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A German-Jewish Zionist Explains Why Anti-Semitism Is All the Same

Faced with specific pressures in Europe, a writer asks, ‘Would I think and write in a different way if there were no Israel?’

Maxim Biller
November 10, 2014
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at a rally against anti-Semitism on September 14, 2014, in Berlin. The slogan behind her reads 'Stand Up! Never Again Hatred Toward Jews'.(Adam Berry/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at a rally against anti-Semitism on September 14, 2014, in Berlin. The slogan behind her reads 'Stand Up! Never Again Hatred Toward Jews'.(Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Nothing is as boring as anti-Semitism, at least for Jews. You rule the world, they have heard non-Jews telling them for the last 2,000 years, even if none of you has yet made it to the status of a Roman emperor or a U.S. president. Your religion gets on our nerves, they are told, because you won’t share it with anyone. Although most of you are not observant, you are aware of your Jewish identity all the same, and what the hell does that mean? You’re better than us in bed, and you steal our women. You manage money as well as we wish we could manage it ourselves. You’re so damn clever because you have none of you been illiterate for a hundred generations, which gives you such a head-start on us in life that we can never catch up. And you never get drunk—can that be why you always have everything under control?

And can it be, think the Jews, that you non-Jews might finally begin to sing another song, after making your way with trepidation through the dark forest of the Middle Ages, the early modern period, and the Enlightenment, of European world domination and its downfall, thus trying to dispel your fear of all technical, moral, and political change? No, they can’t do it. Non-Jews can never get enough of their monomaniac and extremely monotonous dislike of Jews. The only interesting aspect of it is to wonder why the Jews always have to suffer for the dismantling of primeval fears—a question that no one has asked for a long time, but that may be of some significance in these times of boycotts of Israeli academics, IS rappers in Berlin-Kreuzberg, smoldering French synagogues, and Erdogan’s exhibitionist sense of revulsion against Jews. Since that little shock about the 6 million deaths, obviously everyone long ago became reconciled to the fact that Jews live dangerously. Perhaps including the Jews.

And how did anti-Semitism come back to Germany, the country that like no other had cast light on its history of pogroms, in a way intended to teach a lesson forever? In its latest, anti-Zionist packaging, it is, of course, a present from the 1968 generation. They fought valiantly against their National Socialist upbringing, they became pacifists, they demanded more democracy from Adenauer’s authoritarian Christian Democratic Union party, they read Eugen Kogon, Hannah Arendt, and Primo Levi, and they wanted Paradise to break out instantly, not only in their own country but all over the world. Yet the metaphysical idea of the brutal Jewish intelligentsia, greedy for blood and money, that had been dinned into them for a thousand years, and in which their parents and relations had believed without any needing any whispered hints from Hitler, was too deeply rooted in their hearts and minds. You had only to see what many Communist party members or old-style Stern journalists were like when drunk.

But what were the unfortunate generation of 1968 and its apostles of 1978 to do about that delightful, ugly, metaphysical hatred of Jews when sober? Thanks to Eichmann there were hardly any Jews left in Germany, and as a good, perfectly structured anti-Fascist you couldn’t be against them anyway. Luckily there was Israel. There was the Six Days War, celebrated by old, upright Nazis and Wehrmacht officers as a homage to all German “lightning wars” since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, which obviously automatically proved that all Israelis were also militarists, imperialists with totalitarian ideas of a master race. And there were Palestinian Arabs who, in the eyes of the latest German saviors of the world, were at least as badly off because of Israel as the Vietnamese and Latin Americans were because of the Yankees who had tanned Papa’s hide in World War II. And suddenly—surprise, surprise!—the generation of ’68 had found their Jews in the form of Israel.

