Trudging through thick mud, a 14-year-old boy entered Berlin via the Rosenthaler Gate. He had walked, most probably barefoot, from his hometown of Dessau some hundred miles away. Frail, malnourished and hunchbacked, he would in time become one of Jewish history’s most famous characters. The year was 1743. Berlin was under the firm control of King Frederick II ‘The Great’, a self-declared “supporter” of the Enlightenment who became the first European ruler to formally declare – more than two decades before the American Declaration did similar:
All religions must be tolerated. Every man may seek spiritual salvation in his own manner.
Perhaps young Moses Mendelssohn trudged through the Rosenthaler hoping to encounter that tolerance in his quest for knowledge. Or perhaps he was struck by the confusing irony that, as a Jew, that gate was his only legal point of entry into the ‘free’ city. The gatekeeper’s log that day simply read: “Today there passed six oxen, seven swine…and a Jew.”
The subsequent decades saw unprecedented Jewish assimilation into the upper circles of Prussian society; an era that produced household names such as Rothschild and Oppenheim. In time, Napoleon Bonaparte himself would ride triumphantly through the city, bringing in his wake the French Revolution and its glorious promise of ‘Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite’. Jews crowded the streets to catch a glimpse of their saviour.
The glimpse was short-lived. At the Congress of Vienna following Napoleon’s surrender in 1815, dignitaries met to redraw the future. Jewish representatives, formally invited to attend, had just one request: Let not the gradually increasing tolerance and equality of the preceding decades be an illusion. Let not European nations – enlightened, progressive and finally at peace – fail to grant us the universal liberty that had still failed to clearly form on the horizon.
German delegates responded with derision. Peace, freedom, opportunity: these were commodities to be enjoyed by the Jew in theory rather than practice. After all, his place was through the Rosenthaler with the oxen and swine. This derision rapidly led to the ‘Hep-Hep!’ Riots, which swept through a country yearning for revised legislation free of meddling French influence, to rewind the Jewish story back to the squalor and humiliation of the Middle Ages.
Eye-witness accounts and police reports surrounding ‘Hep-Hep!’ made clear that the rioters were comprised of the entire spectrum of German society; from illiterate peasants to cultured professionals. Jew-hatred united people who otherwise would not have been seen dead in each other’s company.
But the uprising of 1819 carried another, far more sinister characteristic: The government’s official position was that the riots were illegal. After all, Jews were card-carrying citizens too, right? Wrong. Local authorities showed little to no interest in dispersing the mobs unless their violence turned fatal. Jews could be insulted, their homes and businesses trashed and their families beaten, but no further. You see, deaths make headlines; and even Germany in 1819 was concerned about its public image in the newspapers of the civilized world. The Jew must remain ‘equal’ – in theory, but never in practice.
This abysmally, impossibly complex contradiction – granting the Jews life but hating them for living – was captured perfectly by socialite Rachel Varnhagen. She was very much the ‘epitome’ of the Jewish Enlightenment story: A convert to Christianity, friends with Mendelssohn’s daughters and one of Berlin’s most sought-after women. Varnhagen’s Jewish soul still tugged at her heartstrings when she cried:
“What should this mass of people do, driven out of their homes? They want to keep them, only to despise and torture them further!
The contradiction persisted unresolved for decades, until a kangaroo court brought it to the attention of the entire world. Alfred Dreyfus, like Mendelssohn, Oppenheim and Rothschild, was a ‘success story’; living proof of the indisputable ‘fact’ that the Jew was fully welcome in society: Dreyfus was wealthy, well-educated, and the only Jewish officer in the French Army’s General Staff.
But then, the facade fell. French counter-intelligence became aware of a spy in the General Staff headquarters who was passing crucial information to his German handlers. The investigation was a farcical fait accompli: Who else but the Jew? Dreyfus was arrested on false charges of treason in October 1894. Within 3 months he was convicted by court martial, stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, all to the backdrop of a frenzied throng chanting ‘Death to the Jews!’.
The wheels were turning. In January 1898, author and journalist Emile Zola published his famous letter ‘J’Accuse!’ on the front page of L’Aurore. It caused an uproar. Dreyfus was summoned back and offered an official pardon, but not the full exoneration that would have restored his rank and admitted quite openly ‘we are sorry’. He, like Varnhagen years earlier, decried the same contradiction: The Jew was free to live, but hated for living:
“The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.
