1700 Years of German Jewish Culture

The Rocky Road to Normalisation, Part II

While it’s unsurprising to see Felix Klein – who tends to accuse people of Antisemitism, including Jews – among endorsers of the 1948 Exhibition, it’s less predictable to find him interviewed in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a magazine covering contemporary art music, founded by Robert Schumann.

Hannah Arendt travel advert. Berlin, March 2020.

The first issue of 2021 features a special focus on Israel and its music scene. As one might expect, there are profiles of contemporary Israeli composers and performers as well as some history. 

This being Germany, however, it was apparently deemed unacceptable to talk about Israel without bringing up Antisemitism – and who better to discuss this with than Felix Klein? 

The title, Boycott Is the Wrong Way, locates the discussion clearly on his terrain. Klein was, after all, the driving force behind the anti-boycott parliamentary resolution that was deemed an impermissible curtailing of free speech last December. 

The second page of the article is adorned with a photo of pro-boycott protesters in front of the Bundestag with a caption that refers to the resolution against “the Antisemitic BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)”.

Certainly, there are numerous people who call BDS Antisemitic, not least Felix Klein, and there is no reason to deny that this goes on. It is quite another matter, however, to erase the entire debate by simply referring to “the Antisemitic BDS campaign”. 

This is not impartial journalism; it borders on defamation. 

Like other so-called Antisemitism experts in Germany who, despite claiming that Jews should not be held responsible for what Israel does, ensure that mentioning the one will usually lead seconds later to mentioning the other, Klein’s argumentation is full of glaring holes. 

When his interlocutor, magazine editor Till Knipper, asks him why there is such a disproportionate focus on Israel among outraged online commenters, and not on the world’s many other injustices and rogue states, Klein responds “That’s a question I keep asking myself too.” 

They don’t seem to consider it relevant that states such as Syria, Iran or Russia, unlike Israel, are under international sanctions. 

Klein speaks of double standards and even names Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara as something that would surely merit equal outrage (unbeknownst to him, there are indeed Palestine activists who also speak out on this matter). 

What he fails to mention, however, is that products from the Western Sahara are banned from being sold in the EU. This is also the case for the northern part of Cyprus, which he names in the same breath. 

Klein might also have mentioned Crimea, since Russia was placed under sanctions for annexing the peninsula in 2014, while Israel has never been sanctioned for its decades-long settlement activity. Crimean products are likewise illegal in the EU. 

Israel, meanwhile, sells products from its settlements to the EU and reacted with howls of outrage when EU authorities decided that these products should at least be labelled accurately, not “Made in Israel”. 

The double standards in Israel’s favour are too many to list, but 4 billion dollars of annual US aid and Angela Merkel’s declaration that Israel’s security is Germany’s Staatsraisonits “reason of state”, one of its central principles – are perhaps worthy of mention. 

The answer to the question occupying Knipper and Klein is in plain sight since many people in the world – including organisations such as Human Rights Watch, which recently found Israel guilty of apartheid and persecution, which are classified as crimes against humanity – believe that this special treatment must come to an end.

Another moment of irony in the interview arises when Klein names the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which Barenboim founded together with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and consists of young Jewish Israeli and Palestinian musicians, as a model of harmony. 

What he leaves unmentioned – perhaps he is genuinely unaware – is that Barenboim has expressed support for BDS, accused Israel of apartheid and, after the nation-state law was passed in 2018, declared that he was “ashamed to be an Israeli”.

There is no official indication that the magazine issue was meant to coincide with the 1700-year anniversary celebrations, but the very inclusion of the Klein interview demonstrates the same Philosemitically-blinded circle of associations that leads to propaganda websites such as Wir Juden. 

The Germans murdered the Jews and Israel is the Jewish state (a concept whose humanitarian and legal legitimacy they never question), so it is a solemn German duty to praise Israel even to the point of Nakba denial. And this is meant to be good for Jews? 

This year features an enormous number of events and resources relating to the anniversary, ranging from weighty high culture to light entertainment. 

One example of the latter is a new talk show called Freitagnacht Jews (Friday Night Jews). 

At the time of this article’s writing, there have been three episodes of 25-30 minutes, each with either one or two guests who are invited to a Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner cooked by the host (except on one occasion) and served in the studio. 

As it would violate Shabbat rules to actually conduct such an event on a Friday evening, the meetings are recorded in advance. 

A format like this stands and falls with its host, who sets the tone and gives the show its brand. In this case, it is Daniel Donskoy, a 31-year-old Russian-born Jew who grew up mostly in Germany, but also partly in Israel. 

This already connects him to key aspects of Jewish German life, as the great majority of Jewish families in Germany came here from the former Soviet Union (mostly Russia and Ukraine) in the 1990s and 2000s. 

Soviet Jews had experienced sufficient discrimination to be interested in moving elsewhere. When the Iron Curtain fell, two countries were eager to welcome them: Israel and Germany. 

Israel has always been in need of Jewish immigrants to maintain their demographic majority, while Germany, which only had some 30,000 native Jews before this began, many of them elderly, was in dire need of reinforcements. 

The German government brought them into the country as “quota refugees” (Kontingentflüchtlinge), which would normally have required sufficient proof of persecution to justify asylum. 

In this case, however, the Holocaust background and precarious Jewish presence in Germany were considered reason enough to sidestep the usual conditions, and asylum was not even applied for. This arrangement lasted from 1991 to 2005. 

