April 9, 2013 | Foreign Policy

The Jew in a Box

What does it say about Germany today that in order to see some Jews you’ve got to go to a museum?
April 9, 2013 | Foreign Policy

The Jew in a Box

What does it say about Germany today that in order to see some Jews you’ve got to go to a museum?

It's safe to assume that the German organizers of an exhibit that centers around a Jew sitting in a Plexiglas box, answering questions from museum-goers, anticipated some controversy. “We wanted to provoke, that's true, and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable. But that's fine by us,” the Berlin Jewish Museum's curator says of the exhibit, “The Whole Truth… everything you always wanted to know about Jews.” But even they may not have anticipated the level of vitriol that has greeted the project.

The general secretary of the 105,000-member Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan J. Kramer, promptly ridiculed the exhibition, saying, “Why don't they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?” According to Kramer, “They actually asked me if I wanted to participate. But I told them I'm not available.” Criticism has come from all sides: The popular German-language pro-Israel, pro-American website, Die Achse des Guten (The Axis of Good), labeled the exhibit “Jews for Dummies.”

Germany's postwar treatment of Jews has always been a kind of litmus test for whether the country is on the path to rehabilitation. After the Third Reich exterminated some six million Jews, relations between Germany and Jews have been, well, complex.

“It's a horrible thing to do — completely degrading and not helpful,” says Eran Levy, an Israeli who lives in Berlin, adding that “the Jewish Museum absolutely missed the point if they wanted to do anything to improve the relations between Germans and Jews.”

Henryk M. Broder, one of Germany's leading commentators on German-Jewish relations and a journalist with the large right-of-center daily Die Welt, described the exhibit as “pathetic and useless.” In an e-mail to me, Broder, who is a German Jew himself and the author of numerous books on the community, compared the exhibit to “the 'völkerschauen' with black Africans” — shows in late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany in which people from foreign lands were displayed like animals at carnival-like festivals.

Broder said the exhibit is “evidence that the Jews are still exotic regardless of how they try to act and be 'normal.”' He added that if something along these lines were done with Muslims in the Jewish Museum, the Muslims would burn the place down. “But the Jews have so little feeling for a sense of honor and self-respect that they need to participate.”

In defense of the exhibit, the museum's director, Cilly Kugelmann, issued a postmodern response in a local Berlin paper: “We don't give an exclusive answer. We show many perspectives.” Tina Luedecke, a museum representative, justified the “Jew in the box” exhibit, saying: “A lot of our visitors don't know any Jews and have questions they want to ask. With this exhibition we offer an opportunity for those people to get to know more about Jews and Jewish life.”

So, is the exhibit a kind of useful — if by German standards provocative — pedagogy? Or is it an offensive form of kitsch performance art that dehumanizes Jews? And putting aside the heated feelings, is the show contributing to some wobbly semblance of “normalcy” between German Jews and Germans?

The exhibit spans seven rooms of an upper floor of the Berlin Jewish Museum, which opened in 2001 and was designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. The installation presents 30 questions in the various exhibit rooms and aims to provide insights through quotes, objects, and texts. It's a bit simplistic. “How can you recognize a Jew?”, “Are the Jews the Chosen People?”, “Is a German allowed to criticize Israel?”, and “Why do Jews live in Germany?” are some of the questions that confront visitors.

But the attention-grabbing part of the exhibit takes place in the Plexiglas box, where a diverse group of Jews from the United States, Britain, Germany, Israel, and elsewhere work shifts. Leeor Engländer, a 30 year-old German Jewish journalist at Die Welt, says he sits because “it is important to me to use the attention to clear up prejudices and misunderstandings.”

A museum administrator told me during my visit this week that a steady 300 to 400 visitors per day have visited the exhibit since the March 22 opening.

This isn't the first time the museum has provoked controversy. Last year, the museum hosted the University of California, Berkeley academic Dr. Judith Butler, who urged roughly 700 Germans at a sold-out podium discussion to boycott Israel. The crowd lavished euphoric applause on the speaker, then the museum banned audience questions about Butler's cordial words for Hamas and Hezbollah. (Butler had previously described Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.”)

Gerald Steinberg, who heads the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor and is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, termed the cultural institution at the time the “Berlin anti-Jewish Museum.” In an unusual move for Israel's cautious diplomats in Berlin, the embassy rebuked the event at the publicly-funded museum. Butler's boycott call raised the ire of many Jews in Germany: the taxpayer-funded museum's decision to showcase a speaker who would call for a boycott of Israeli institutions recalled the Nazi period when Berlin served as the launching pad for a boycott movement against German-Jewish businesses.

The recent controversies at the museum are a reminder of the strains inherent in the relationship between the over 81 million Germans and the country's tiny Jewish population — somewhere between 105,000 and 200,000. The late playwright and filmmaker Ranier Werner Fassbinder, summed up the source of the tension well in his 1975 play, Garbage: The City and Death, in which an anti-Semitic character declares, “And it's the Jew's fault, because he makes us feel guilty because he exists. If he'd stayed where he came from, or if they'd gassed him, I would sleep better.”

