Faking the Other

German Jewish Realities and Fantasies

According to the Berlin-based Jewish philosopher Susan Neiman, “There is nothing more German than wanting to be Jewish.”

Forward in Hebrew. New Synagogue, Berlin.

She said this in response to the question of why Fabian Wolff, a German journalist who had presented himself as Jewish for years without having any Jewish relatives and without having converted, merely relying on vague family rumours, would adopt such a persona.

While the empirical veracity of Neiman’s claim is debatable, it is undeniable that there is a history of this phenomenon, albeit one that has taken on different forms.

In the context of the Wolff controversy, launched by the author himself in an extensive self-exposing article in Die Zeit, Neiman mentions in the interview her experiences with Germans who asserted that they had discovered Jewish relatives in their family tree, remarking that she treats any such statements with scepticism.

The most famous case of a ‘costume Jew’ was Bruno Dössekker, a Swiss musician who adopted the name Binjamin Wilkomirski and posed as a Holocaust survivor, publishing an acclaimed memoir in 1995 and appeared at speaking events all over Germany to tell of his experiences.

His story was debunked three years later, and his pseudonym was subsequently attached to a specific syndrome referring to Holocaust imposters.

Another case that attracted attention was that of Wolfgang Seibert, who managed to become the head of the Jewish community in Pinneberg and had likewise invented a Holocaust story, this time about his grandparents.

A more tragic case is that of the historian and blogger Marie Sophie Hingst, who committed suicide after her claims of Jewishness and Holocaust victims in her family were exposed as false in an article in Der Spiegel.

However, the phenomenon of Germans who genuinely convert to Judaism is also more common than one might expect.

Barbara Steiner, a scholar of Jewish studies, explores it in depth in her book The Enactment of Jewishness, offering both wider historical context and personal portraits of German converts with different motivations and understandings of Jewish identity.

Some speak frankly of a desire to leave behind the inherited guilt of German society, whether at an immediate family level or a more general one. Several of them began a new life in Israel – where they sometimes experienced discrimination as converts – while others emphasise their love of Judaism on purely religious grounds, dismissing any notion of identity-washing.

One young man who grew up in a communist family in Eastern Germany describes how the militant atheism of his parents influenced his search for meaning in religion.

Perhaps the quirkiest of these individuals is Schlomo, who joined the Ultraorthodox anti-Zionist sect Neturei Karta and lives in Jerusalem.

His comments are laced with Yiddish, and he speaks contemptuously of the Israeli state, which he and his community consider illegitimate on the religious grounds that Jewish exile may only be ended by the intervention of the Messiah.

In her portrait, Steiner suggests that Schlomo’s persona of exaggerated old-world Jewishness may be a front for him to live out his true desire, namely to revel in hatred for the Jewish state, whose source is more German than Jewish.

This brings us back to the context of Wolff and the nature of the attacks on him following his self-exposure.

Fabian Wolff was a prolific journalist for some years before adopting any position critical of Israel, writing for the Jüdische Allgemeine, the press organ of the conservative Central Council of Jews and hence the supposed voice of the Jewish community.

Wolff even penned a scornful piece about Roger Waters based on his propagation of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, a boycott campaign against Israel) – something that has almost become a genre in the German press.

The journalist worked for the JA from 2010-2015, after which his output focused more on popular music than Jewish culture.

Fabian Wolff drew the ire of the Jewish community in 2021, however, when he published an article in Die Zeit that combined emphatically Jewish autobiographical descriptions with strong criticism of Israel and Germany’s support for it, pointing out how it had distorted the public’s understanding of Antisemitism and encouraged racism towards people from migrant backgrounds, especially Muslims and, of course, Palestinians.

He sparred on Twitter with Jews who accused him of minimising Antisemitism, especially among Muslims, and of providing cover for “Israel-related Antisemitism,” such as the positions of the BDS movement.

And indeed, since his revelations, most articles about Wolff have foregrounded this, referring to him as “a prominent critic of Israel” or even – falsely – a BDS supporter.

Countless malicious posts from Jews in Germany accused him of crafting a persona to curry favour with the “left Antisemites” and do what every German allegedly wants to do: say bad things about Israel.

This connects to what Barbara Steiner writes about the convert Schlomo, even though he, unlike Wolff, underwent the rigorous process of Orthodox conversion and completely changed his lifestyle and social surroundings.

The German Jewish writer Edgar Hilsenrath narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. Hilsenrath and most of his family fled to Romania before being deported to a ghetto in Transnistria (Ukraine), which was liberated by the Red Army in 1944.

After spending some years in Palestine, then France, he moved to New York in the early 1950s and lived there until 1975, when he returned permanently to Germany. Hilsenrath’s most famous novel, though written in German, was first published in 1971 in English translation: The Nazi and the Barber.

