Jewish in Germany

The JID Interview, Part I

Israelis in Germany. Say what? Few stories about European immigration have been as loaded, and complex as those about Jews moving from the Middle East to Germany. 

Jewish Film Festival adverts. Neukölln, September 2020.

Ranging from the typically tabloid treatments in the Israeli and German press, to more considered coverage about how it underlines Germany’s growing diversity, you can understand why.

The country that birthed the Holocaust was now playing host to immigrants from a country that Germany helped create through genocide.

It shouldn’t be any surprise. As the current German government campaign goes, Jews have had a presence in Germany for over 1700 years. Their ties to the country are profound.

But, as with most things Jewish in today’s Germany, being any kind of Jew is extremely difficult. Not just because of persistent racism, but due to a reluctance to normalise Jewish presence.

Few Jewish migrants feel that stronger than Israelis, because of the Shoah, the ethnocratic politics of their homeland, and its century-old conflict with its indigenous Palestinian population.

Wieland Hoban spoke to Israeli activists Gal Levy and Michael Sappir about their experiences in Germany, and why they founded JID (Jewish-Israeli Dissent and a German pun on Yid) a Leipzig-based network dedicated to critically examining the history and politics of Israel.

As academic as that might sound, it’s not. Few topics haunt German politics today more than Israel, and how it has evolved since its founding. 

The subtext is not just about German guilt, but also a way of framing Germany’s ongoing struggle with racism, and whether it can ever be a fully multicultural democracy.


Wieland Hoban: How long have you been in Germany,?

 Gal Levy: About six years. I left Israel in September 2014. I tried to escape the war that was going on (Operation Protective Edge), but I did experience it. I knew I would come to Leipzig eventually.

Wieland Hoban: Did you have any idea of German political trends at that time and the climate you might be moving into?

Gal Levy: Not at all. I’m part of a drumming group, Rhythm of Resistance, a network around the world, including Europe. 

I often played with the Berlin group, or the Budapest group, and I thought of us as left.  In Israel-Palestine, it’s clear that we’re left, and against the occupation. 

It was only when I moved to Leipzig and became more involved with the group here that I saw that a lot of people feared this topic. I had no idea. I’m still shocked.

Michael Sappir: I first moved to Leipzig in 2007, when I was 19. I come from a family that was always critical of the occupation, but not what I’d call left. 

I came with the perspective that things in Israel are screwed up, but I wasn’t very political beyond that. I just felt like I didn’t want to be stuck in that mess, so I escaped as soon as I could. 

But then around 2011, when social protest was happening everywhere, and very much in Israel (the Occupy movement), I was getting radicalised, and started thinking that things there could change for the better. So I decided I’d move back, which I did in 2012. 

I spent six and a half years in Israel, where I was very intensely politically active for about half the time, in Tel Aviv. 

The 2014 war was an extremely traumatic experience. I was demonstrating twice a week. This was the first time in Tel Aviv’s history that it became unsafe to protest against the war. It had always been the bubble, where this was okay. 

Wieland Hoban: Now the police were siding with the far right.

Michael Sappir: Exactly.

Gal Levy: Not just the police. 

Michael Sappir: The far-right was physically attacking us, and that had never happened before in such an organised way. There’d be occasional hecklers passing by, but that year, fascist gangs attacked us. I had friends who were wounded. 

That was the beginning of the end for me, but it took me quite a while to return. I only moved back in 2019. Until 2016, I was still trying to hang on and be active. For personal reasons, it took a few more years until I actually got out of there.

Wieland Hoban: Was it also a case of leaving Israel again because you were frustrated with the situation there?

Michael Sappir: Yes, but not only. The major factor, the thing that made me decide I wanted to leave again, was the feeling – which I’m not sure was very rational any more – that it’s a matter of a few more years before the government starts rounding up leftists and locking them away.

But it was also less explicitly political things like the stress of everyday life there, the extremely high cost of living and things like that, which were just making it very difficult for me personally to thrive there. 