What was stated 30 years ago only on the left—that Israel was an aggressive, over-powerful, quasi-Fascist state equipped with yesterday’s German ideology of blood and the soil—is today pseudo-liberal mainstream thinking, and the further the CDU slips to the left under Angela Merkel, the sooner members of that party will also be able to enjoy the delights of Israel-bashing that liberate the instincts so well. We can see what the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the central organ (with its huge circulation) of the narcissist German reactionary left, has been saying on this subject for years, publishing anti-Semitic caricatures of Israel as a knife-wielding monster and Mark Zuckerberg as an all-powerful kraken, the unrhymed graffiti of Günter Grass in which that double-tongued veteran of the Waffen-SS accuses Israel of being a threat to world peace, guest columns by writers overtly or covertly sympathetic to Hamas, and above all dozens of comments in its own editorial opinion pieces, holding Israel to blame for everything. After five thousand mainly old and exhausted Russian Jews met at the Brandenburg Gate on 14 September, holding up a few sad placards proclaiming We Are Germany, to show that they would like to spend their last days in the diaspora in peace, the SZ correspondent Constanze von Bullion wrote, triumphantly, that there were hardly any Jews left in Germany anyway, so why the fuss? Instead of demonstrating with them, it would be better to consider and discuss the subject of why the poverty-stricken German Muslims, of all people, distressed by the suffering of children in Gaza, should wish death by Zyklon B gas to the Jews. As an unwitting but not naïve successor of the ’68- generation, she says, of course she knows why, because she herself stands “on the edge.”

Here we are again: the Arabs as real victims, and the Jewish Israelis as calculating liars merely presenting themselves as victims. And here, again, is my old suspicion that the heartfelt alliance of the Nazis with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the first leader of the Palestinians and a fanatical devotee of Hitler, has left more traces on the collective DNA of the Germans than perhaps they themselves know.

Did I say earlier that anti-Semitism is all the same to me? Yes—but Jews are not. And they are now doing something that I find extraordinarily comic, because it reminds me that to this day, in every synagogue in Berlin and London, prayers are offered on the Sabbath for the President of Germany and the Queen respectively, with no idea what the outcome is supposed to be. Many, very many Jews today emphasize—clearly much impressed by the way that, since the Gaza war, Israel has been increasingly ghettoized by the non-Jewish states—that the diaspora, the foreign, non-Jewish land in which they live, is their home, implying that Israel in any case is not. They do not want to leave their Germany, their Great Britain, their United States of America.

Dieter Graumann, the by no means stupid chief impresario and official head of the German Jews, adopted the same pose of mimicry outside the Brandenburg Gate at that dismal, Dada-ist anti-anti-Semitism demonstration. He stood there, supported by the leaders of the German state, who still stand firmly by the Jews, and said courageously how distasteful he found the radical Muslim protests in Essen and Berlin. Then he added, in all seriousness, that nonetheless the Jews would not be intimidated, or diverted from their purpose of constructing a new and flourishing community life in Germany. Jewish functionaries have made such speeches a thousand times since the Babylonian exile. But it has never done them any good in the long run.

The remark about Germany was the comic part of Graumann’s Adam Czerniaków-like monologue. When he spoke of Israel it became sad and absurd. “We Jews stand by Israel,” he said, and continued by stating that the Jews would not distance themselves from Israel in order to be hated less, although he could not see what Gaza and the latest fevered anti-Semitic outburst had to do with each other. He summed up: “If we have a feeling that Israel is being unjustly treated, then our protective instinct is immediately aroused.” One could hardly step aside from Israel more skillfully and inconspicuously! A man who says he is not distancing himself from Israel and is standing by that country is also saying that he himself is not part of Israel (or an Israeli) and does not want there to be any mistake about it. And if he also says that, as a Jew, he has to protect Israel as if it were weak, a poor relation, either he has misunderstood something, or he hopes that the goyim, being slow on the uptake, will fall for this trick, which is the interpretation I would prefer. For in fact it is exactly the other way around: Israel protects Jews, and in particular, those who do not live in Israel, including Dieter Graumann—and me.