Fassbinder — in starkly dramatic terms — neatly captured why the presence of Jews makes many Germans uncomfortable. It is worth recalling that in the immediate post-Holocaust period, Nazis were still present in all walks of life and a repressive silence largely blanketed public discussions about the role of ordinary Germans in the eradication of European Jewry. Of course, it's harder to maintain the illusion when there are living reminders of the crime in your midst. The German social and cultural Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — who had fled to the United States during the war because of their Jewish backgrounds and later returned from exile — diagnosed this phenomenon as “guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism” (Schuldabwehrantisemitsmus).

The pressing question is, are there major generational shifts underway in Germany undercutting the anti-Semitism associated with pathological guilt? Or has Schuldabwehrantisemitsmus morphed into a normalcy that has swung the pendulum back the other way, allowing for a disproportionally intense criticism of the Jewish state and Israelis?

The exhibit tackles this oft-ignored contemporary form of anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic — namely, the loathing of Israel. Projected on a wall in the first room of the exhibit is a giant version of a December 2012 article from the left-liberal daily Die Taz on how to write a text slamming Israel while insulating oneself against charges of anti-Semitism. With biting irony and sarcasm, Philip Meinhold, the author of the article, provides 10 tips: Find an anti-Israel Jewish “state witness” to quote “since anyone quoting a Jew — that's the nature of the beast — cannot hate Jews”; don't cite the radical Islamic organization Hamas in the piece since it will “distract” from the subject of criticizing Israel; and parade your left-wing credentials because leftists in Germany are “known to oppose Nazis” and thus cannot be opposed to Jews.

Hannah Pool, a 20 year-old student from Cologne, told me after reading Meinhold's article that his strong irony sheds light on how “simple the Germans make criticism of Israel,” rather than working to understand the historical context of the country's troubles.  Pool said she read Adorno's writings on Germany working its way through its Nazi past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) as a high school student.

She referenced in particular the German novelist and Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, who triggered a recent round of debate over anti-Semitism. Grass, a long-standing Social Democratic party activist and former member of the Nazi Waffen SS as a teenager, declared last April in his widely reprinted poem, “What Must Be Said,” that “Israel's atomic power endangers an already fragile world peace” and claimed that the Jewish state seeks to obliterate the Iranian population. The blowback against Grass's poem and his views on the Middle East was potent and the renowned author was sharply criticized by commentators across the political spectrum.

An Act 2 of the Grass debate riveted the nation's media and intellectuals last fall, when Jakob Augstein, a columnist and partial owner of Der Spiegel attacked Israel, Orthodox Jews, and the U.S. Republican Party in a series of commentaries. As a result, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center included Augstein in its 2012 annual list of the “Top Ten Anti-Israel/Anti-Semitic Slurs.” Augstein, arguably Grass's greatest advocate in the German media, expressed his gratitude to the novelist for his slashing criticism of the Jewish state: “One must, therefore, thank him for taking it upon himself to speak for us all.”

Quotes from Augstein's “When In Doubt, Think Left” column appear at the exhibit.” One example cited is his column that attributed all of the woes of the Arab Spring to Israeli and U.S. Republican conduct. “The fire burns in Libya, Sudan, Yemen…. But those who set the fires live elsewhere…. Whom does this all this violence benefit? Always the insane and unscrupulous. And this time it's the U.S. Republicans and Israeli government,” wrote Augstein.

But many of the burning questions at the Jewish Museum seem a bit more mundane.

I asked Ido Porat, an Israeli seated in the glass box at the time I visited, what sort of questions he received. He said they included: “Do Jews believe in Hell or Paradise?” and “What brought me to Germany?” Another participant, British-born Ronni Golz, who has lived in Germany for over 40 years, told me “the whole exhibit is enlightening because it is not dead serious.” Yet, in the same breath, he added: “It is serious.”

Golz said the exhibit sends a humorous message in the tradition of the Mel Brooks film The Producers and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator that “it is time to relax” the fraught relations between Jews and Germans. He said some of the objections — complaints that the box resembled the one Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was kept in during his trial in Israel in 1961 — were “neurotic.” During his time in the box, Golz said he was questioned about a number of topics: Israel and the peace process, circumcision and Kosher dietary laws, and how many Jews live in Germany.

The frivolous, relaxed atmosphere of the exhibit appealed to Claudio Kühn, a law student, who said he appreciated that it forced the viewer to grapple with difficult questions but in way that generates laughter. But when asked about whether there is growing normalcy between Germans and German Jews, he said the tight security control at the museum's entrance makes him aware of the lack of normalcy.

Karin Schaal-Büscher, a middle-aged woman who works for the teacher's union in Berlin, expressed mixed feelings about the glass box. “The confinement reminds me of Auschwitz and Treblinka,” she said. She expressed a dissatisfaction with the lack of women in the exhibit — the volunteers in the box have mostly been male — but considered the exhibit to be worthy of a visit.

Perhaps more awkward than anything is the lengths the museum goes to showcase celebrities who are Jewish or have a Jewish connection. Posters, which hang in the last room of the exhibit, show Elizabeth Taylor (who converted to Judaism) and British soccer icon David Beckham (who has a Jewish grandfather) wearing a yarmulke. A video installation runs clips of American Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. There you go, Germany, that's the Jews for you. Laugh a bit.

In the end, it's undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it's hard to imagine that a major change in this most tense of historical relationships will come from this exhibit — not so long as Germans still have to go to a museum to see Jews. 

Benjamin Weinthal is a European affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter: @BenWeinthal.

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