Magazine article Tikkun

Anti-Semites against Anti-Semitism

Magazine article Tikkun

Anti-Semites against Anti-Semitism

Article excerpt

Vol. 8, No. 6. 1993.

A nti-semitism is illegal in Germany. Tell an Auschwitz joke in a bar and you may find yourself in court. But the laws aren't really necessary-everyone in Germany is absolutely opposed to anti-Semitism (except a few crazy skinheads). They'll tell you so quite forthrightly. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of earnest Germans took to the streets last winter in candlelight processions to condemn racism and defend democracy. Their pictures were flashed across the world, a counter-image to the thousands in the city of Rostock who clapped and cheered when firebombs were thrown at an apartment building housing Vietnamese workers. That scene lasted a long time-the police failed to intervene for several days, while the terrorized Vietnamese families in the building were desperate: afraid of being burned to death if they stayed inside, afraid of being beaten to death if they fled outside. . . .

Shouldn't we be glad that Germans are finally in the streets, protesting racist violence? Isn't that what they should have been doing during the 1920s and '30s? Isn't it a sign of a new Germany, a land of democratic values, that people protest racially motivated violence? If the actions of the neo-Nazi skinheads lend credence to the impression that nothing's changed, the demonstrators should give a countervailing signal-that there are also "new" Germans. Or maybe, nearly fifty years since the end of Nazism and the establishment of democracy, we should stop interpreting altogether. Why should we constantly scrutinize contemporary Germany through the lens of the Third Reich? Why saddle Germans of the 1990s with the sins of previous generations?

What we see in present-day Germany when we wrest our focus from the mesmerizing images of neo-Nazis is that even those condemning anti-Semitism often repeat anti-Semitic stereotypes that they have inherited from German intellectual and political culture. Anti-Semitism has been ubiquitous in German culture for so many centuries, reaching a peak during the Third Reich, that it cannot be overcome simply by being rejected as abhorrent. But making anti-Semitism illegal also makes it a taboo. As often happens with taboos, anti-Semitism becomes appealing to skinheads rebelling against social conventions, and leaves everyone else nervous about discussing it.

Condemnation is the easy part, both emotionally and morally satisfying. Start talking about anti-Semitism with Germans, however, and their cultural conundrum emerges. For example, the most flagrantly anti-Semitic texts-Mein Kampf or Protocols of the Elders of Zion-are available only with great difficulty at some libraries. Libraries keep those books under lock and key in what's called a "poison closet." But the task of rooting out the distortions and canards about Jews and Judaism from German culture is far more systemic: The work of nearly every great German Christian thinker contains anti-Semitic views and characterizations. Should Fichte's treatise on the French Revolution be relegated to the poison closet because he remarks that the only way to get rid of Jewish ideas is to cut offJews' heads? What about noted Christian scholars of Judaism, such as Gerhard Kittel or Adolf Schlatter, who conclude from their technical studies of rabbinic literature that Judaism is a degenerate, violent religion? Are their conclusions anti-Jewish, or the learned interpretations of thoughtful scholars? If every German book containing anti-Jewish remarks were banished, the libraries would shrink dramatically. . . . …

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