I first visited Israel as a 12-year-old only half-interested in the place, with my mother and father, and although we had hardly any money at the time we even went on a plane trip to Eilat and the Sinai. At the age of 15 I went there without my parents. It was a trip organized by the Zionist Youth of Germany organization, and to my alarm I was said to be the best participant and given a guide to Israel. For a few years afterward I wanted to “make aliyah” and become an officer in the Israeli army. Nothing came of that; instead, because life often seems to write the screenplay of a movie one wouldn’t want to see, I became a Jewish journalist and writer in Germany.

Would I think and write in a different way if there were no Israel? Yes, of course, and perhaps I wouldn’t write at all. For without Israel, without knowing that I can board a plane at any time, pick up an Israeli passport at Ben Gurion airport, and begin on the crazily stressful rat-race of everyday life in Israel, I would never be so ready to take risks as a writer as I now think I must, if the reader is to want to know the story I have to tell.

I can put it more precisely: I always regard the world and describe it primarily as a Jew, a self-confident, amiable, aggressive Jew, well-dressed and even better-tempered, just as Martin Walser regards the world as a German, Miranda July as an American, Karl Ove Knausgård as a Norwegian. But the nationalities of these writers are never held against them.

To put it more precisely still: Because Israeli soldiers have spent weeks risking their lives to fill in tunnels dug by Hamas, but also because they kill civilians in firing on Gaza, I must not for a moment dissimulate when I write—as most Jewish authors in Germany used to, with the exception, of course, of Franz Kafka. Either they abandoned their Jewish identity out of fear and calculation, like Rudolf Borchardt and at times Heine, or they remained Jewish in a way but also wanted to be German somehow or other, like the Berliner Kurt Tucholsky, whose suicide was an admission of the failure of that strategy of adaptation. Alternatively, they wrote a great deal about Jews, willingly and openly, but in the off-key, high-flown, sentimental, emotional tone of the New Testament, seeking redemption; an instance is Joseph Roth, who ultimately and for safety’s sake converted to Catholicism, not that anyone in heaven seemed to have noticed that later.

And since it is only because of Israel that I can be the man I am, I understand myself to be a Zionist. An original Zionist, a neo-Zionist, a salon Zionist, a Zionist with a human face, or however one likes to put it. As a German citizen and tax-payer I am therefore not at all insulted when I am asked why my prime minister is such an idiot, and the questioner means Benjamin Netanyahu, although only an anti-Semite would really ask that. But many things are contradictory and complicated, and this is one of the more easily understood of them. For of course Sara Netanyahu’s remote-controlled husband is responsible for me and my safety in a much more existential, practical, and also ideological sense than Angela Merkel. And of course I consider that people must, may, and should be able to talk to me, a Jew living and writing in Germany, as if I were an Israeli myself, for I have been on the Israeli side of the trench in that war since I was 12 years old, and unlike most German peace campaigners I genuinely hope that it will finally end some day.

But is there any sensible way to talk about the Arab-Jewish conflict? If a non-Jew is addicted to the methadone of “criticism of Israel,” of course there isn’t. A man who is a Jew and an Israeli can also fail to do justice to the subject, by which I do not mean West Bank settlers running amok, or the diplomatic Herr Graumann. I also mean men like Assaf Gavron, the young Israeli novelist, and Sam Harris, the American neurologist, critic of religion, and journalist. Gavron in fact wants the deplorable faction in favor of boycotting Israel to support him, and other left-wing Israelis, in the struggle against the violence of Israeli society; here we have the typical syndrome of capitulation under stress. Harris would like to do away with Israel as a Jewish state, and he is not the only American Jew to think so. He would like it even better if all Jews would decide on emigrating to the United States, where he thinks they have always been so well off. That, he says, is a more credible alternative to marching in somewhere and taking other people’s land.

