Sie haben das Recht zu schweigen. Henryk M. Broders Sparring-Arena

Henryk M. Broder

05.05.2004   13:04   +Feedback

Never a Dull Moment - Life in Germany

Life in Germany

This is a tiny step in the history of mankind, but a huge step for me. Standing in front of you in the library of Lion Feuchtwanger, telling you about Jews and Germans, Jewish life in Germany and German attitudes towards Jews.

Künstlerhaus Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, California
Künstlerhaus Villa Aurorain Los Angeles, California

And it’s not 1934 or 1944, I am not an emigrant or a refugee who just escaped from Europe to a safe place where I will suffer from Heimweh and the lack of Schwarzbrot and Filterkaffee.

Just to remind you, it‘s 2oo4. A long time ago the Nazis lost the war, the state of Israel was established, America was fighting in Korea, in Vietnam, in Grenada and many other wars, more than 7oo soldiers were killed so far in the recent Iraq-expedition, communism collapsed without one shot being fired, the Berlin Wall came down, Poland is now member of the NATO and the EU, the Soviet Union was dismantled, the DDR or GDR simply disappeared, Arafat returned from exile and became an elder statesman, Arik Sharon is willing to give up all of Gaza and big parts of the West Bank, the Chinese are flooding the American Market with underwear and electronic devices - and what do WE do? We are talking about Jews and Germans, about Jewish life in Germany and German attitudes towards the Jews. It seems to be a topic of eternal importance, an evergreen, a thrilling phenomenon many would love to be part of, and those who can’t want at least know everything about it.

I think it’s funny. Why are you not interested - or not to the same degree - in Jewish life in Denmark, Italy or Puerto Rico?

And why is no man and no woman asking questions about the tiny Jewish community on Iceland? There is no rabbi, no synagogue, no society for Christian-Jewish friendship and no antisemitism. There is only a handful of Jews, aging slowly and complaining, as all Icelanders do, about long nights in the winter, getting addicted to Icelandic vodka and the so called »brandivin«, a kind of schnapps which is produced only for the toughest natives.

I’d love to tell more about Iceland, MY promised land in the north, but you were promised a lecture - or at least some remarks - about Jews and Germans - not the Jews and the Icelandic question. So let us get back to our subject. Jews and more Jews, Germans and more Germans.

This is why I was invited to the Villa Aurora, and I do not hesitate to collect my windfall benefits from your interest and curiosity with this issue.

Maybe some of you would like to hear how much I and other Jews suffer from living in Germany and how happy I am getting a break from my German-Jewish routine.

But this is not the case. As much as I enjoy being in the US and specially in California, I am not fed up with my life in Germany, especially in Berlin.

Actually, after a week of absence I start missing some things I got used to: my favorite Café Einstein and the unfriendly Berliner who will only give you smile when you threaten to kill him.

Life in Germany is spannend, it‘s entertaining, it‘s a challenge and it‘s a source of inspiration and aggravation. THERE IS NEVER A DULL MOMENT.

And if you happen to be Jewish and German, you enjoy the best of both worlds. German seriousness and Jewish irresponsibility.

You can be a German SCHÄFERHUND and a Jewish LUFTMENSH at the same time. That‘s a privilege granted only to the chosen few.

And then your Jewish friends tell you: You are so German! And your German friends tell you: You are so Jewish! And you know, you are on the right track. Let me clarify one misunderstanding before it pops up: There is no and never has been something like the German-Jewish symbiosis. This is wishful thinking, academic nonsense, refuted by history.

There were only Germans asking the Jews, demanding from them to give up their Jiddishkeit, and on the other side of the table there were Jews who desired to be more German than the Germans. While the Jews were more and more germanized, the Germans remained unaffected.

If this is a symbiosis, then the mouse and the cat also enjoy a symbiotic relationship. But this is a bit different today. Nowadays the cat is proud of the cultural heritage of the mighty mouse living next door and the mouse is not afraid of the cat any more. One could almost speak of a fair and balanced partnership, not a symbiosis but a partnership under the motto: United we stand!

But - this is also not totally true. It‘s more complicated or sophisticated or, as chancellor Schröder always tells us: Man muss das genau differenzieren.

So lets differentiate and let me tell you two examples of what I mean.

Some weeks ago I was invited to a dinner at the Israeli embassy in Berlin. The ambassador, Shimon Stein, is a friend of mine, and he invited me because our mutual friend Otto Schily, secretary of internal affairs, could not attend the event. I was the fill-in for Otto Schily and very proud of it.

We were a party of seventeen, nice and cultivated people, one of them was Gesine Schwan, a charming lady who is running for the office of the president on behalf of the SPD.

The dinner was fine and so was the conversation. The main topic was not the outcome of the presidential race, Gesine Schwan is going to lose, it was - no kidding - jüdische Identität, Jewish identity. It did not match the Italian food but it seemed to be something pending in the air over our heads: What it means to be Jewish, how it is expressed, and how wonderful and awarding it can be.