Daniel Donskoy is a natural entertainer. He can be heard on the theme song with a combination of rapping and smooth R&B singing, and somehow manages to maintain an unforced atmosphere despite the occasional self-consciously inserted joke about Nazis or Jewish mothers. 

The potentially sleazy overtones of his bar room grin, half-open shirt and gold necklace are offset by a boyish charm and feigned innocence that make it hard not to like him. 

So far, each episode has featured guests from different cultural milieus. In the first, Donskoy speaks to the author and lifestyle journalist Mirna Funk and the television actress Susan Sideropoulos; in the second, with the poet and intellectual Max Czollek; and in the third, with the trainee rabbi Helene Braun and Laura Cazés, who works at the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany. 

So the respective categories of the episodes are light entertainment, the intellectual scene and intra-community life. While Donskoy often problematises the complexity of Jewish life and identity among Germans, Funk is keener to refer to the “Jew porn” of such a programme and Sideropoulos seems quite content with her position.

While the conversation in the first episode touches on topics such as dating apps, Israeli beaches and Jewish weddings, the second gets down to brass tacks about the baggage and misconceptions affecting the German-Jewish constellation. 

Max Czollek is seen by some (not least himself) as the angry young man of Jewish letters. His 2018 polemic Desintegriert Euch! (Dis-Integrate Yourselves) emphasises radical diversity and rejects the German instrumentalisation of contemporary Jewish existence as a confirmation of Germany’s betterment and a comfort to those who wish to be redeemed of their Holocaust guilt. 

Czollek describes how journalists constantly orbited the Jewish school he attended and recounts one occasion on which children there were asked if they felt “comfortable in Germany again”. While the wish to re-establish a more positive status for Jews here after the Holocaust is understandable, who really wants to be a Jewish mascot? 

Although the second episode slightly overdoes the chumminess between Max Czollek and Daniel Donskoy, who went to the same school in Berlin, it is clearly more substantial than the first. 

The third episode offsets this bro element with a clear feminist emphasis, and Donskoy gives Helene Braun ample space to talk about her practice as a queer woman seeking to give a modern, inclusive reading of an ancient patriarchal religion, for example by officiating at same-sex marriages. 

Braun comes across as perhaps the most unpretentious, genuine person so far; confident but modest, secure in her identity but not performative about it, she left this viewer interested in hearing more. 

Laura Cazés, who has also known Donskoy for many years, shares some in-jokes with him but also seems more interested in discussing Antisemitism than Rabbi Braun does. 

It is unfortunate that in published interviews she denies that Antisemitism is a form of racism, promoting an exceptionalist viewpoint that undermines cross-minority solidarity. 

But let’s get back to that theme song. Many Germans still find it hard to utter the word Jude; although Jews have never stopped using it about themselves, centuries of Antisemitism meant that it always had the whiff of a slur to some extent (most obviously in Nazi Germany). 

“Jude” is sometimes heard on school playgrounds as an all-purpose insult today, somewhat akin to a specific use of “gay”. 

It is clear that the goal of Freitagnacht Jews is to make Jews less of an unknown, historical Other and assist a normalisation of German perceptions, and this includes – despite the hipper replacement of the German word with the English one in the name of the show – eroding the unease associated with Jude. 

And this enterprise already begins with the theme song, although the first episode starts with a cold open consisting of an apparently heartfelt reflection by Daniel Donskoy on self-definition and whether, among the many things he is, he really wants to give himself the Jewish label, which had previously not been of great importance to him. 

After a few words about his guests and the information that the underlying theme of this episode will be the proposition “Once a Jew, always a Jew”, the music begins. 

Opening with a rapped mash-up of German greetings and English trend phrases like “what’s up”, “fresh” or “homeboy” over a snappy beat accompanying a stop-motion sequence of Donskoy entering the building – a classic music video sequence – the song presents its message after a few seconds:

Jude Jude Jude Jude, einfach nur ein Wort

Aber Antisemitismus ist in Deutschland Sport

(Jew Jew Jew Jew, nothing but a word

But in Germany, Antisemitism is a sport)

This is followed by a sung chorus consisting entirely of repetitions of Jude, but the tone is more Usher than Eichmann. 

Depending on one’s sensitivities and socialisation, the initial shock may or may not wear off (and Anglophone viewers may hear echoes of a mocking “yadda yadda yadda”), but the strategy is clear: erode the taboo and get Germans used to the word. 

This educational approach is deepened by occasional captions or oral explanations clarifying the meanings of words related to all things Jewish, and also by the preparation of typical European Jewish dishes. 

Admittedly, this writer’s initial response to Freitagnacht Jews was to cringe and turn it off after barely a minute. There is no shortage of Jews in Germany who are so tired of our exoticised status that such an in-your-face attempt to engage with it makes us recoil. 

At that moment, putting a hip sheen on an old neurosis seemed no better than the solemn commemorations and self-flagellation that have set the tone for decades. After forcing myself to return to it for the purpose of this article, however, I concluded that I’d been unfair. 

For one thing, there is no harm in showing that Jews can be as banal or as profound as anyone else. In addition, the range of topics and tone and the emphasis on the many different ways of perceiving and feeling Jewish identity offer genuine insights to interested non-Jews. 

On top of that, it is entirely possible to find the show entertaining.  Looking at the 1700-year anniversary and the overall Jewish-German situation, one thing is clear: 

Offered the choice between swaggering promotions of Jewish excellence, revisionist propaganda that dehumanises Palestinians and a talk show that confronts taboos and misconceptions in a self-consciously hip but reasonably honest way, I know which of these I would rather give half an hour of my time. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.