I had such a good thing here in Leipzig, and it’s such a quiet, nice place compared to Tel Aviv or anywhere in Israel. I had a lot of people here that I cared about, and I thought rather than become an immigrant in a new city again I should come back here. 

I was generally aware of the political situation in Germany regarding Israel-Palestine, but it also escalated right around the time that I moved here – the BDS Bundestag resolution was two months after I moved here. So I wasn’t quite prepared for how far things have gone at this point.

Wieland Hoban: Leipzig is also in the state of Saxony, which, compared to other regions in Germany, has quite a high level of far-right activity. 

Michael Sappir: I wasn’t entirely aware of that situation when moving back here. In 2019, we also had local elections for the city and the state, and there was a fairly good chance of fascists taking power. I considered moving elsewhere in Germany.

Wieland Hoban: Have either of you had brushes with the local Nazis? 

Gal Levy: No, I haven’t. But many times, mostly old women have asked me about my hair. They were really fascinated and wanted to touch it. I’d never experienced anything like this. I’m not offended by it, I just find it so absurd. I’ve experienced this a lot, but not Nazis.

Wieland Hoban: Because they knew you were Jewish?

Gal Levy: They asked everyone, for example, “Are you from France?”, hoping for some European nationality, but when you say “Israel”, it’s even better. They’re scared. 

It’s really older people, between my parents’ and grandparents’ age, one or two generations older than us. I assume they never met (Jews). It was the GDR here. 

Wieland Hoban: It wasn’t what you were expecting when you came here.

Gal Levy: No, not at all!

Wieland Hoban: That you’d have VIP status, almost fantasy status.

Gal Levy: And you see immediately how they want to summarise everything they’re feeling, and what they know about Jews. But I didn’t know German so well. They wanted to say things like, “Wow, I was in Israel and so-and-so,” and then you start to speak with them and say, “No, it’s not so beautiful.” 

When you have the chance to speak with them, a lot of them are really careful. And I actually respect it. But some of them would be like, “Yes, but the Arabs…”, and then you have to get into a discussion. 

Three years ago, someone said something like, “I don’t know why, just because of just 12 years” – in Germany (1933-1945) – “everybody is so mad at us.” I had German friends with me, and I sensed there was something strange about what he said, but I assumed I’d misheard him. But I’ve never encountered real Nazis. 

Wieland Hoban: Something that can also happen when people find out someone is Jewish is that they want to justify their family history, like “Oh yes, my family sheltered Jews in their basement, they weren’t bad guys.”

Gal Levy: Yes, and I’ve read that Germans believe it was about 30% who helped Jews, but in fact, it’s a tiny fraction of that.

Wieland Hoban: So there’s this incredible need to justify that. Isn’t it amazing how all that is triggered just by meeting someone Jewish or Israeli?

Gal Levy: It’s like they waited their whole life for this opportunity. 

Wieland Hoban: When you first came to Germany, did you think of yourselves more as Israelis coming here, or also as Jews? 

Michael Sappir: For me, it’s changed a lot over time. When I first moved here, I had this idea of myself as a citizen of the world. I’m a triple citizen, so I can actually go to most places in the world with one of my passports. I didn’t feel very connected to Israel, because I’d always felt a little bit foreign there in some ways. 

In my first years in Leipzig, I went through a process of reinterpreting my experience and understanding that actually, my experience isn’t atypical for Israelis, and I started feeling much more like an Israeli. 

That was also part of what triggered my moving back to Israel. I grew up in a secular family, in Jerusalem, so the issue of religious coercion was very present in my formative years.

Wieland Hoban: Religious coercion?

Michael Sappir: Yes, it’s considered a really big issue, especially in Jerusalem, with an ultra-Orthodox political force getting its way in the city, and limiting things on Shabbat and so on. For those reasons, as well as personal ones, I was against being identified as a Jew for a while. 

As a teen, I considered myself a Hebrew, not a Jew, because I had nothing to do with the religion personally. At some point, I realised that it’s not up to me. I’m understood by the world as a Jew, like it or not, and have to deal with that. 