Gesine Schwan was going out of her way with her admiration for something I had always considered a Cliché, if not a benign form of prejudice. Jews are smart and intelligent, aware of their history but dedicated to the future, family-minded and socially involved.

After she finished I raised my hand. I said I would like to add some observations.

Yes, I too admire and appreciate this tiny little nation or Volk, struggling against all odds. They produce lots of music and literature, you will find them everywhere, they have a strong sense of history, love telling stories and traveling around the world. They are gifted artists and tough businessmen. They live in a kind of natural ghetto, nobody understands their language, but they are extremely open minded and also gesellig. They are into good food and sex - sex is no taboo.

I concluded my remarks by saying: Unfortunately, it‘s not the Jews I am speaking about, it’s the Icelanders. And this was the end of the how-much-we-love-the-Jews-exercise. And I was not joking. Everything that is true about the Jews is also true about the Icelanders. And even more so. Because there are 12 million Jews around the world but only 3oo.ooo Icelanders. But like the Jews, they also pretend to be more, at least 3o millions.

You see, you are obsessed with Jews, I am obsessed with Iceland and the Icelanders.

Back to our German-Jewish subject. Gesine Schwan is a nice and decent lady, the head of the German-Polish university in Frankfurt an der Oder. Nobody will be surprised if she would discover a Jewish grand mother or grand father in her family tree.

But don‘t think that her love and admiration for the Jews would translate into unconditional support for Israel. That‘s a different story. Man muss genau differenzieren.

Like Gesine Schwan, many Germans nowadays consider Jews as their better ALTER EGOS, more skilled and better educated, less inhibited by the strains of history and guilt-feelings - a community of thinkers, inventors and bagel-eaters.

One sentence I get to hear almost daily is: »Sie als Jude können sich das erlauben!« - You as a Jew can go that far, you can afford doing or saying it.

It‘s stupid but it‘s well meant. But that makes this mindless statement only worse. The underlying notion is: I as a German or we as Germans would also like so say or to do this and that, but we don‘t dare because we are not allowed to. Which of course is utter nonsense. It‘s a convenient way to take cover, to avoid confrontation, to justify one‘s own lack of a position and thought.

But if I go a step too far, the same people who admire the guts of the Jews don‘t wait too long to tell where MY limits are. »Sie missbrauchen ihre Privilegien!« - You are misusing you privileges.

Because it’s a privilege to be a Jew.

It‘s an unhealthy and shaky situation. One day you are the role model, the next day you are misusing your special status you did not ask for.

Next case: Some of you may have come across a writer named Rafael Seligmann. Those who did not, who are not familiar with him and his work may consider themselves lucky. The guy is a moron with a PHD, but he is very popular when it comes to express »Jewish views« or »Jewish opinions« in public debates.

He is the JEW ON DEMAND with an excellent instinct for what the intellectually unspoiled Germans want to hear. Not as successful as Norman Finkelstein, but made of the same material, a little bit of chutzpah and a lot of appeasement.

Mr Seligmann recently adopted an issue no one was willing to take care of. He is fighting for the legalization of Adolf Hitler‘s memoirs MEIN KAMPF. This issue became RAFIS KAMPF.

You must know, it‘s not very difficult to obtain a copy of the book, but it is illegal to publish the original version. The copyright lies with the Bavarian state and the Bavarian government is hiding it in a vault somewhere in the Bavarian mountains.

So here comes Mr Seligmann telling the Germans: It‘s about time you exercise your right to read this book. Read it because it‘s an important piece of political literature. Don‘t allow anyone to rob you of this fundamental right, you are grown up and mature, stand up and fight.

And because Mr Seligmann happens to be a Jew, he gets a lot of attention. Not because of an overwhelming popular demand for Hitler‘s »Mein Kampf«, not because millions of Germans feel deprived of their basic rights, no, it‘s because it is a Jews who tells the Germans: Read MEIN KAMPF!

This is a kinky situation and Mr Seligmann is fully aware of it.

Ausgerechnet on April 2oth, Führers Geburtstag, he published an article in the BILD Zeitung, the largest German Tabloid, again demanding the legalization of the book. The timing was absolutely perfect. The same day he hit again and published almost the same article in the »tageszeitung«, the central voice of the green and leftist and anti-war-movement.

It was the first time in German history that BILD and TAZ were carrying the same story by the same author on the same day, Hitler‘s Birthday - united we stand. But that‘s not the whole story, not yet.

The next day the BILD Zeitung published an article written by Dr Michel Friedman, arguing against the legalization of »Mein Kampf«. Mr Friedman used to be the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the host of TV-talk-shows, before he blew himself up by consuming cocaine and enjoying the company of prostitutes.