Elsewhere in the crowd that day was another journalist who, like Zola, was profoundly affected by the events unfolding in the center of civil, enlightened Paris. That man was Theodor Herzl, and those events were the labour pains accompanying the birth of political Zionism – a desperate attempt to resolve that age-old contradiction. Herzl lampooned it superbly when he wrote:
“We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and [yet] our appearance there gives rise to persecution!
But to my mind, no-one captured its essence more elementally than Max Nordau, the brain behind the First World Zionist Congress in 1897. His address is well worth reading in its entirety. For now, here is its essence:
“In order to produce its full effect, emancipation should first have been completed in sentiment before it was declared in law. But this was not the case…The emancipation of the Jews was not the consequence of the conviction that a grave injury had been done to a race…and that it was time to atone for the injustice of a thousand years; it was solely the result of the geometrical mode of thought…In this manner, the emancipation of the Jews was pronounced, not through fraternal feeling for the Jews, but because logic demanded it…The men of 1792 emancipated us only for the sake of principle.
Equal in theory, but not in practice. In word, but not in deed. Almost precisely two centuries after Moses Mendelssohn first encountered that contradiction on his way into Berlin, Hannah Arendt caught one of the last trains out before the borders closed noose-like around Europe’s emancipated Jews. In exile, she completed her biography of Rachel Varnhagen. And thus, the Jewish story came full-circle, driven in a downward spiral relentlessly and inevitably toward a Kristallnacht whose destruction and screams echoed those of ‘Hep-Hep!’ over a century prior.
That story, propelled onward by this Great Contradiction, reached its heartbreaking conclusion when the peoples of Europe stood by in silence as millions of its free and equal Jewish citizens trudged in thick mud, frail and malnourished, through the gates of the gas chambers.
The story of how little Jewish lives mattered for so much of history is one that needs to be heard. It is the story of how racism insidiously persists, hidden beneath the clouds of contradiction in an ostensibly open and free society. Jewish history matters.
It is a cautionary tale of how a society can be legally, politically and philosophically ‘against racism’. But that amounts to almost nothing unless at grassroots level, the population sings from the same hymn sheet. Unless, as Nordau so brilliantly put it, public sentiment matches private principle.
A friend once asked me: What is the difference between tolerance and acceptance?
I gave a simple analogy in response:
Imagine you have a sore throat. You try to rest up, drink lemon tea, and wait patiently until it goes away. You tolerate the sore throat because, well, it can’t be helped. But at the same time, you’re pretty happy when it goes away and certainly wouldn’t wish it stuck around longer than necessary.
Acceptance is a totally different level of thinking. It means appreciating something. It means being reluctant to see that thing disappear. It means regret if it does.
Tolerance is what we show sore throats. Not people.
People who we tolerate we welcome into our lives through the Rosenthaler with the oxen and swine. And we are just as glad to see the back of them. People who we accept we welcome into our homes, through the front door. And we are sad to see them go.
Acceptance requires us to ask hard-hitting, brutally self-honest questions. Do I value that person? Do I celebrate the fact that we are different, and seek to learn from them at every opportunity? Do I desire for them to be fully-integrated members of ‘my’ society, because I cannot imagine it being better for their absence?
Acceptance manifests itself in many forms. But it is not, as Mendelssohn, Varnhagen, Dreyfus, Nordau and Arendt understood, to be found in laws and policy. Acceptance cannot be legislated. It can be found in the heart of the ‘Average Joe’ on the street; in a solidarity that exposes leaders as frauds and elevates ordinary people into heroes. It can be found in the courage to take a stand and turn theory into practice, word into deed, principle into sentiment.
It can be found in ordinary stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Like Louis I, Grand Duke of Baden, who barely months into his reign risked everything by moving in with a Jewish family in Karlsruhe, stopping the ‘Hep-Hep!’ rioters in their tracks. Like Caroline Brock, a run-of-the-mill American who simply took the time to ask her black repairman about his experiences in our ‘accepting’ society. His story has to date been shared online by close to 160,000 people.
I am a 45 year old white woman living in the south, and today was the first time I spoke frankly about racism with a…
The story of Black Lives Matter is one that should be all too familiar to us as Jews. For centuries, we were Europe’s sore throat. Tolerated, but never accepted. Granted life, but despised for living. A contradiction between sentiment and principle eventually cleansed from the map to the thunderous sound of civilized silence.
It took a Holocaust to teach the enlightened world the difference between reluctant tolerance and loving acceptance. And there is a painfully long road still to walk out of Auschwitz to reach the dream of the Promised Land.
It is our duty and indeed our heritage as Jews to walk that road hand in hand with those who deserve to hear unequivocally: Your Lives Matter.