The book is a grotesque that combines moral obscenity with unfathomably dark humour. The protagonist, Max Schulz, is an amoral, unrepentant ex-Nazi. He describes growing up with Jewish neighbours, the Finkelsteins and was best friends with the family’s son, Itzig.

Invoking caricatures of Jewish physiognomy, he explains that, ironically, he had dark hair, fleshy lips and a hooked nose, while his Jewish friend was blonde and blue-eyed. This foreshadows the novel’s central plot element: after participating in various massacres, including the murder of the Finkelstein family, Schulz ultimately adopts Itzig’s identity to escape prosecution after the war.

To make his new persona convincing, he has an Auschwitz registration number tattooed on his arm, undergoes circumcision and memorises Jewish prayers and rituals sufficiently well to convince an expert committee.

Schulz comes to identify so fully with his role that he leaves Germany in disgust at the continued prevalence of Antisemitism and moves to Palestine, where he joins the Zionist underground, contributes to the founding of Israel (the Nakba does not feature) and becomes a respected member of society.

The warped humour throughout the novel makes it easier to ‘like’ the abominable protagonist, or at least to find him perversely amusing. What is fascinating about Schulz’s adoption of the Jewish persona is that although it starts as a calculated ploy to save his murderous skin, it becomes such a far-reaching transformation that, in his mind and his doings, he becomes a Jew. He dons a costume that merges with his own body.

In discursive contexts where standpoint and identity are relied on to give weight to arguments, there is an inevitable competition over who commands that standpoint.

After all, the notion that speaking as a Jew, a Black man, a queer woman or any other of these generalised categories guarantees winning the argument would only be convincing if every member of these categories had the same view.

Even when such argumentation is self-centred and self-serving, it implicitly makes a claim to wider representation, and in certain situations, this claim will be made explicit.

In 2022, the documenta art festival in the German city of Kassel was overshadowed by an Antisemitism scandal that mingled accurate and false accusations into a sprawling media mess. For months, there was an entire industry of documenta commentary churning out articles, interviews and round table discussions, each item potentially becoming an object of outrage for the next.

As in most Antisemitism scandals in Germany, Israel was at the centre, and many of the festival’s most strident denouncers were lobbyists from organisations such as the German-Israeli Society (DIG).

One of the most frequent commentators in all media formats was Meron Mendel, a German-Israeli public intellectual who directs the Anne Frank Educational Institution in Frankfurt. His brand is the promotion of reasonable dialogue amidst overheated debates and nuance as an antidote to dogma and purism.

Mendel is sufficiently established in the German intellectual landscape to criticise the Jewish establishment without losing any of his standing and challenge the pro-Israel excesses of non-Jewish Germans. Although it is clear that he speaks as a Jew, he does not claim to represent Jewish opinion as such.

It was then interesting to find him arguing over that very matter with Stefan Hensel, one of Germany’s countless ‘Antisemitism commissioners’, state-appointed officials whose supposed anti-discrimination work inevitably involves lobbying for Israel.

Hensel, who has been assigned to Hamburg since 2021, is an especially obvious example, having been director of the DIG’s Hamburg branch from 2014 to 2021 and living in Israel for several years. He is also vice-president of the David Ben-Gurion Foundation, which organises various exchange programmes and partnerships between Germany and Israel.

Following the appointment of two former documenta curators as guest professors at the Hamburg Academy of Art, Hensel expressed outrage over such an institutional endorsement of Antisemitism and the subsequent choice to have a post-documenta conference including the curators.

Die Zeit conducted a joint interview with Hensel and Mendel. Shortly before, rumours circulated that Hensel had recently converted to Judaism. Mendel brings this up, citing Hensel’s dismissal of such opinions as his as remote from “our Jewish reality and Jewish institutions” before asking him if he is making such judgements about who can speak of Jewish reality from the position of a recent convert.

Hensel refuses to answer the question, and they butt heads about who can speak for whom. Then Hensel makes a crucial and revealing claim: “The Central Council of Jews speaks for Jews in Germany. That’s contractually arranged.”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany is an umbrella organisation for the country’s Jewish communities, whereby these communities are structurally defined by synagogue membership. The Central Council receives a budget from the state, and all communities that are members of the council, in turn, receive their budgets from it.

How representative is it as a political organisation?

First of all, at most half of Germany’s 200,000 Jews are members of synagogues, meaning that the other half are not represented in any way by the Central Council. In addition, the council only takes up communities that adhere to its principles.

One such principle is that solely the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish by birth, and patrilineal Jews must therefore convert before they can be appropriately considered Jewish.

Since the majority of Jews in Germany – and 90% of those registered with synagogues – came to Germany in the 1990s and early 2000s from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish identity was determined patrilineally by the authorities, the admission to official German communities necessitated numerous fast-tracked conversions.

Some reform synagogues accept patrilineal Jews as ‘supporting members’, an second-class status. However, allowing them to become full members would trigger the communities’ expulsion from the council and, thus, the loss of their budget.