Since my political radicalisation, I’ve also realised that there’s something very positive in understanding myself as a Jew, as part of a certain history. 

Not only a history of religious belief but also – especially in the past year, I’ve been discovering the history of the Jewish left, which broke with religion but still kept its identity. That was inspiring. 

Wieland Hoban: You had this planned event about the history of the Bund, for example.

Michael Sappir: Exactly. Not just the Bund, the leftist Jewish movement in general. 

Wieland Hoban: That’s very unfamiliar to people here. Especially the idea of Antizionism before there was even a state of Israel. 

When you first came, in the sense of coming as a Jew to Germany, not just any country, were you thinking at all about what perceptions of you there would be?

Michael Sappir: Yes, and my grandmother was German. I never met her, but this is within living memory in our family. My great-grandparents were pretty well-off in Germany. They lost everything and were then all murdered. 

When I first came here, it wasn’t very common for Israelis to come to Germany. There was a lot of talk about it before I left, ranging from “How dare you” to “How do you have the courage.”  So yes, I was really aware of this.

My first visit to Germany was to a village in the south of Baden-Württemberg, by Lake Constance, and I immediately felt at home on some really deep level. I can’t quite explain it. 

The other day I was talking with another Jewish person of German descent, in North America. She said she had this experience of coming to Germany and suddenly feeling like this is home. 

Wieland Hoban: Evidently a lot of Israelis have been having this feeling in the last ten years or so, judging by the amount of immigration. 

Michael Sappir: What I hear from the typical Tel Aviv hipster moving to Berlin is more like, “It’s so cool and European and advanced.” 

But for me, there was this very basic feeling that I somehow belong here. I don’t quite understand where that comes from. 

I feel like it’s something cultural, that my father got from his mother and I got from him. 

Wieland Hoban: Gal, you came much more recently.

Gal Levy: Yes, and for me, I don’t have any citizenship except Israeli, and for me, this whole process of leaving Israel was a big, big thing. Not just the visa and all that, but just whether they’d accept me abroad. 

For my family, it’s not common. My mother was never abroad until she was 40 or something, and no one went to university. 

My family comes from Arab countries, from Iraq, Morocco and Egypt. We have a completely different relationship with Germany. But still, when I moved it was like, “What, you’re going to the Nazis!” 

Before I moved, I was working at a hostel in Jerusalem, and we had a lot of German tourists. Since then I’ve noticed that there is a connection. 

It’s not just tourists coming to Israel. There is something else. It really makes a lot of sense; these countries are bound together. Through terrible circumstances, but it’s there. 

I wouldn’t say I felt more at home here than anywhere else, and I’ve moved around a lot in my life. But there is a connection, obviously. 

Wieland Hoban: Was your sense of yourself more as an immigrant from Israel, a foreign country? Did you think about how you’d be perceived as a Jew in Germany? 

Gal Levy: Not at all, actually. Like Michael, I never saw myself as a Jew, but of course, when you move here, you understand what you are, or what your labels are. 

I wouldn’t define myself as a Jew or even an Israeli, but it’s my history. I know the prayers, all the songs, it’s my mother tongue. And my family are not religious, but still traditional. 

My parents work as musicians. The songs I really like give me the feeling of a home. Sometimes terrible songs, really patriotic ones. It’s just the way it is. 

Wieland Hoban: And one major shift from Israel was that you were going from being in the majority ethnonational group to being a tiny minority, whether as Israelis or Jews. 

There are maybe half as many Israeli Jews in Germany as German Jews, and the largest group of Jews here are former Soviet Jews. So the whole idea of Jewishness here is very much complicated by these different senses of identity and belonging. And being an immigrant. 

So, if a non-Jewish, white German automatically perceives a Jew as an immigrant, a foreigner, because of all these immigrant Jews, they might forget that there are still a few German Jews. 

Michael Sappir: Yes, there was a politician a year or two ago who accidentally said something about German Jews who were “well-integrated”, and they grew up here! 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.