Overshadowed by history. Arab migrants, Berlin.

Still Too Close to the Holocaust

The Micha Brumlik Interview, Part II

His academic career is self-evident. Micha Brumlik is extremely cautious with how he characterises Jewish life in today’s Germany.  

But there’s also a precision to what he has to say that reflects the long and incomplete struggle by German Jews for a more progressive national politics.

Responding to interviewer Wieland Hoban’s concerns about the German government’s heavily criticised Antisemitism czar, Felix Klein, Brumlik says what the country needs is a commissioner for “Antisemitism and racism,” not just Antisemitism.

It’s Micha Brumlik at his best. 

Listening to Brumlik speak with Hoban, it’s as though a circle has finally closed between his ’68 generation and today. It’s a far cry from the Cold War Jewish community, and it’s often limited take on topics like Israel and Muslim immigration.

Yet, as Micha Brumlik explains, Germany still has a very long way to go, both as a whole and within the Jewish community.  It will be another generation or two before anything approaching normalisation is within reach, he cautions. 

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Wieland Hoban: What was the nature of your experiences with Matzpen? Did they influence you politically once you had returned to Germany? Do you think that Matzpen still has ideological relevance, either for political work in Israel or for the politics of Israel in the Jewish diaspora?

Micha Brumlik: As a student in Jerusalem in 1968/69, I became a member of the mostly university-based group Matzpen. That membership ultimately led me to return to Germany, because I didn’t want to immigrate to Israel and spend a lifetime fighting for a Trotskyist revolution.

But I remember well how I used to stand in front of the Knesset in those days, holding banners that said “Hala ha Qibush”, meaning “Put an end to the conquest and occupation.”

It’s hard to say exactly whether Matzpen is relevant for Jewish life in the diaspora, but it’s undeniable that they were mostly right in their analysis of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 

In that context, I’d like to mention the excellent study by the historian Lutz Fiedler, published in 2017 (now available in English), which shows this very thoroughly: Matzpen: A History of Israeli Dissidence.

Wieland Hoban: Let’s return to Germany. Leaving aside the Middle East issue, have you observed any significant changes in the Jewish-German discourse in recent decades?

Micha Brumlik: I don’t know about recent decades, but certainly this year, it’s interesting that the focus is no longer purely on the Holocaust and its consequences – which was quite rightly the case – but now also on the whole of Jewish history in the German-speaking world. I find that a great relief and welcome it.

Wieland Hoban: You mean the events around the 1700-year anniversary.

Micha Brumlik: Yes.

Wieland Hoban: There’s a huge amount of material on offer, but I noticed one online exhibition called ‘Wir Juden’ [We Jews], I don’t know if you saw that?

Micha Brumlik: No, I didn’t.

Wieland Hoban: Wir Juden promotes Jewishness and Jews with real machismo – listing Jewish boxers, weight-lifters and the like – where one can see…

Micha Brumlik: Alright, that may be macho, but this year also features things like a biography of one of the presidents of the Bayern Munich football club, Kurt Landauer, which is not macho at all. It just shows that Jews had important functions in all areas of society. 

Wieland Hoban: That’s right, and since long before the Holocaust. At times one can get the impression in Germany that Jewish history only began with the genocide. 

Micha Brumlik: Exactly, and that’s being put straight this year. So I think one can only welcome that.

Wieland Hoban: Since 2017 you’ve been co-editor of the new magazine Jalta, with the subtitle “Magazine for the Jewish Present”. Did you have any concrete goals when you founded it?

Micha Brumlik: No. It’s a successor publication. Some younger people had the idea of following on from our earlier magazine Babylon, and of the latter’s editors, I was the only one who collaborated with them and this publisher, Neofelis. 

I didn’t have a particular strategic idea in mind. But the most recent issue – and that takes us back to our first topic – deals with the racist and Antisemitic attacks in Halle and Hanau, and the victims of those. 

Wieland Hoban: In the reporting and public statements about these cases, it seems to me that the Antisemitic element slightly overshadows the more generally racist background. 

For example, the fact that in Halle, obviously a synagogue was attacked on Yom Kippur, but also a Turkish restaurant and – something that was barely reported at all – a Somali migrant was almost killed by the perpetrator’s car. 

