Letter from Berlin

“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical,’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ … because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality.’ Only the good has depth and can be radical.”

—Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem

“…keep your eyes on the hands, let the voice go buzzing”

—Marge Piercy, “In the Men’s Room(s)”

Greetings from the land of the Holocaust centers. While on the other side of the ocean the idea of American exceptionalism comes daily closer to what has always been its final destination—the dustbin of history—(while unfortunately also burying the country’s chance of existing as a functional liberal democracy), I’ve been thinking about living with antisemitism.

Michael Chabon recently published an insightful, moving essay on the violence of the daily degradation that is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, one of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject in a while. Unfortunately, at the very end he felt a need to call the occupation the “greatest sustained exercise of utterly arbitrary authority the world [has] ever seen.”

Really? OK, the adjective “sustained” means all other exercises of arbitrary authority (is there any other kind?) need to have lasted longer than 50 years to qualify. Jim Crow laws come to mind. Colonial rule. Hell, what about patriarchy? I’m not quite sure how condemnation of Israel above all else became the litmus test of the left, but considering the state of the world, it’s getting really tired, and like many Jews, I’m tired of it.

Unexceptionally, on September 11, 2001, I realized that the enemies of my enemy are not necessarily my friends. In fact, they are out to get us. They hate us not because of imperialism and colonialism and rape (after all, they are imperialists and rapists), and certainly not because of Coca Cola and Hollywood (though they perhaps should), but because we are cosmopolitan, intellectual, sex-positive, self-righteously ethical, proud of our pro-choice coastal bubbles, and pragmatic. In short, because we are Jews. It was a moment when the left should have fully embraced Jewishness. But that didn’t happen, and it won’t because the left is deeply antisemitic. Instead, journalists are now bending over backwards to show they are not “elites,” one of those words that self-aware Jews have always known means them.

I’ll wager that almost all Jews on the left have come to (more or less consciously) accept that staying there, which I personally plan on doing (while many have been driven away), means either joining in (Is Israel the only country in the Middle East where you can live an open LGBT life? Yes, but rather than say so, we’re going to invent the concept of “pinkwashing”) or just keeping your mouth shut. Here in Germany and also in Hungary, countries that know or remember what antisemitism can mean, there is actually a pro-Israel left, a concept that’s almost inconceivable in the USA. Sadly, they often fall into the trap of blaming all Palestinian grievances on (lack of) Palestinian leadership, a stance that is in part based on truth, but like all denials of oppression, willfully ignores power structures.

There are people I admire and respect who are BDS activists. There are people I admire and respect who will support whatever the Israeli government does. I happen to think they’re both very wrong about some incredibly important things. But I’m not going to stop talking to them, I’ll let them stop talking to me. Or more seriously, we have to get away from damning one another for ideological failings and instead start believing that it is possible to move towards a world with more social justice. Amidst the vitriol, we are all groping in the dark.

But surely we must draw some lines? Surely we need a litmus test?

I’m not sure we do, but if I had to name one, it would be the right to safe and legal abortions. It’s very strange that we’re even still discussing this issue. In the 1970s, as Mary Dore shows beautifully in her documentary about the 1970s women’s movement She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, abortion was what brought women on to the streets. Now the perspective has clearly shifted. As Katie Gentile writes in her amazing (and heavy on the psychoanalytic jargon) article on Trumps first 100 days:

Hyperobjects [big things like climate change that we have little individual control over – LR] intensify the gap between phenomenon and thing painfully highlighting the failures of our representational systems, reminding us of our limitations. Thus, for humans, hyperobjects are humiliating, bursting our bubble of narcissistic human exceptionalism.

As psychoanalysts know well, humiliations often result in the mobilization of narcissistic defenses against reality. These defenses are thick and unyielding and often bound by an impenetrable network of shame. Integrating psychoanalytic theory with cultural theories of affect we can cast the use of the fetus as a desperate and dangerous narcissistic defense by the cultural body that is using the fetal body to disavow annihilation anxieties.

