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Defender of the People

Sniffing out anti-Semitism, overt and imagined, takes its toll on an Israeli visiting Europe

Etgar Keret
November 20, 2009
(photo by Erik B; some rights reserved.)
(photo by Erik B; some rights reserved.)

There’s nothing like a few days in Eastern Europe to bring out the Jew in you. In Israel, you can walk around all day under the blazing sun in a sleeveless t-shirt and feel just like a goy: a little trance, a little opera, a good book by Bulgakov, a glass of Irish whiskey. But the minute they stamp your passport at the airport in Poland, you start to feel different. You might still be able to taste the flavor of your Tel Aviv life and God hasn’t yet revealed himself to you in the broken fluorescent light flashing above you in the arrivals terminal, but with every bite of pork you take, you feel increasingly like some kind of converso. You’re surrounded, suddenly, by Diaspora.

From the day you were born in Israel, you’ve been taught that what happened in Europe over the past few centuries was nothing but a series of persecutions and pogroms, and despite the dictates of common sense, the lessons of that education continue to fester somewhere in your gut. It’s an unpleasant feeling somehow always affirmed by reality. Nothing grandiose happens, as I was reminded last week during a trip to Eastern Europe; a Cossack doesn’t rape your mother or your sister. It can be a seemingly innocent comment on the street, graffiti of a Star of David and some unclear slogan on a crumbling wall, the way the light reflects off the cross of the church opposite your hotel window, or the way a conversation between a couple of German tourists resonates against the background of the misty Polish countryside.

Then the questions begin: is this truth or phobia? Are those semi-anti-Semitic events insinuating themselves into your mind because you anticipate them? My wife, for example, insists that I have superhuman power when it comes to detecting swastikas. It doesn’t matter where we are—Melbourne, Berlin, or Zagreb—I can spot a swastika in the area in less than 10 minutes.

And here’s a little story about my first trip to Germany as a writer, exactly 15 years ago. The local publisher invited me to an excellent Bavarian restaurant (I admit that sounds like an oxymoron), and just as our main course arrived, a tall, strapping German about 60 years old walked in and began to speak in a loud voice. His face was red and he looked drunk. From the jumble of German words he tossed into the air, I recognized only the two he kept repeating: “Juden raus!”I went over to the guy and said in English in a tone that tried to sound calm: I’m a Jew. You want to take me out of here? Come on, do it, take me out. The German, who didn’t understand a word of English, kept shouting in German, and in no time at all, we were in a shoving match. My publisher tried to intervene and asked me to go back and sit down. “You don’t understand,” he tried to say. But I persisted. I thought I understood very well. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I felt that I understood what was going on there better than any of the restaurant’s calm patrons. At some point, the waiters pulled us apart, and the angry drunk was thrown out. I went back to the table. My food was cold, but I wasn’t hungry anymore anyway. While we were waiting for the check, my publisher explained in a deep, quiet voice that the furious drunk had been complaining that one of the diners’ cars was blocking his vehicle. The words that had sounded to me like “Juden raus” were actually “jeden raus,” which translates roughly to “outside next to.” When the check came, I insisted on paying. Reparations to a different Germany, if you will. What can I do? Even today, every other word of the German language puts me on the defensive.

But, as they say, “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.” During the 20 years I’ve been traveling the world, I’ve collected a number of genuine anti-Semitic experiences that can’t be explained away by a mistake in pronunciation.

There was, for instance, a Hungarian guy who met me in a local bar after a literary event in Budapest and insisted on showing me the giant German eagle tattooed on his back. He said that his grandfather killed 300 Jews in the Holocaust, and he himself hoped to someday boast about a similar number.

In a small, peaceful East German town, a tipsy actor who had read some of my stories two hours earlier explained to me that anti-Semitism is a terrible thing, but you can’t deny that the intolerable behavior of the Jews throughout history helped fan the flames.

A clerk in a French hotel told me and the Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua that if it were up to him, that hotel wouldn’t accept Jews. I spent the rest of the evening listening to Sayed’s grumbling that on top of 42 years of the Zionist occupation, he also has to bear the insult of being taken for a Jew.

And only a week ago, at a literary festival in Poland, someone in the audience asked me if I was ashamed to be a Jew. I gave him a logical, well-reasoned answer that wasn’t the slightest bit emotional. The audience, which had listened attentively, applauded. But later, in my hotel room, I had a hard time falling asleep.

There’s nothing like a couple of good November khamsins to put the Jew in you back in its place. The direct Middle Eastern sunlight burns all traces of the Diaspora right out of you. My friend Uzi and I are sitting on the Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv. Sitting next to him are Krista and Renate. “Don’t tell me,” Uzi says, trying to cover up his ballooning horniness with some unsuccessful telepathy. “You’re both from Sweden.”

“No,” Renate laughs, “we’re from Düsseldorf. Germany. You know Germany?”

“Sure,” Uzi nods enthusiastically, “Kraftwerk, Modern Talking, Nietzsche, B.M.W., Bayren Munchen…” He forages round in his brain for a few more German associations, to no avail. “Hey, Bro,” he says to me, “why did we send you to college for all those years? How about contributing a little something to the conversation.”

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer. He writes a regular column from Israel for Tablet.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.

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