The Rocky Road to Normalisation

Celebrating Jewish Germany, Part I

The year 2021 marks 1700 years of “Jewish life” in Germany. 

Jews can be Germans too. Berlin Wall mural, East Side Gallery.

Over the course of the year, we will see over a thousand cultural events and resources dealing with Jewish history and culture in all its facets. 

In a country so indelibly marked by its attempt to annihilate Jews in their entirety – in Europe first, but, presumably elsewhere in the event of winning the Second World War – an attempt that was two-thirds successful within Europe, this is naturally a gesture of immense importance. 

1700 years of Jewish life in Germany: what does that actually mean? 

Clearly, there was nothing that could be called “Germany” in the 4th century CE. But the area of the first recorded Jewish settlement in this country, the Rhine Valley region, would later become German state territory, with culturally significant cities such as Aachen, Mainz and Trier. 

It is also the region in which it is widely believed that Yiddish, the language that would unite millions of European Jews from Germany in the West to Russia in the East, originated in the 9th century CE. 

But it means more than that. It doesn’t take very much cynicism to read the phrase as meaning that “they” (the Jews) have been among “us” (the Germans) for 1700 years. Settled, but separate. 

Germany certainly came to define itself very emphatically as Christian, with all the trappings of imperial power, but the Frankish King Charlemagne was not crowned Holy Roman Emperor until 800 CE, when Germanic tribes such as the Saxons were still pagans. 

Their later conversion, or at least de-paganisation, was a prerequisite for ultimately becoming Germans, as the significance of religion at that time was comparable to that of race today. 

Ironically, voluntary conversion of German-speaking Jews to Christianity via baptism would become common in the 19th century, precisely when society was becoming ever more secular; this was not so much the embrace of a new religion as a casting off of the last trappings of more religious times, and of foreignness. 

Of course, this was still no guarantee of freedom from discrimination. The purely racial view of Jewishness upheld in the secular ideology of the Nazis meant once a Jew, always a Jew. 

One website launched for this Jewbilee is entitled Wir Juden – “We Jews”. 

The name seems to personalise Jews in a way that counters the separateness of the Jewish and the German, not by subsuming the former under the latter, but by making Jews more real: we are here and this is us. 

This seems a productive approach, as one of the central problems in Jewish-German relations and the associated discourse, is the abstract and unknown character of Jews for most Germans. 

So how does Wir Juden go about this? It presents itself as an exhibition about Jews and Jewishness throughout the ages, significantly focused on celebrities – both Jewish ones and non-Jewish ones who have made favourable statements about Jews, Judaism or Israel – but also on unsung heroes. 

There is an overwhelming emphasis on Jewish achievement: scientists, astronauts, pilots, athletes, artists and more. 

There is also a page devoted to Jewish fighters under the heading We Have Always Fought, moving from apocryphal Old Testament figures through history to soldiers and commanders from modern times, from the Roman empire to the Second World War. 

This is clearly a response to the association of Jews with weakness and defencelessness, a source of contempt in early Israeli society that sometimes led to a hostile welcome for new arrivals from (post -) Holocaust Europe. 

The page also emphasises that Jews have fought for many different countries – it even lists them – countering the historical perception of Jews as lacking patriotism and being more loyal to their own communities than to the national populations they inhabit. 

Another page is devoted entirely to boxers and body-builders, with numerous photos showing the bulging, oiled hyper-muscular bodies of Mr Universes and Mr Israels. 

There is also a gallery of Jewish boxers from the first decades of the 20th century, offering rather more in the way of historical insight than the pumped-up flesh sculptures above them. 

Again, there is a clear motive of dispelling the stereotype of the puny, bookish Jew, and the website certainly provides material to do so.

It does this also through contrast: on the page entitled People Who’ve Got It in For Us, the visitor may be surprised to find a gallery of high-ranking Nazis. 

Underneath an awkward-looking photograph of Heinrich Himmler engaged in sporting activity, we are told that he “cut a puny figure at the shot put”. 

Reinhard Heydrich “was teased at school for his squeaky voice and suffered from inferiority complexes”. Ernst Röhm was a gay misogynist who “laboured under his obesity”. Joseph Goebbels also laboured – under “his crippled foot and slight build”. 

Adolf Eichmann likewise suffered from a “weak constitution”, and in the case of Hermann Göring, as the caption next to a photograph in which he appears to be thrusting out his large belly tells us:  “no comment is needed about his physique”. 

Certainly, the crimes of these and other individuals are named. But truly, when dealing with mass murderers and psychopaths, is cheap body-shaming really the best look? 

Having taken in the proud portrayals of muscular Jewish athletes and warriors, the point is clear: these feeble, fat and crippled Nazis hated us because we’re better than them. 

Combating misconceptions is the expressed aim of Wir Juden, and there are several pages on the site with mission statements of various lengths. 

The welcome page has a few short sentences, including these: “There’s a lot to say about us Jews and even more to know; that’s true. Much has been said and written; that’s also true. But not everything.” 

If one opens the tab “What’s It About?” we find a longer text highlighting the ups and downs in 6000 years of Jewish history. In the face of all adversity, Jews “have never, not for one second during those millennia, forgotten our ethics, our centre and our origins”. 

The text highlights the aim to do away with misinformation, to assist “the long-overdue emancipation from spiteful propaganda, mindless prejudices, hearsay and rumours”. 

After informing themselves, visitors should decide “whether to watch from the sidelines or to act”. 

The name at the bottom of the page is that of Leo Sucharewicz, director of the organisation Demokratie und Information. If one visits the organisation’s website, one finds further promotion of Wir Juden as well as a link to a 1948 Exhibition. 