Together with the appointment of all these Antisemitism commissioners, one could get the impression that there’s a certain imbalance in responses to discrimination.

Micha Brumlik: It’s understandable against the historical background in Germany, but for my part, I’d be in favour of changing the position to commissioner for Antisemitism and racism. 

Wieland Hoban: For ethnic and religious discrimination in general.

Micha Brumlik: Exactly.

Wieland Hoban: I think that would bring together the concerns of the different minorities more.

Micha Brumlik: The younger people involved with Jalta, such as Max Czollek or Marina Chernivsky, are very much concerned with forming alliances between minorities.

Wieland Hoban: This is also emphasised in the JDA, isn’t it – that Antisemitism is part of the larger constellation of racism. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, though I’m also of the opinion that Antisemitism and racism are not the same things. Antisemitism is the racist form of Jew-hatred, which is older than any form of racism. 

Wieland Hoban: Any form of racism? There are very many forms of racism all over the world.  

Micha Brumlik: But they didn’t exist yet in the 7th century. That’s how historians would put it.

Wieland Hoban: People often emphasise the special character of Antisemitism.

Micha Brumlik: Look at art history: you find it in this form primarily in the Christian West. 

Wieland Hoban: But every form of racism, with its particular target group, has its own particular history. Antigypsyism, for example, goes back many centuries in Germany.

Micha Brumlik: Sure, no question.

Wieland Hoban: So if one separates Antisemitism and racism so clearly…

Micha Brumlik: It’s not a separation, it’s just a matter of pointing out that hostility to Jews accompanied the birth of the Christian West. 

That’s something particular, something different. I’m not aware of any statements from the early church referring to people termed ‘Gypsies’. Or against people with darker skin. 

Wieland Hoban: Certainly Muslims and Arabs though. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, but that was the external enemy. And in Spain, there were quite different conditions. 

Wieland Hoban: Right, in Spain there was more harmony between Jews and Muslims than between Jews and Christians elsewhere in Europe.

Micha Brumlik: Yes, no question about it.

Wieland Hoban: Could one say that the intertwining of Christian culture and Antisemitism isn’t foregrounded enough in contemporary discourse?

Micha Brumlik: That depends where you look. For example, I’m a member of the Jewish-Christian working group in the German Evangelical Church Assembly and the Central Committee of German Catholics. I often visit Protestant and Catholic academies, and in those contexts, it plays a very important part and there are very significant publications. 

Wieland Hoban: Right, but in the broader public sphere?

Micha Brumlik: It’s always difficult to talk about the public sphere per se. Are we talking about the papers, the television? What are we talking about? 

Wieland Hoban: Yes, but something like the cliché of the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’, which became popular among politicians.

Micha Brumlik: I agree – as far as I can tell, that’s been around for roughly 20 years and has been used as a pretext to say negative things about Muslim immigration. That’s true. 

Wieland Hoban: So the culture of commemoration in Germany has also changed, as a result, hasn’t it?

Micha Brumlik: There’s a greater appreciation of Jewish cultural contributions now, yes. 

Wieland Hoban: But is this really a sincere appreciation? 

Micha Brumlik: It always depends. With the people I speak to, the organisations I just mentioned, it’s sincere. In the field of politics, it wasn’t always sincere.  

Wieland Hoban: If one looks at all these developments, both over the centuries and in the shorter period since the Holocaust, this commemorative culture almost became a form of religion and potentially a kind of alibi – a way of showing one had learned from history – 

Micha Brumlik: One needs to look at concrete cases, that’s too generalised. 

Wieland Hoban: You don’t think one can point to that as a general tendency? 

Micha Brumlik: That would have to be examined empirically. I can’t agree at such a general level. 

Wieland Hoban: Max Czollek writes quite extensively about this in his book Desintegriert Euch!  (Dis-Integrate Yourselves, 2018).

Micha Brumlik: Yes, and I had some serious arguments with him about it. I don’t agree with it. We also often argued about Michal Bodemann’s concept of memory theatre, which I think is wrong. 

I remember the days when on 9 November (the anniversary of the Kristallnacht November Pogroms), say in Frankfurt, the city authorities couldn’t care less if the Jewish community went through the city in a procession. 

