In his new book, “Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” and in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, author Yascha Mounk describes growing up as a Jew in Germany and uses his own experience to explore the complexities and tensions in German-Jewish relations.
Eager to learn more, Jspace caught up with Mounk before he heads off to book events in Boston and at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington D.C.
Jspace: In the book you describe growing up in the German small town of Laupheim, where there were instances of anti-Semitism, and moving to Munich, the big city, where you were admired as an exotic oddity. “Oh, how exciting. A real Jew!” one girl says on learning you’re Jewish. Which was preferable? And how do these experiences show the relationship between Germans and Jews?
Yascha Mounk: There are three phases of the evolution of Germany’s grappling with its own past that I discuss in the book. The first is in the 1950s and 60s, when it was taboo to talk about the past—and people denied that ordinary Germans did anything wrong. In the second stage, people really tried to grapple with the past quite seriously and honestly and a lot of people were shocked by what Germans had done; this often led to serious reflection about what their own father or grandfather might have done. And so that led to a stage of philo-Semitism, where Jews were quite fashionable.
And then the third phase was what I call “the finish line” which says that all this has gone too far, we’ve had enough, the Holocaust was 60 years ago: it’s really time to move on. And in a weird way, through a quirk of my biography, I moved around a lot in Germany and experienced each of these phases in a way.
So when I was living in Laupheim, which is a small relatively provincial town, there was a lot of ignorance about the past and there were some of those attitudes from the 50s and 60s. It was a place where I heard more anti-Semitic remarks than I did elsewhere—but in an odd way I found it easier to deal with. Because if somebody is being mean to you, you can at least take pride in asserting yourself. If somebody says there is something odd or bad about being a Jew, I can be like “[Screw] you. I’m a Jew, deal with it.”
Then when I moved to Munich, which is much more worldly and a much bigger city, suddenly I encountered a philo-Semitism where people were excited to meet a real Jew and wanted to show how nice they would be because I was Jewish. And I found that a lot more alienating because I realized that even people who really mean well saw me as a Jew first and a German second and it put this incredible distance between us. But how do you deal with that? I can’t tell them, “Hey you guys, just deal with the fact that I’m Jewish” because they’re well-meaning, and doing the best they can.
In some great passages in the book you describe how this philo-Semitism manifests itself and made you feel uncomfortable. Do you think the “enough is enough” or “finish line” attitude towards the Holocaust in Germany might at least put an end to this?
I feel very, in an intense way, ambivalent about “the finish line.” Because on the one hand I completely understand what impulse it comes from. I completely understand people who would see their parents clam up every time they’d hear the word “Jew” would then say, “Look, of course what happened was terrible, but let’s not engage in these ridiculous behaviors. Lets treat somebody like a normal person even if they just so happen to be Jewish, let’s not self-flagellate all the time.” Of course that’s perfectly understandable and I have a lot of sympathy for it. And I think in a way I would feel much more at home in Germany if there was what they demand, which is more normality.
But the problem is: that’s not something you can decree by fiat. You can’t decide, “Look, now the past is long enough ago, we’re moving on, everything is normal.” That is not going to work. And if you demand that in that tone, there’s something quite aggressive about it because implicitly a lot of people think, “Why is it still not normal, why is the past a topic? Well, it must be because somebody is lording the past over us.” And that somebody can be Jews, that can be foreigners, that can be the 68ers within Germany…So these demands to move on are coming not from people who have relaxed a little bit; they’re people who are angry, and who are demanding that now Germany must move on. There’s something passive-aggressive about it that is quite pernicious.
So how worried should Germans and Jews be by the “enough is enough” or “finish line” attitude?
It depends on what it is they might be worried about. I don’t think they should be worried that Germany is going to be invading Poland again, or doing terrible things to the Jews who live there. I think, despite certain worries I have about the direction German public discourse is going, the serious engagement Germany had with its past and the deep liberalization of German society over the last 60 years is something that isn’t in danger at that level.
