And the Walls Come Tumbling Down
Twenty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Erected in 1961, it stood less than a kilometer from where I sit now. The end of the Cold War destabilized Jewish identities and politics around the world. I still recall marching on Washington in 1987 to “free” Soviet Jewry. In a matter of moments, that sacred mission, which had been a cornerstone of American Jewish life, no longer demanded our attention. Berlin also reminds us of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The legacies of genocide still mark the city’s topography and its culture.
During the last Gaza War, the media reported pervasive public expressions of antisemitism in Berlin; not anti-Zionism or Israel criticism, antisemitism. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a public debate about contemporary antisemitism in Germany, organized by the Center for Research on Antisemitism, where I am currently a post-doctoral fellow. How should we – and Germans – think about the relatively unexpected re-emergence of public antisemitism here? Are we witnessing something new or simply the unwelcomed return of the repressed? What is the relationship between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and antisemitism?
Regrettably, I cannot recount here all of the night’s arguments. I would like, instead, to meditate on the implications of a single line of inquiry. The Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm suggested, based on years of observation, that the single core component of contemporary, secular Jewish culture in America is a relationship with Israel. This, he contends, has had the unhealthy effect of transforming any criticism of that state into a perceived anti-Semitic attack – an offense to the basic stuff of American Jewishness. If Boehm is correct – and I believe that he is – secular American Jewry is facing a crisis of meaning and it is having a disastrous effect upon our capacity for political nuance.
In a discussion after the debate, a noted professor of Jewish history rejected Boehm’s premise. She pointed to the richness of secular Jewish life in America. I do not deny this, but would instead direct you to James Loeffler’s piece in Mosaic Magazine, “The Death of Jewish Culture.” An efflorescence of cultural production alone cannot replace the transcendent meaning that religion and nationalism once provided to our community. Is it any wonder that so many committed nonreligious and non-Zionist Jews express their identities primarily by subverting religious and Zionist narratives – the old cultural cores? What if we could grab hold of something else – something constructive?
For that, I return to Berlin. Had American Jews remained engaged with Jewish life in this city we might have experienced, rather than merely witnessed, the emergence of a playful and porous post-Soviet/Russian-Ukrainian/German/Jewish cultural sphere. The postmodern avant-garde was ours for the taking, provided, of course, that we allowed the word “ours” to change its meaning in the process. Instead, we basked in self-confident, post-Cold-War triumphalism. Fears of demographic collapse followed shortly thereafter, with the release of the first Jewish Population Survey. Our institutions sought to combat this, in large part, with Israel experiences.
Perhaps we can celebrate Berlin’s anniversary by tearing down the walls of twentieth-century identity politics which continue to constrain our communities’ creativity. A people so invested in history, in the commandment to remember, must also understand that it is subject to history. In Berlin, the absence of a wall does not testify alone to the transformative inevitability of globalization. So too do the city’s many Israeli residents who cross daily the former boundary between East and West. Labeling them traitors or cheapskates is to miss the point entirely.
The historian Charles Maier has noted that moral and structural narratives of history rarely map neatly onto one another. Globalization, a structural phenomenon, has taken its toll upon our community and yet I still find myself yearning for the aesthetics of moral and cultural certitude which characterized the previous two centuries. I wish that I could restore our community’s lost transcendent center, but I cannot. I invite you instead to join me in playfully acknowledging our shared nostalgia for the foreclosed future that it once promised, but can no longer deliver (see Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia). What a privileged and terrifying position it is to sit on a wall that no longer stands and to look into the future! Let us open ourselves to the possibility of radical transformation for our new world, twenty-five years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
Jacob Ari Labendz is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin. He received his doctorate in history from Washington University as a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 19). He also serves on the Prague Advisory Board for CET Academic Programs, on the Board of The Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, and as a Committee Member for Shamayim Varetz. Jacob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.