So here we have the good guy, Mr Seligman, being in favor of publishing »Mein Kampf«, and there we have the bad guy, Mr Friedman, strongly opposing the idea. Seligmann and Friedman - sounds like a comedy by Mel Brooks.

Was lernen wir daraus?

What do we learn from this?

Whether or not »Mein Kampf« should be legalized seems to be entirely a Jewish problem. And the native Germans are only providing the space for this extraordinary debate.

This is exactly the way how it works. The Germans are outsourcing a part of their history and some Jews are only too eager to volunteer as sub-contractors dealing with the leftovers of German past.

So far, so bad. But if some Jews refuse to cooperate, sanctions are imposed. During the ongoing debate about the Holocaust Monument in Berlin, some Jews expressed critical opinions about the project: Too big, too ugly, too meaningless.

The German authorities, who are building the monument, reacted immediately. The Jews should shut up, be grateful and appreciate what is being done for them. You see, Jews in Germany are in a kind of no-win-situation.

If they behave, keep low profile, they are asked to step forward and get involved. If they get up but go too far, they are admonished not to misuse their status. Whatever they do, they do it under permanent control and observation. The crucial question is not any more: Is it good or is it bad for the Jews? It is: Is it good or is it bad for the Germans? And showing that there is Jewish life blooming in Germany is good for the German reputation. Therefore, even the most unimportant details get a big exposure.

There is a controversy going on between the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland - Central Council of Jews in Germany - and the Union Progressiver Juden - The Union of Progressive Jews - in Germany. The Zentralrat represents some 8o thousand Jews, the Union not more than 2 or 3 thousand. The conflict is about the allocation and distribution of federal funds. The Union wants to have a part of the cake, the Zentralrat does not want to share. That‘s all. But that‘s big news, covered extensively by the media, at times it got more attention than the war in Iraq.

Only because it‘s a Jewish affair. The same story about a conflict between the protestant church and a splinter group would pass unnoticed.

It‘s a situation full of contradictions, mishaps and traps. Jewish music, Jewish literature, Jewish culture in general is highly regarded. It‘s not easy to find a household without a collection of Klezmer music or without books on kosher cooking. But at the same time more and more Germans agree with the notion that Jews play too important a role in the public, that they are too influential and cannot be trusted. Asked how many Jews are living in Germany, the answers were ranking between one and ten million.

This is - in a big nutshell - the situation. But there is nothing to complain about. Everything is fine, everything is normal. That‘s the way it always has been and the way it is going to continue.

Whoever is familiar with the situation of Jews in Germany, let‘s say, roughly between 19oo and 193o, goes now through a deja-vu-experience. Welcome to the past. It‘s here, it‘s everywhere.

Everything I told you is NOT, as you may assume, the result of a disaster called holocaust, it is only the continuation of an old tradition. It‘s like the famous play shown every year on new year‘s eve with Miss Sophie, her butler and their absent guests: »The same procedure as every year!« We know it by heart, we love it, we watch it - and we are yet surprised. It‘s the same with Jews and Germans.

Very few things and habits have changed since Jakob Wassermann wrote his famous book - »Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude« - My way as a German and a Jew; it was published in 1922 or 1923. It is still as valid and relevant as it was 8o years ago, before the Nazis came to power and the Jews were forced to realize that something went wrong.

Wassermann was a famous and very popular writer, even more successful than Feuchtwanger. He had achieved everything a writer can achieve: fame, money and recognition. Nevertheless: Wassermann‘s main point was: es ist vergeblich - it‘s useless, it‘s in vain, it‘s a futile exercise to make an effort to be a good Jew and a good German, at the end of the day they will tell you: Whatever you do and whatever you try to accomplish, you do it only because you are a Jew. And Jews are only looking for their own advantage. And that‘s the bottom line today, too. But there is a difference, what used to be a matter of life and death is now the choice between gin tonic and whiskey sour. Last week, Germany hosted an international conference on antisemitism with participants from more than 5o states, among them Colin Powell, and Ellie Wiesel, Edgar Bronfman and Joschka Fischer, our beloved foreign minister. They were discussing how to fight antisemitism without insulting or alienating the antisemites.

Before the opening of the conference, the organizations involved gave parties and receptions, I received at least five invitations for five different events but i could not attend any of the get-togethers because I decided to go for the hot springs of the blue lagoon in Iceland.

Can you imagine: A conference about antisemitism starting with free beer, schnapps and vodka? Cheers, skol, prost, lechajim, na zdrowje! Until now I was sure this was the foreplay to a pogrom, not to a conference on judeophobia.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I did not come all the way from Berlin - with a stopover in Iceland - to LA to spoil your mood or to ruin this beautiful evening. I enjoy being here, I am flattered staying in a place where Martha and Lion Feuchtwanger lived.

This is the true meaning of ERFOLG, success, one of lions great novels.

Thank you Claudia, thank you Zaia, thank you Sander.

Thank you all for your patience.

HMB, Pacific Palisades, 5.5.2oo4

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