For yes, exactly, it is a fact that the Jews have conquered Palestine. They have been buying and annexing land there since the end of the 19th century. They have made fields and plantations out of dust and mud. They have founded banks and an army of their own that, to this day, acts with more circumspection than any other army known to me, but never circumspectly enough. They have built towns and villages where there were none before. They have known very well that where they would like the goyim to leave them alone at last, there were also goyim before; they have ignored, respected, and sometimes mistreated and hunted down the Arabs of Palestine—yet after 2,000 endless years between their own expulsion from Palestine by the Romans and the Holocaust they had no other option. Those who no longer want to be pushed around and killed by their enemies’ soldiers and politicians need soldiers and politicians of their own.

What nation in peaceful, free Europe and North America today lives on land that has always been its own? I can’t think of one. All, absolutely all states have been built on the bones of men who were there before, and it seems to me that if you look at it like that, the Jewish conquerors in Palestine have acted at least as decently as the Saxons in England, the Americans in California, and the Germans east of the Elbe. And fortunately, since the War of Independence in 1948, they have almost never done anything wrong in military terms; that is why they are still there.

Now, however, the strategy of killing so as not to die, as employed by the early Zionists and the later founders of the state and military prodigies is running out of time. What has always worked since 1948—a few Jews repeatedly asserting themselves against a vastly superior Arab power a hundred million times their own size—has two drawbacks. First, it corrupts Israeli society, makes it more nervous and megalomaniac, more anxious, and gradually makes every individual Israeli into a typical Jew of the diaspora but without any diaspora, which really was not the idea of the entire Zionist project. And second, it won’t work in military terms, not forever.

But what trick might allow the eternal cycle of fighting, killing, and occupation to end at last? Negotiating with the jihadis? Of course not, for their specialty is the calculated suicide that they love. Maybe both parties should simply go off to the psychotherapist, like an old married couple at odds after 40 years together? I have never heard of that approach getting anywhere.

Israel has had dozens, hundreds of men and women in its history who were visionary and pragmatic enough to know how to create a strong, highly civilized state of their own out of nothing—it was the second state of the post-Napoleonic age, after Germany, to have done so at a late date. But as yet, unfortunately, not a single Israeli politician, general, writer, or philosopher has emerged who knows how this political phantasmagoria, once realized, can be kept from disappearing, which is by no means impossible.

I once, briefly, thought that Shimon Peres might be the man to do it. In the 1980s he wanted to join the Palestinians in turning the Middle East into a crazy, creative new economy zone, a kind of small European Union, because he came to the sole correct conclusion: Only money and prosperity would make everyone in that region peaceful and friendly, and the fact that there was no Intifada during the Gaza war was mainly to do with the fact that the inhabitants of the West Bank of the Jordan were by now earning enough money to be afraid of losing it again in long years of unrest. Prosperity makes almost everyone a pacifist; exactly.

Sad to say, nothing came of Shimon Peres’ plan. Sad to say, the whole idea was obviously only the talk of an old, worn-out party politician whose great days were over before they had really begun. So, I and all other pragmatic Israelis and Jews must wait for a new Ben Gurion or a new Golda Meir to persuade the Europeans and Americans to construct a program of economic development for Gaza, a program so gigantic and clever that beside it the Marshall Plan will seem like the lunch committee of the Berlin Technical University cafeteria.

Will such a man or woman emerge in time? Surely. And if the Jews and Palestinians then lie down together like the wolf and the lamb, if no war threatens Israel any more, if the anti-Semites lose their main bone of contention, they will surely turn again to the Jews of the diaspora in order to avoid boredom. That will be no problem—because Israel will still be there.

This essay originally appeared in Die Zeit. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.


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Maxim Biller, a German Jewish writer and journalist, is the author of several novels and short story collections. His writing and fiction has appeared in Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and The New Yorker.

Maxim Biller, a German Jewish writer and journalist, is the author of several novels and short story collections. His writing and fiction has appeared in Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and The New Yorker.

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