical cites as evidence of anti-Semitism are not racist. Is Judeophobia still a problem? Most likely. The kinds of debates taking place within Die Linke are common to many leftwing parties, and there are often racist overtones to them. In a German context, obviously, such things have greater resonance.
Throughout the article, though references are made to western Germans, there is a particular emphasis on the East German roots of Die Linke’s racism problem. In this, the article is in keeping with more common arguments like that of the Protestant theologian I had dinner with. From this perspective, the prejudice being disclosed is surely a German problem, but one that is, at its worst, reflective of the eastern political roots of this left-wing party. The apple never falls far from the tree.
Like much German talk of anti-Semitism, the problem with this article in Der Spiegel was its exclusive focus on the phenomenon. This is not to imply that the rise of hostility towards Israel or Jews more generally should be ignored. But its complexities would be much easier to grasp if they were considered in relation to other prejudices on the upswing, particularly those directed at people from the Middle East and its European equivalents such as Greece. One would think that with so many stories about racial conflict in one week, Spiegel’s editors would get it. Jews are being targeted. But they are not the only targets.
The article’s subtitle, “A Map Without Israel,” is especially revealing. While it is meant to focus on the left-wing party’s problem, the phrase also reads like an unconscious critique of the magazine’s middle-of-the-road readership. Like the government clerk who insisted on identifying me as a Jew rather than as an Israeli, I worry that, at least to many Germans, Jews will never have a real national identity. We will always be a people who are defined by our religious affiliation.
I realize that the Holocaust has something to do with that. But the zeal with which anti-Semitism is pointed out is where the biggest danger lies. Because if Germans are unable to recognize that they are already living in a multiethnic society, in which people of diverse origins have no intention of leaving to go “home,” they will continue to single out foreigners. In the end, it may not even matter that much whether they do so to persecute or protect.
Photograph courtesy of the author