Wieland Hoban: So you don’t see any longer-term development in that direction. 

Micha Brumlik: No. 

Wieland Hoban: Would you say that a normalisation, even just of Jewish identity, is still far off in Germany?

Micha Brumlik: I think so, yes. It could take another one or two generations before what one might call the shadow of the Holocaust no longer clings to this small minority. 

It’ll always be there somehow. The question is to what extent. There is an indication that the 1700-year jubilee might be causing some kind of change now. 

Wieland Hoban: But this very strong, understandable focus on the Holocaust sometimes obscures just how much Antisemitism was already normal in German society before that. After all, the problem started much earlier, not just with that very extreme manifestation.

Micha Brumlik: That’s right, and I’ve mentioned in a number of publications that this was also discussed at the foundation of the Bismarck Empire, the German Empire, in 1871. And the terrible pogroms in the Rhineland during the Middle Ages have been known from exhibitions and literature for some time. 

Wieland Hoban: Yes, which means that a real normalisation would have to go beyond the Holocaust – not just processing the Holocaust itself, but considering how even without such an extreme manifestation, these problems.

Micha Brumlik: As I say, and this will have to be empirically examined, I think this is happening in the course of the 1700-year jubilee.

Wieland Hoban: So you think that this anniversary, this event will have a positive effect.

Micha Brumlik: I hope so, at least. We’ll see later on whether that actually proves to be the case.   

Wieland Hoban: Indeed, there are still many months left this year.

Micha Brumlik: Exactly. We’ll have to wait until it’s over, then carry out a few professional scientific surveys to test it. 

Wieland Hoban: Then let’s wait and see, and hope it’s true. But I think that as some people including Max Czollek have written – even if one doesn’t share his arguments regarding memory theatre – there is still this association that makes a normal relationship and Jewish self-identity difficult in Germany.

Micha Brumlik: Yes, that’s a consequence of National Socialism and the crime of the Holocaust, which was unique in human history. How could it be otherwise?

Wieland Hoban: At the same time, the Jewish population has undergone significant changes in demographic terms since the 1990s, and has substantially grown.

Micha Brumlik: I’m a member of the ELES Jewish Scholarship Foundation, and that factor doesn’t change the self-perception of younger Jewish academics at all, even if they originate from the former Soviet Union.  

Wieland Hoban: And people with that background don’t necessarily have any Holocaust experience in their families in the way that most Jews from German families do.

Micha Brumlik: Not in the same way, no. Many of these young people had grandfathers who served in the Red Army and thus contributed to the liberation from the Nazis. 

Wieland Hoban: Then it’s a rather remarkable situation for them to come and live in Germany, isn’t it?

Micha Brumlik: Well, that’s not for me to say. People had different reasons.

Wieland Hoban: Sure, I don’t mean in a personal sense.

Micha Brumlik: It’s interesting, yes. For centuries it was the other way around, Ashkenazi Jews emigrated, and more recently Jews from the former Soviet Union and the USA moved to Israel and Germany. 

Wieland Hoban: And in the last ten years, many Israelis have also moved here. 

Micha Brumlik: That’s right, there are a lot of Israelis in Berlin. 

Wieland Hoban: And with the very large number of Israelis and also people with Palestinian backgrounds, one could almost call parts of it ‘Little Jerusalem’.

Micha Brumlik: One could indeed; there are certain restaurants and meeting places where they interact a lot. 

Wieland Hoban: And there are fewer obstacles to such exchanges than in Israel-Palestine.

Micha Brumlik: Absolutely. As far as I can tell, most of the Israelis who come to Berlin do so because they’re not happy with the political situation in Israel. 

Wieland Hoban: Partly that, partly also the high cost of living there. And for those with German family backgrounds, there’s often the possibility of getting a German passport and going to Germany more easily. 

Micha Brumlik: That’s right, if they’re descended from people who left Germany to go to Israel-Palestine.

Wieland Hoban: And that adds a further facet to the overall nature of Jews in Germany, which surely can’t hurt.  

Micha Brumlik: Indeed, quite the contrary. It’s a great enrichment, as I’ve experienced in my work with students. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.

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