But I think they should be worried about what it does to German-Jewish relations. I think they should be worried about the effect it has on Jewish life in Germany. And I think they should worry about the effects it has on other minorities in Germany who are in some was more vulnerable, including a lot of Turkish immigrants, and so on.
There are more Jews now in Germany’s larger cities than when you were growing up. How do you think the increase in the Jewish population of Germany since the country’s admission of Jews from the former Soviet Union has changed how it is to grow up as a Jew in Germany?
I think it does make a difference that in the places where Jews live there is now enough Jewish life to have a real, strong community, which is increasingly a young community. When I was growing up, especially when I was living in small towns, most people I met really had never met a Jew. Until 1990 or so, there were fewer than 30,000 Jews and there were about 60 million West Germans, so that meant Jews were one in 2,000.
Now it’s a little better. If you live in Berlin or Munich or Frankfurt and you meet somebody, perhaps you’re not the first Jew that they have ever encountered. And perhaps that makes some of the things that I dealt with a little less prevalent. They might be a little less embarrassed and nervous if they’re philo-Semitic; they might be a little less insistent on saying that they will treat you differently.
What was the image of Jewish people in Germany when you were growing up?
I think that’s an important question. There was the historical figure of the Jew who, when I was growing up—which was a philo-Semitic moment—often was the wonderful German Jew who we Germans were so stupid to expel from the country, and isn’t our country the poorer for that? So from Albert Einstein to earlier figures in German Jewish history like Heinrich Heine or Moses Mendelsohn, it was this weird mythic figure who was the incorporation of wisdom and goodness but who was also very much dead, and very much in the past.
And when it came to contemporary Jews it often were figures that were less appealing in part because of who Germans decided to focus on. So when Germans thought of Jews they either thought of Israeli politicians—Ariel Sharon or somebody like that—or they thought of the representatives of Jews in Germany and a couple of German Jewish media celebrities.
You talk about how today right-wing German politicians use a much protested love of Jews and Germany’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage as a fig leaf to protect them against charges of racism when they rail against immigrants in Germany, particular Turkish Germans. How does this affect the relationship between Jews—most of whom are immigrants themselves from the Soviet Union—and other immigrant groups in Germany?
Over the last few years a lot of rightwing politicians in Europe have started quite cleverly to invoke Jews in order all the better to rail against Muslims. In Germany some politicians claim this Judeo-Christian heritage in order not to be accused of being racist—because “look, I love the Jews so how can I be racist?” And some prominent German Jews have participated in that, including Henryk Broder, who’s a very visible German Jewish journalist and polemicist. But I think a lot of German Jewish institutions including the Central Council of Jews in Germany have been quite good at not being taken in by that and emphasizing that actually a lot of the problems that Jews face in Germany is as immigrants and this attempt to rail against immigrants by invoking Jews is a cynical ploy. But that could change and I think it’s very important to make sure that it doesn’t.
There’s talk of this “Judeo-Christian” tradition, and use of the term “lead culture” or “Leitkultur” in Germany, but how did “Judeo” start getting used in this political discourse and how did Jews start to be used against Muslims?
At the heart of this debate is what is Germany? Is a German somebody who is historically and ethnically German, in which case Jews might be tolerated because they’re kind of nice enough and given German history we should be nice to them, but they will never really belong? Or can Germany find an understanding of what it is to be German that is multiethnic and to some degree multicultural, in which case both Jews and Turks will be able to be Germans.
The debates about the Muslim headscarf and about male circumcision are perfect examples of that. So when a German judge banned male circumcision rites a year or so ago, it’s no coincidence that the case with which that originated was about a Muslim boy. But of course it effectively—if temporarily—made it impossible for Jews to have a full religious life in Germany for the first time since 1945. So any attempt to divide these two issues might work in a local way for particular debates, but if you really think about the future of Germany as a society in which immigrants and their descendants live, and the future of Germany as a society where Jews can make a real home for themselves, you can’t separate these two questions out.
You say that New York has given you the same liberty it has afforded generations of immigrants: the freedom to be true to yourself. Do you think it is forever impossible for Germany to offer Jews the same liberty? Do you think Germany offers the freedom to be true to yourself to immigrant groups with which it does not have such a troubled history?
