Mired in victimhood - and blame

Israelis seem to like to live with the horror that they inflict on others, such as the Germans. And the Germans - why do they love this?

By Yitzhak Laor

Haaretz

Cheshvan 2, 5765

BERLIN - The ugly part of Israeli discourse about Germany is its demand for a German "soul-searching." Of whom do Israelis demand this? Of Nazis who murdered the Jewish people? Of the obedient generation? Of those of that generation who gave their Jewish neighbors the cold shoulder? Of those of that generation who went to lay waste to other peoples and countries? The answer in all of these cases is no. This demand is being made of Germans who were not even born at that time. But above all, these discussions lack an answer to one question: Why does it pay to write about the relationship between Israel and Germany? Why do Israelis accept German money - generous academic scholarships, fat research grants, etc. - in order to fling all sorts of accusations at the Germans for acts committed by their fathers and grandfathers?

Where the Israeli demand for German "soul searching" comes from is pretty clear: It perpetuates the discourse of victimhood, which is so central to Israeli ideology. It has nothing whatsoever to do with our knowledge of the past, or the critically important discourse on the Holocaust, or our understanding of Nazism. The discourse of the victim allows Israelis to live with the horror that they themselves inflict on others without wincing. The Oslo-era days of Israeli satire, when the Chamber Quintet group came out with wonderful skits about blackmail at a German athletics match and the Holocaust tourism industry, are over and gone. A heavy anchor has been dropped in the shallow waters of "second generationism" and this drivel about us "all being victims."

And the German side - why is it in love with this stuff? And who, exactly, is the "one" in love? On my desk is a copy of the Berlin tabloid BZ, Berliner Zeitung - a publication that makes the news pages of Maariv [the Israeli mass-circulation daily] look enlightened. On Saturday, September 11, 2004, a banner headline in red, spread across two pages reads: "Jesus Day in Berlin!" Above that, in smaller type, obviously written before the event: "Over 50,000 Christians pray today at Brandenburg Gate." Under the nine-column headline is a huge archival photo (four columns wide) showing masses of waving, excited hands, possibly at the sight of some kabbalah-spouting singer, porno star or hunky archbishop. Then, smack in the middle, in a crude photomontage, two flags flutter in the air: the flag of Germany bearing the inscription "Jesus is here," and next to it, larger and more taut, is the blue-and-white Israeli flag. The photo caption reads: "Christians unite in prayer. 50,000 believers assemble in Berlin to pray for peace the world over."

The Israeli flag here is absurd, not only because this flag, in September 2004 (!) is not a symbol of "yearning for peace," but because it is symptomatic of something else. The German media, including tabloids like BZ, not to mention the Springer group publications, from the boring Die Welt to the nauseating Bild, can never reflect Germany without scrambling for the humanist insurance of the "Other." And what better support could there be for Christian Germans who live in a city that has more Muslims than anywhere else in Europe, where horrifying neo-Nazi propaganda is being spread against Muslims, than the Jewish - pardon me, not Jewish, but Israeli - "Other"? Through simple, graphic means, repeated in other, more sophisticated ways, the Israeli flag - like Berlin's Yitzhak Rabin Strasse and every mediocre Israeli film that comes to town - becomes a springboard for probing "German identity."

Ghosts of yesteryear

Israel is not just the key to Germany's "return to the family of nations," as they used to say. It is impossible to explain how the most progressive parts of the German Bundestag voted against compensating the victims of the Gypsy genocide, as the Holocaust activists among us sat silent, without understanding the role played by blue and white in the resurrected pride of black, gold and red. The German preoccupation with collective identity in the media, in the establishment's culture needs a "humanist relationship with the Other," and what "Other" could be more convenient than one that no longer exists, one that was incinerated and whose place has been taken by "historical heirs" who whine only within the permissible limits? When it comes to Gypsies and Muslims they express no opinion. On the contrary, they happily join forces in an "alliance of the West" (just look how much democracy we can sell with this rhetoric). They make an appearance, accept some money, mumble something about peace for all peoples, moan a little about the wounds of the past, and go home to write about the ghosts of yesteryear.

