The whole brouhaha began innocently enough just a week ago when Klein told the Berliner Morgenpost, an important German newspaper, that he felt it unwise for Jews to wear kippot in the streets of Germany without first considering where they were and in whose company they might be finding themselves there. When I first read his remark, it didn’t seem that shocking to me. The German government recently reported a twenty percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in just one year. I have heard anecdotal evidence from friends in Germany in this regard: not that they feel unsafe as Jews living in Germany, merely that it would be foolhardy to advertise one’s Jewishness in the street in at least some neighborhoods. Klein then went on, entirely reasonably, to insist that Germany do better in educating its public officials, and specifically police officers, to recognize anti-Semitic gestures and slogans and to react to anti-Jewish agitation forcefully and decisively. That all sounded entirely right to me!The response was complicated. Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, a Chabad rabbi stationed in Berlin, commented that, while he was sure that “Klein’s intentions were good,” he was also sure that “hiding our identity is never the solution.” That also sounded right to me too! Other Jewish spokespeople fell into step with Rabbi Teichtal, most speaking warmly about Felix Klein and admitting that he was certainly right technically, but feeling uncomfortable hearing a government minister appearing simply to accept the status quo as part of how things are and, at least for the foreseeable future, will be.
If anything, it was the response from the non-Jewish world that was surprising…and far less charitable. Joachim Herrmann, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior and a member of a right-wing Christian party, commented that “everyone can and should wear a kippah wherever and whenever he wants to.” And then he went on to warn specifically about the dangers of giving in “to the hatred of the Jews” and making it clear why this should be a matter of deep concern not just for Jews but for non-Jewish Germans as well. Now I’m really not sure what I think: he sounded right too!But if the response from inside Germany was emotional and strongly put, the response from outside Germany was even more shrill. The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, pronounced himself “deeply shocked” by Klein’s remark. And then he went on to note without any trace of historical irony that “responsibility for the welfare, the freedom and the right to religious belief of every member of the German Jewish community is in the hands of the German government and its law enforcement agencies.” And then, speaking for his nation more than just for himself, the President went on to say this: “We acknowledge and appreciate the moral position of the German government, and its commitment to the Jewish community that lives there, but fears about the security of German Jews are a capitulation to anti-Semitism and an admittance that, again, Jews are not safe on German soil. We will never submit, will never lower our gaze and will never react to anti-Semitism with defeatism – and expect and demand our allies act in the same way.” So what can I say? He’s right too!
The national newspaper, Bild, one of Germany’s largest, went so far—is this beyond bizarre or truly touching?—they went so far as to publish a kippah in the newspaper that sympathetic citizens could cut out, paste together, and then presumably wear in the streets of Germany as a kind of public rejection of the kind of anti-Jewish sentiment that Klein was decrying in his interview with the Morgenpost.
The headline was unambiguous: “Show Your Solidarity with Your Jewish Neighbors! Make the Bild-Kippa.” The copy beneath the cut-out was what you’d expect, but was somehow still very moving: “If even one person here can’t safely wear a kippah, then the answer can only be that we’re all going to wear the kippah.” And then, for people unfamiliar with the concept, Bild offered even more explicit instructions: “Place the kippah on the back of your head and attach it to your hair with a hairclip. Done!” But it was the words of Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt that stopped me in my tracks: “Die Kippa gehört zu Deutschland,” he wrote: The kippah belongs to Germany. It’s hard to know what to say to that!
This whole incident feels personal to me.Joan and I lived in Germany before reunification, when Heidelberg was still in West Germany. But that’s not the only way Germany was a different place back then. The war was in the past, for example, but not that far in the past. I was present in Heidelberg on May 8, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of German’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces under the leadership of General Eisenhower, for example, and at several ceremonies I attended surrounding that anniversary I took note of the presence of actual Wehrmacht veterans, many of who were younger then than I am now. (I write about this now with a certain level of sang-froid. But it was beyond creepy to be there at the time, unsettling and wholly unnerving for me actually to see these people in the flesh.) I had students young enough then to be the children, not the grandchildren, of Nazis. One of my students’ own grandfathers had been a guard at Sobibor. The basic story of the Shoah was known to educated people, of course, but the details were so regularly brushed past for the 1979 broadcast of the American mini-series Holocaust, starring (among many others) Meryl Streep, James Woods, Joseph Bottoms, Michael Moriarty, and Tovah Feldshuh, to be able to capture the attention of an unprecedented number of viewers. Fifty percent of the entire population of Germany, 20 million people, watched the series. After each episode, a panel of historians appeared on screen to take questions from viewers, but no one expected there to be thousands of calls—or, more amazingly, for most of them to be from people who seemed to have previously known nothing about Treblinka or Babi Yar. The national catharsis surrounding that show, in fact, was sufficiently intense for people still to be talking about it five years later when I arrived in Heidelberg in 1984.
Germans have grappled with their own heritage for decades now. They seem to veer back and forth, sometimes embracing the horrific nature of their own nation’s war crimes and other times backing off from accepting what must for most be the almost unbearable burden of history. When Henryk M. Broder wrote in 1986 that the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, he was saying something profound about the amount of energy and steadfastness it takes for a nation to consider crimes on the scale of the Nazis’ war against the Jews without flinching or seeking the blame the victims. He made that comment in 1986, but the comment just last year of Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the extreme rightist party Alternative für Deutschland, that the Shoah was merely “a speck of bird poop on a trajectory of German history that has gone on for a thousand years,” he was essentially saying the same thing. Yes, he was speaking in a crass, vulgar way, but he was nonetheless giving voice to a deep wish of all Germans: that the nation of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven not solely be remembered for Sobibor. I imagine I’d feel the same way if I were in his boots! And yet…the bottom line is that having illustrious ancestors does not exonerate anybody of anything. And I have to assume that Alexander Gauland knows that as well.Other nations that collaborated in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors have yet even to begin to come up to Germany’s level of self-analysis and acceptance. (And in that regard, I think not only of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, but also of nations like France and Holland, whose perception of themselves as victim-states has almost entirely rid them of the need to confront their own wartime perfidy with respect to their Jewish co-citizens.) For one thing, other than Germany and our own country, how many nations even have federal officials tasked with addressing anti-Semitism? And also worth noting is that, in the end, Felix Klein did backtrack and announced that he had merely been speaking in a monitory voice intended to awaken people to a serious problem, not actually suggesting that Jewish people should be afraid to identify in public as Jews.
The German blogosphere is busy debating the question of whether the “real” problem with anti-Semitism in Germany today has more to do with the resurgence of the German version of the alt-right or the deeply engrained hatred of Israel that festers in parts of Germany’s Muslim community. There are reasons to see it both ways, but the bottom line has to be that the Germans are trying to do the right thing, both by their current Jewish citizens and also by the generations whose ongoing existence was brutally terminated by the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of today’s Germans. As Simon Wiesenthal taught over and over, only the dead can forgive their murderers. Surely the living cannot speak for them. But we who are alive today can note that, despite the dark forces that continue to gather force in the various lands of our dispersion, there are also decent people in the world for whom anti-Semitism is anathema. We should hold that thought close to our breasts as we do what we can to combat the forces of hatred that seem to exist in an eternal cycle of dormancy and revivification. Sometimes fighting the battle is winning the war.