I think that it’s a huge problem that Germany doesn’t allow immigrants this same liberty. And it’s connected to the fact that Germany still has a very monoethnic and monocultural definition of what is a German. Already by dint of not “looking German” you’re not perceived as a real German. I have scores of friends who grew up in Germany, who were born in Germany, and who keep being told, “Oh you speak such good German,” with a tone of great surprise. Then of course there’s the idea that if you’re Muslim you can’t be fully German.
There’s a sort of paradox whereby in writing a book on being Jewish—which as Talmudists will attest, is about the most Jewish thing one can do—you conclude by saying that you don’t feel very Jewish in New York, where you’re surrounded by more Jews than ever lived in Germany. But do you not think there could be an argument—indeed a Zionist argument—that the very thing you describe—feeling a stranger in your own country—is one of the most Jewish experiences one can have? Do you not think you might therefore have had as authentic a Jewish identity as a religious Jew?
Well, clearly I have a Jewish identity in some way, you know, I’ve written a book and New York Times article that very much identifies myself as a Jew. When people Google me now that’s one of the [first] things they’ll come across. And that’s fine because of course I’m a Jew. I would never want to deny that. In fact, in Germany I could have passed very well as an Aryan if I wanted to. So of course a lot of the problems I describe are because I’m not willing to hide away that I’m a Jew. And you’re right that the search for an identity and that upbringing are very much a Jewish story, one about belonging and not belonging, being able to assimilate but only at a price—all questions that have been at the heart of Judaism and Jewish identity for the last 200 years.
But what I love about being in New York is that, yes, of course I am a Jew, and yes, of course, I’m going to mention that I’m a Jew at some point and yes, of course, in some ways being a Jew has shaped who I am and where I’ve ended up. But, having said all of that, it doesn’t need to play a big part in my life. I don’t need to define myself as a cultural Jew, which I think is a bit facile for somebody who doesn’t have a deep understanding of religion or its traditions and doesn’t speak Hebrew. And yet I can mention that I’m Jewish and nobody defines me by it; I’m not seen in the first instance as a Jew, I’m seen as an individual. For me, what’s liberating about being in New York is that I get to define and to determine how important a part of my identity being Jewish is or isn’t.
There’s been a lot of international coverage of the book, from Israel to Ireland. What has the response been from Jews and Germans?
I think the response from Jews has been overwhelmingly positive and I’ve gotten a lot of very nice emails from all kinds of people. I even had a [Jewish] woman who was born in Laupheim, the town I describe, and then moved to New York in 1939 ring me up. She wanted to talk to me about her childhood there. For me that was lovely because in a way I was a typical German in the sense that the Jewish history of Germany was in the past and I didn’t think that I would connect to it. When I was growing up in Laupheim I was aware that the town once had a big Jewish history but that to me was something that was irretrievable. So it was very strange to be in contact with somebody who was actually born in that same town before the war.
Some Jews have reached out to me—a couple of rabbis and a couple of religious people—saying you should really reconsider the role of religion in your life and make sure that you give me a call if you ever think about marrying a non-Jew…but even that kind of offer was tendered in a very friendly spirit.
The reaction in Germany is still coming in. There’s been a lot of reaction form German Jews, who say, “I feel exactly the same way, that’s why I left as well,” which is interesting because that’s not something in the public discourse in Germany at all. In terms of non-Jewish Germans, a lot of the people I heard from thought it was an honest, non-polemical account; and with some you could tell there was impatience, saying, “look, we’ve done everything we could, what more do you want us to do? Have we not done enough?” And I think that’s very understandable because they have done enough!
The problem is not that there’s insufficient will or bad will or anything like that. The problem is just that these problems can’t be defined out of the world. So when faced with those kinds of responses, I try to say: “Look I know that Germans have done as much as they possibly could in many ways.” And insofar as I propose any solution in the book it’s to try to give people an awareness that there just aren’t going to be solutions, and that even if there’s nobody who’s a culprit in the present, certain things will remain complicated for a long while.