28 Dec 2016

Benjamin Fischer

'We need to talk about more than Holocaust' - is a statement that can be understood in different ways, and a sentiment sometimes held for opposing reasons.

“Being put in front of someone’s cart”

-this is a German saying that refers to situations when people use someone else’s statements for their own purposes.

It’s an expression I had to think about a lot ever since one of my last visits to Germany in early November.

The following story is exemplary of how intra-communal discussions can be misused, but it should nevertheless be understood as a motivational call to engage in these debates.

The Abraham Geiger College had invited me to participate on a panel to discuss religious pluralism in contemporary Judaism. The event was built around Leo Baecks Yahrzeit, and was a great success to my mind. After a few introductory remarks, the head of the umbrella organisation of cultural organisations in Germany (Deutscher Kulturrat) presented a dossier on Judaism that was about to be published (although it is in German, try to read it; it’s excellent). Lastly, Rabbi Homolka delivered an excellent speech that provided food for thought.

“Rewriting the narrative of the third generation” is one of the major tasks we have formulated for EUJS as an organisation. We do this by trying to provide a young, independent and progressive voice for both Jewish representation and intra-communal Jewish debates. I was aware that this event was intended to spark a debate within the Jewish community, of which I believe the German community needs a healthy portion.

Accordingly, when Dmitri Belkijn (who recently published “Germanija” - in German, but a worthwhile read!), Yael Kupferberg and I got on stage, I was quite sure about what I had to contribute to the panel. All of us shared our own personal stories which varied drastically and consequently formed a picture of the diverse German Jewish community. Literally every answer was followed by an applause, and I had the feeling that the audience actively took part in our discussion.

At one point I said something that I’ve said before on many different panels:

“I have the feeling, that the narrative of our generation, the third generation, is predominantly standing on three pillars: Experienced and perceived anti-semitism, a - often wrong - Holocaust education and an often too superficial engagement with the state of Israel and its conflicts. Whilst all three topics are of utmost importance, I think that we need to add more positive foundations to our own self-understanding.”

This statement clearly stuck out. It did not receive applause, and immediately after I was approached for clarification.

Most of these conversations led to further ideas.

However, three times in a row I experienced what it meant to “be put in front of someone’s cart.” In all three cases I was approached by older women, each of whom identified themselves as non-Jewish, encouraged, perhaps, by their second glass of wine. One indirect quote is representative of the statements they gave me:

“I really liked what you said, about the Holocaust. I think it is time to speak more positively and less [altogether] about it. Mrs. Knobloch [Holocaust survivor that had spoken that evening] is one of these typical negative personalities. Why do we always have to put salt on the wounds? I know so many Holocaust survivors that share positive stories. I like those better. [...] I think you were absolutely right, Benny. I mean, why do we have to constantly visit concentration camps with our classes [she was a teacher] if today’s challenges are different?”

They spoke a lot about guilt and how much they care about Judaism, but how they feel they cannot criticise the Jewish state, and so on. Each conversation lasted at least five minutes as a result of me clarifying my own position, as well as explaining my issues with their problematic statements.

I could detail my answers to these women, about my own experiences with the Germans’ struggle to deal with their own past/history. Or about extent to which these women were representative of the German population, or the differences between guilt and responsibility. However the aim of this article is something else that emerged from this, namely, the difficulty of the outer perception of inter-community debates. It’s obvious what happened here. A debate designed for an inter-community setting was completely misinterpreted from people without sufficient knowledge of the community.

The conflict in the Middle East, the Shoah and antisemitism, these are all pieces of Jewish identity with which our generation must engage. Nevertheless, we sometimes need a safe space to openly discuss our stories, our feelings and our positions without the constant risk of being misunderstood. Being “put in front of someone’s cart” when doing so is a danger of which I was not sufficiently aware.

This sort of situation could have taken place in many other European countries, I am sure. I have seen it when Steven Woolfe approached me after a speech in the European Parliament (Starts at 1:18:00) and used my remarks about the current NUS chair Malia Bouattia in order to speak to me about “things we are not allowed to say in public, without being accused of racism.” He clearly thought he would find a friend for anti-Muslim sentiments in me, and that I would echo his opinion by reflecting on Muslim-Jewish relations. I did not.

“Being put in front of someone’s cart” can hurt. Apart from urging you to contextualise or justify your statements - which is fine of course - it might put you in a very uncomfortable position by generating a flood of reactions. However, I wish for no inter-communal debate to be suppressed by the fear of being misinterpreted by external views. I experienced the relief of having such open discussions for the first time during my time as a scholar of the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Foundation. Similarly at EUJS we try to strengthen national Jewish Student Unions in order to provide these safe spaces.

Of course offering these platforms for constructive dialogue with people from outside of the community is of equal importance. And yes, here as well, young Jewish grassroots activists are leading, by the way. Ultimately, our own identity, society’s acceptance of European Jewry and public debate will benefit from that! I myself learned that the fear of “being put in front of someone’s car” will certainly not lead to hesitation of critically engaging with my own narrative. No audience in the world, no political debate and no populist politician will accomplish in doing so.

As for Berlin: I will always enjoy coming back to you and in all ugliness, you are one of the most beautiful places I know.

Benjamin Fischer is the president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), a pluralistic, inclusive and non-partisan umbrella organisation supporting Jewish student unions throughout Europe and representing its members in international institutions and organisations.

JEU aims at providing a platform for a pan-European exchange on Jewish life, thought and culture that extends beyond national and linguistic barriers.

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