This exhibition has been shown physically in various locations, and can also be found at this link. The full title is 1948, The Exhibition: How the State of Israel Came to Be, and the curator is the same Leo Sucharewicz. 

The welcome message gives an idea of the exhibition’s thrust: “The state of Israel was founded in 1948. What were the reasons? Who were the actors? How was infertile land cultivated? And how were the murderous attacks of bitter enemies resisted? Time for answers.”

Indeed, the exhibition provides a wealth of answers in the form of maps, photographs extending from the time of Mandatory Palestine to the present day as well as a page of quotations. Many of these come from colonial officials who paint a picture of Palestine as a desolate, forsaken land populated by a handful of Arab peasants. 

These voices receive company from Mark Twain, whose similar comments after a brief trip to Palestine were published in The Innocents Abroad – where he also stated that “Greece is a bleak, unsmiling desert, without agriculture, manufactures, or commerce, apparently.” 

Such statements were long used to feed the myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land” and that Jews had “made the desert bloom”. This was famously propagated by the journalist Joan Peters in her 1984 book From Time Immemorial, which Norman Finkelstein mercilessly debunked eleven years later in Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

There are sufficient agricultural records, among other things, to refute such claims, whose ultimate aim is both to create an image of unproductive, backward Arabs and to deny that the founding of Israel involved any ethnic cleansing or aggression towards the indigenous Palestinians. 

This agenda is made even more explicit on the website by further quotations, stating that there was never such a thing as “Palestine”, from a few Arab functionaries – and also, remarkably enough, from the late Syrian dictator Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar. 

What strange bedfellows are brought together by pro-Israel propaganda. The final statements come from Palestinian citizens of Israel praising the state. 

Like Wir Juden, this exhibition features a wealth of visual material. This includes ancient sculptures, photographs from the Middle East relating to geopolitical and military issues around Israel’s founding and the first decades of the state, as well as some pictures from Gaza with captions suggesting that the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) finances terrorism and perpetuates fake refugee status. 

There are, as on the quotations page, also photographs of a few Palestinian Israelis as success stories and role models. But Sucharewicz saves the best till last. 

The very last photograph shows a double image: on the left, a young Palestinian boy lies on the ground surrounded by blood, and on the right, a young Palestinian boy – perhaps the same one, though it is difficult to be sure from the photographs – squats on the ground grinning cheekily among dead chickens and their spilt blood. 

Next to the picture, a description concludes: “A staged propaganda scenario, well set up, like thousands of others. Only this time, it’s been exposed.”

Those who have followed both the Palestinian struggle and the toxic discourse around it over the years will recognise this as the “Pallywood” trope. The idea is that the scenes of destruction wreaked by Israeli security forces that we see in the media are propaganda used to delegitimise the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). 

It is possible, of course, that the boy in Leo Sucharewicz’s final picture was indeed pretending. But this has no bearing whatsoever on the roughly 500 children who were bombed or shot to death during the 2014 offensive on Gaza, to name only one example.

It would seem reasonable for an exhibition on the founding of Israel to make some reference to the preceding mass expulsions of Palestinians, some 750,000 of them, and perhaps even the massacres in such villages and towns as Deir Yassin, Tantura, Lydda or Ramle. 

There is a single photograph in the 1948 Exhibition showing Palestinians walking through the countryside, carrying their possessions and young children. The caption beside it states that despite Israel’s assurances of equality and peace, many Palestinians sadly chose to leave. 

The expulsion, massacres and displacement are collectively known as the Nakba (catastrophe). Like Holocaust denial, Nakba denial is not politically neutral; it aims to withdraw victim status and dismiss accusations of horrific crimes, presenting the people in question as liars who deserve no sympathy. 

In addition to denying the Nakba, this exhibition denies the very existence and history of Palestine and the reality of ongoing violence against Palestinians. 

In short, it refuses Palestinians any kind of humanity – except for those who serve proudly in the army that brutalises them or praises the state that dispossessed them. 

The exhibition’s “About” section, with photographs and statements praising the exhibition’s educational value from a variety of officials and politicians, contains familiar faces for the initiated. 

The all-star cast includes:

  • Felix Klein, the “Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism” whose department’s insignia graces the top of the page; 
  • Samuel Salzborn, his counterpart at the Berlin State level, a so-called “Antisemitism expert” who has denied the Nakba in print; 
  • Volker Beck, a former Green Party MP who retired after a crystal meth scandal and hallucinates Nazi runes in boycott posters; 
  • Arye Shalicar, a former Berlin street thug who moved to Israel, joined the army and then became an intelligence officer.

And what of Sucharewicz himself? In 2020 he wrote a short Facebook post about what he calls “political stalking” and levelled this charge at Aleida Assmann, a respected German scholar of English literature and cultural anthropology, for her criticisms of aggressive pro-Israel ideology in Germany. 

In the post, Sucharewicz accuses Assmann of “firing toxic information at Israel at every opportunity” and refers to a special dossier (presumably of his own authorship), “The Aleida Assmann Case”, offering it to any interested parties free of charge. 

The irony of doing this while accusing her of “stalking” evidently eluded Leo Sucharewicz. 

The story is of particular significance for his commemorative activities, as Sucharewicz is using it as a pretext to fire toxic information at the Palestinians, instead.

In doing so, he demonstrates one of the main problems associated with support for Israel in Germany, which frames the country’s founding purely as a rectification of the Holocaust and derides the Palestinians for getting in the way.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.