Hensel claims to be “the contact person for all Jews in this city”. But what about a Hamburg Jew who rejects Hensel’s praise for Israel, who abhors the oppression of Palestinians and believes that the occupier should be boycotted?

To Hensel, this person is an Antisemite, Jew or not. He tells Mendel, who, for all his criticism of Israel and its supporters, is still sufficiently mainstream to call BDS Antisemitic, that his political positions are marginal in the Jewish community.

This is a recurring theme in German debates between left-liberal Jews (often artists and intellectuals) and centre-right Jews or their non-Jewish proxies.

Almost all of Hensel’s fellow commissioners are non-Jewish, as was Hensel when he took the post. Yet they speak for the Jewish community, we are told. But which community? And does their right to speak depend on being Jewish?

Clearly not; it depends more on whether their attitudes align with the pro-Israel consensus. While Hensel can now invoke his Jewish status for additional legitimacy, his authority rests on that alignment.

We can link this to the Wolff fallout since it exposed the Jewish establishment’s disingenuous and politicised approach to Jewish identity.

One of the many scornful articles about him, relying on the trope of the Jewish token as a medium for Antisemites to articulate views that non-Jews hesitate to express, concludes with the statement that “Wolff himself is responsible for his false claims, but others contributed to his rise.”

As noted above, those who contributed to his rise were not these ‘left Antisemites’. To pretend that they were implicitly justifies the claim that Jewish criticism of Zionism and anti-Palestinian racism is a fabrication.

Such Jews are frauds, or at best, a phenomenon so marginal that they cannot be given any legitimacy – a comparable aberration to Blacks for Trump. In being presented as useful idiots, they are denied the agency of acting on their political convictions.

This can easily be connected to right-wing Jews in the USA. When Robert F. Kennedy recently claimed that the coronavirus had been engineered to spare Jews and Chinese people, he was widely denounced for this Antisemitic and racist conspiracy theory.

Who came to Kennedy’s defence? Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organisation of America, and the celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach. They dismissed the accusations of Antisemitism because Kennedy is a staunch supporter of Israel and, thus, automatically a friend of the Jews.

Jewish Trump supporters, taking the Trumpist Republican acronym for less extreme Republicans, RINO – Republicans in Name only – have come up with the variation JINO for Jewish critics of Trump: Jews in Name Only.

In 2021, the former right-wing Israeli politician Natan Sharansky wrote an article for the reactionary American Jewish magazine Tablet about “un-Jews”, in which the criterion for excommunicating other Jews was their lack of support for Israel.

This is the man whose flimsy 3D test for Antisemitism, sadly taken seriously by various NGOs and politicians in Germany, refers purely to a person’s positions on Israel and seeks to elevate insinuations to an objective definition.

It is thus clearly an international right-wing speciality to accuse left-leaning and non-Zionist Jews of not being real Jews, regardless of their ethnoreligious credentials.

At the end of his controversial 2021 article, Fabian Wolff names the progressive US magazine Jewish Currents as an example of the kind of modern Jewish culture missing from Germany, drawing attention to the fact that outside of this country, it is far from undisputed that Jewishness can only be lived within a Zionist framework. Jewish or not, he is right about this.

Nonetheless, even without the ever-present backdrop of Holocaust guilt, left-wing Jews fight similar battles in the USA and UK, where the Board of Deputies of British Jews spitefully dismisses groups like Jewish Voice for Labour and Na’amod as marginal and unrepresentative.

There are several configurations of Jewishness: non-Jews who create fictions of Jewishness so all-encompassing that they become real for them; non-Jews who claim to speak for Jews because their political positions echo the Jewish majority; Jewish converts fleeing from Holocaust guilt or ethnoreligiously enshrining their Zionism; lifelong Jews for whom supporting Zionism is a prerequisite for Jewishness; and those rejecting the conflation of Zionist and Jewish identity.

So who gets to speak for Jews?

It is undeniably true: non-Zionist Jews are a minority in Germany, and many of us came here from other countries, such as Israel, Britain and the USA.

But the post-Soviet Jewish community is also an immigrant one and would not have become as hegemonic for Jewish opinion in Germany without the support of German gentiles.

This hegemony rests on structural unity reinforced by tribalism. It can only be weakened if Jews with opposing positions and less parochial understandings of their identity join forces.

The more visible we are, the hollower the right’s accusations will ring.

Currently, the German Jewish community is still engaged in the feigned victimhood of ‘cancel culture’ discourse, when any examination of the facts shows that the people genuinely being cancelled, despite occasional exposure, are those involved in or supportive of Palestine activism.

At some point, however, like the right-wingers howling about the ‘woke lobby’ or meat-banning and car-hating ecosocialists,  they will have to accept that their position is merely one end of the spectrum, neither oppressed nor self-evidently representative.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.