Germany is celebrating a major milestone but I thinks the modern state might be creating a history that isn’t strictly kosher. A new article
Has there really been 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany?
Germany is celebrating a major milestone but MATI SHEMOELOF thinks the modern state might be creating a history that isn’t strictly kosher
I RECENTLY RECEIVED several requests for interviews about my Jewish life in Berlin. I agreed, not taking them seriously. But when a TV crew from Bavaria came to make a film about me and the Fränkelufer Synagogue in Kreuzberg, I started to wonder.
I asked them: Why on earth have you come all the way from the south of Germany to Berlin? And their answer came with a self-evident tone: Because of the 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany.
What? There were Jews in Europe even before the Middle Ages? I checked the internet. And on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of the BBC, I find that in 321, Cologne, the capital of the Lower Germanic province of the Roman Empire, inspired an official edict that marks the earliest evidence of Jewish life in Germany: “When the Cologne City Council wanted to repair a dilapidated bridge but lacked the financial means, a Jew named Isaac wanted to help out. He would, however, have to hold office in the city council.
“A request was submitted to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. ‘By law valid throughout the empire, we permit all city councils to appoint Jews to the city council,’ read the resulting edict issued by Constantine, who had unknowingly produced the first written evidence of Jewish life in Europe north of the Alps.”
Germany is marking this “anniversary” year with celebrations costing millions of Euros.
I’ve noticed that many German media outlets have at least one section on their site referring to this phenomenon. But the phenomenon of which Jewish life? And is this something to celebrate? Is the ambivalent life we had in Europe now older and longer? Even this one document, about the first inclusion of a Jew to a city council, speaks of a history of exclusion.
So I asked friends. Many reacted to the celebration with happiness about the money flow and the attention as some sort of a compensation for the ruined Jewish life of the past.
But others felt this was just one more way for Germans to assuage their historic guilt and to prove how Germany today is different – while many other minorities are not getting that kind of attention.
The Bavarians wanted to film me writing in my office. My publisher, who gave me office space to work on, greeted them, and showed them some of his publications about contemporary Jewish life in Germany.
Then we walked to the synagogue and talked about the diverse ethnic life of Kreuzberg. We paused at Fontanepromenade, a street which once housed the special forced labor offices of the Nazis, where Jews who stayed in Berlin needed to register.
We sat on a bench that once had a sign that read, “Only for Jews”. The Bavarians’ idea was to first show me writing in Hebrew in Berlin, then talking about the Nazi past and finishing inside the synagogue. This would demonstrate, somehow, that Germany was now good for the Jews.
Why is Germany celebrating some Jewish life that was happening in the Roman Empire? Germany didn’t even exist then.
Celebrating 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany? Why is Germany celebrating some Jewish life that was happening in the Roman Empire? Germany didn’t even exist then. But nationalism is a modern idea that needs to describe itself as having history and roots in the region.
As late as 1800, there was no German national identity. This was due mainly to the autonomous nature of the principalities. In turn, there were so many changes for all residents, including Jews, of this region now called Germany. And, of course, the number of Jews was drastically reduced by the Holocaust.
Most of the Jews who have arrived in recent years are immigrants from Russia. And now I come as an Arab-Jew whose parents emigrated to Israel from the Islamic region. I am not part of those 1700 years.
Maybe this Jewish-German coexistence is not a genuine category?
Excuse me for dampening the celebration but there is something dangerous about this idea of looking so far into the past to find a Jew who lived in the Roman Empire in order to celebrate Germany’s presence today.
The idea that Germany existed 1700 years ago embraces the far-right notion of “the fatherland” – the myth that Germany has always existed – and that it had, and has, its volk (the historic people of Germans).
But now they are saying, as fact, that Jews were here before Germany became a nation state. So what do we do with this?
The idea got even more absurd when I turned on the TV and saw my name under the headline, “1700 years of Jewish life in Germany”. I thought that my late father, whose family emigrated to Palestine from Syria and Iran, would have been smiling.
I have become the embodiment of something so old as well as so German and European. And for my father and his Persian family memory, life under the Romans was probably not much different as it was here.