[…]

The image of a fetus can be a fetish of temporal wholeness in the face of anxiety, simultaneously recasting the past, present, and future as unidimensional, linear and certain; free of ambivalence and conflict. The fetal fetish represents a sentimental nostalgia for the wished-for simplicity of the lost past of childhood, while embodying the promise of an innocent future, untainted by the present anxieties

But guess what? We are all going to have to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. And not as some hipster pose. Because the alternative is striving towards a purity that threatens to purge whoever doesn’t belong. And here, we can learn something from the Shoah.

Many Jews who live in Germany, especially those of us who lived in West Germany when there was a West Germany, where many if not most civil servant positions were held by former Nazi party members, had a phase when they learned everything they could about the time when the natives of the land they live in tried to exterminate all Jews. Mine was perhaps more obsessive than many, and included years of grassroots Holocaust education. And still, even I tend to forget the sheer horror of the scale and bureaucracy of the attempted genocide, and can suddenly be overwhelmed by the details, as when I recently subjected myself to Dariusz Jablonski’s documentary about the Lodz ghetto, Fotoamator (Photographer in the international edition – the last movie I’m going to add to your watch list today). So I notice the baseline is shifting when 60 Minutes feels the need to tell Americans that more than a million Jews were shot down “in their own towns and villages.” Since when does Sean Spicer get to define evil?

My paternal grandparents, both garment workers and immigrants, went to Europe to visit in 1924. There’s a story my grandmother often told me about that trip – about a cousin they stayed with in Paris, a seamstress like them (OK, my grandfather was a milliner, but he was an ILGWU member), who refused to speak Yiddish when her customers came, even though her customers were all French Jews who understood Yiddish and my grandparents understood no French. This story always ended with: “A lot of good it did her. When the Nazis came, they took her first.” For decades I assumed there was some actual causal relationship – that the Nazis wanted revenge on those who tried to pass. That is in no way true. But the lesson my grandmother wanted to teach me is valid: There is no sense in trying to deny your heritage. It won’t save you (also, it can be incredibly rude).

There’s a sentence in German that’s tossed around a lot (I can’t even figure out who said it first) when people expect Jews of all people not to treat Palestinians like shit: “Auschwitz was not a reform school.” Meaning Israel is not more or less subject to ethical norms than every other state. Trauma and victimization do not make you a better person. (A large percentage of Israel’s first citizens were survivors, although the state itself was very conflicted about how to deal with the Shoah.) But that is perhaps a very German perspective on Israel and Palestine. Obviously, the American left is not dominated by the (grand)children of Nazis who would like to feel better about themselves by turning their (grand)parents’ victims into bad people. But it has historically always been a home for American Jews, who after all are expected to make the world a better place and whose word for charity, tzedakah, literally means righteousness or justice. Perhaps our expectations of ourselves were too high and that backfired. Perhaps we just underestimated how much others hate us (it’s happened before).

Hannah Arendt has a slightly different take on this. The following is from her open letter to James Baldwin and about The Fire Next Time, but I’m sure she was also thinking about Israel. After all, it was written shortly after the Eichmann trial:

All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes.

On that cheery note, I’d like to try to bring the threads of this sprawling letter together with a not so old Jewish joke: A priest, a pastor and a rabbi are discussing when life begins. The priest says: “Life begins at conception.” The pastor says: “No, life begins when a baby can survive outside the womb.” And the rabbi says; “That’s funny, for us life begins when the children leave the house.”

Meaning, if we’re going to move forward, we need to shift perspective. We need to ignore the paradigms we’re presented with and set our own. After all, as they said in Paris in 1968, we are all German Jews.


Laura Radosh is a Brooklyn-bred, Berlin-based translator. Mostly she uses her words to channel social science and humanities research, though currently she’s working on a hard sci-fi novel. She’s delighted to use them here to hold high the banner of intersectional feminism.

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