Donna Swarthout

Towards a more inclusive politics for Germany’s Jews

East Side Gallery, Berlin (Donna Swarthout)
East Side Gallery, Berlin (Donna Swarthout)

I’m about to renew my German Reisepass after reclaiming my German citizenship and moving to Berlin eleven years ago. My Jewish parents escaped Germany in the 1930s and could never have imagined that the country they fled would one day become my home. During a recent interview for a radio documentary, I was asked what role Jewish people who have returned to Germany have in public discourse today.

Being Jewish in Germany is complicated. There is a feeling of needing to be a representative of the Jewish people that one doesn’t have in the U.S. Like members of an exotic or endangered species, we attract a great deal of interest from people in the mainstream of society. I’m happy to share my family history and experiences with others. But I’m just one person with my own beliefs and perspectives. I’m not religious, I don’t have a particularly strong connection to Israel, and I’m okay with my kids marrying a non-Jew. I probably don’t fit the stereotype of a Jewish person.

But there’s the rub. The Jews of Germany come from different denominations, cultures, traditions, and political orientations. Some are descendants of Germany’s pre-WWII Jewish population, but most have emigrated from the former Soviet Union, Israel, or elsewhere. Germany’s Jewish population, like the rest of Europe’s, is not a cohesive, homogenous community. This diversity is an asset for building more inclusive European democracies.

As the Italian-Jewish scholar Diana Pinto noted in her recent interview with the magazine K, there is no coherent, articulated ‘European Judaism.’ Instead, there are “multiple voices and groups from within European Jewish communities who by their sheer existence and vitality not only offer a lesson in resilience, but more importantly play a major symbolic and, in fact, a very real role in the great civilizational debates before us.”

Citizenship confers an opportunity, also an obligation, to join and influence these civil debates. The difficulty is to break through the standard narrative that calls attention to our fears and the real and perceived threats we face. Jewish leaders regularly remind us to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, ensure that genocide is “never again” committed, and to continue the fight against antisemitism. But we can contribute more than these familiar refrains to the public discourse.

Pinto notes that “in France most community institutional representatives remain solidly on the defensive and busy fighting ‘against’ (mainly antisemitism) rather than ‘for’ an inclusive society.” The situation is similar in Germany. Hate crimes against Jews continue and, not surprisingly, were on the upswing as a result of the recent violence in the Middle East. During the conflict, the Central Council of Jews in Germany called for an increase in the protection of Jewish institutions and “solidarity with Israel and the Jewish community from the citizens of Germany.”

We must defend ourselves when violent and hateful acts occur, but there are times when Jewish leaders and the media distort or misrepresent the dangers we face. This can be seen in our obsession with measuring levels of antisemitism. The results of the surveys usually appear to confirm our worst fears. Headlines regularly declare that 25 percent of Europeans are antisemitic or that one in four Germans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, followed by little analysis of what the data actually means.

Given the fierce debates about how to define antisemitism, survey results seem unlikely to provide scientific certainty about levels of animosity or hatred towards Jews. In a 2016 article, Does Germany Need “Antisemitism”?, Jacob Ari Labendz, a Jewish Studies scholar at Youngstown State University, asserted that the term antisemitism “has the ability to apply to an almost unbelievably wide range of beliefs, statements, and actions across the contemporary globe and to be associated with an equally wide range of potential antisemites.”

When the Anti-Defamation League asks respondents if they agree that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [the countries they live in]” or if they believe that “Jews think they are better than other people,” how should we interpret an affirmative response? What is the thought process for someone reading an oft-repeated stereotype about Jews? Labendz argues that survey responses may be more likely to reflect ambivalence than hatred. Responses can also reflect ignorance, misunderstandings, or misconceptions that do not in all cases point to Judenhass, a hatred of Jews.

Surveys are followed by official declarations that we must do more to address rising threats to the Jewish community. Time passes, and the cycle of conducting surveys and calling for change and solidarity repeats itself. These calls for action are often silent about Muslims, Roma and other groups that are targets of bigotry and xenophobia.

Preserving Jewish life has more meaning in a society where ‘otherness’ in its many forms is supported, accepted, and woven into the cultural fabric. The unique and horrific nature of the European Jewish experience does not necessitate a politics solely based on our group identity. Pinto, Labendz and others have advocated for a more intersectional approach (Labendz), one that is based on “a sense of shared-belonging beyond one’s own group of origin, without which democracies can neither exist nor thrive” (Pinto).

The Jewish population in Europe is well-positioned to help strengthen society so that “others” can feel a sense of belonging. Drawing on our ability to emerge and rebuild from the trauma of the Holocaust, especially as citizens of Europe, we can help further a politics of pluralism. This is already being done through initiatives such as Schalom Aleikum, a project of the Central Council of Jews in Germany to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue. But we can do more.

The Holocaust is receding further into the past. Whether we label antisemitism “new,” “old” or something else, it is just one of the contemporary dangers from extremists.

After ten years as a German citizen, I see the fate of Germany’s Jews tied to the fate of the country’s other ethnic and religious minorities. I see the fight against antisemitism tied to the fight against other forms of bigotry. Germany’s Jews can help strengthen the pluralistic society that has grown out of the tragic mistakes of the past century.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout has been writing about Jewish life in Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust since moving from the U.S. to Berlin in 2010. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).
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