Nothing could be easier than bringing executioner and victim together by means of the "next generation," which bears no responsibility for anything and has nothing but reification. The past is over and done with, framed, sealed. Now it can be represented by Vorstellung. Who represents the past? Israelis. For Germany, since the reparations agreement with Konrad Adenauer Israelis are the representatives of the Jewish people - before any other country in the world dared to recognize this representation. It only did Germany good. It is hard to think of a "we" in the established domains of the German state without some mention of Jews and the Holocaust: a museum, an exhibit, "Israel Week," funding, a few words about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Amos Oz. Nothing alluding to any genuine political commitment. Even the newspaper of the Greens, TAZ, the last bastion of the West German left, is not much different on this score.

These things have a past: West Germany. It was a state that tried very hard not to produce nationality. Nationality is bound up with the past. West Germany didn't have a past. It didn't have a Holocaust Remembrance Day. Now that Germany is united, it does have a past. Suddenly Germany has a day of remembrance for the Holocaust, for the liberation of Auschwitz by the late Soviet Army. This is a subject for a different article, of course. But Germany's past is partly blurred in the historical discourse, mainly in those places where political analysis is necessary. Some parts of it - the Holocaust - are problematic.

So this is "our" role: to supply an image for what the German language and official German culture are still unable to put into words - the Nazi past. What could be better than Yoram Kaniuk's nagging about his grandfather or Fania Salzberger's reflections upon encountering nature-loving Germans? The Germans lap it up precisely because it has nothing to do with the present. We have a deal: You don't say anything about the apartheid in the occupied territories or our citizenship laws, and we won't say anything about the small change you denied the Gypsies.

A veil over the present

German "soul-searching" of the past, with Israel as the intermediary, is not the same as taking stock of the present. In fact, that is the secret of soul-searching, in Germany and anywhere else: It pulls a veil over the present. Germany is neither better nor worse than any other country in this respect. Sad to say, in many parts of the West, the Holocaust has become a wholesale symbol of evil that is drilled into other persecuted minorities as if it were their own ultimate evil. The Holocaust Museum in Washington is an excellent example. The slaughter of Native Americans has no such monument dedicated to them because the Holocaust of the Jewish people supposedly speaks in their name.

It is enough to calculate how much money flows into the pockets of the Israeli intelligentsia from Germany, as opposed to the sums transferred by other European countries, to understand just how much the German cultural establishment loves this business of "settling accounts with the past." The main thing is that it doesn't touch the present. In the present, it is hard to be a Muslim in Germany. It is hard to be born in Germany to Turkish parents, even if they, too, are German-born. The neo-Nazis won only a small percentage of the total vote, but xenophobia is on the rise, and it is shared by parties across the political spectrum.

The obsession with headscarves worn by Islamic women is a perfect illustration of what the Israeli flag is doing in the BZ report on a Christian rally. It is a battle that has elegantly skipped over the Jews at every stage of the game. No Jew, let alone Israeli, has confronted the Germans with the Jewish point of view. In a noisy debate that continued into the night, I asked a German woman (no racist, I assure you) if she would dare to impose this kind of "modernization" on the Jews. Would she tell a Jew to shave his beard, remove his skull cap, and adopt the appearance of a "universal man," which is to say, a German or French Christian? Her answer was clear: No, I wouldn't ask that of the Jews. I would feel uncomfortable about it. "Unbequem" is the word she used.

In Germany (where the issue was limited to head coverings worn by male and female teachers), the Jews kept a revoltingly low profile throughout the fray, just as they did in France. No one bothered to mention the outward religious symbols of Jews. Neither did any of the "modernists" breath a word about Jewish beards or head coverings worn by Jewish women. These were removed in the past - this same past that can be dealt with "soul searching" with the help of "modern" Israelis - i.e., people who "look like us."

But the past has continued into the present. In Germany, it does not exist in the form of Nazism - Nazism is dead - but in the demand to "look like us," to be monochromatic. The Gypsies who perished? We piss on their graves. The Gypsies who are still alive? They can drop dead. Turkish girls? "Political Islam," that is potential Islamic terrorists.

But Germany's present, including what still lies ahead for "foreigners," in the wake of the country's fall from the pinnacle of economic power, comes with a solid warranty. Emotional blackmailers from Israel, who collect royalties from the suffering of our parents and grandparents, provide German politicians, from the Greens to CSU, with a seal of kashrut as certified humanists. Some legacy, that.