Friday, August 19, 2005

The Trouble With Anglo-Jewry: The Berlin Question

The following is an epilogue for The Trouble With Anglo-Jewry: Diasporate Times.

I was in Berlin with a local friend of mine and his fiancĂ©e, having a nice Italian dinner. The topic of conversation turned to the local Jewish community and why they didn’t just organise themselves to take care of their self-defence instead of relying entirely on the police. From this, we ended up debating the nature of community in the Diaspora and from there onto the morality of whole countries, and from this, what the underlying philosophy of Jews should be now that we have our own state.

Before we get into that, some observations about the German Jewish community , and some travel guide impressions of Berlin. The German Jewish community is about 100,000 strong, of which one fifth consists of Holocaust survivors and their descendents, or those who escaped and later returned. The rest largely consists of Russian immigrants who have arrived in the last 15 years.

In Germany, the state supports all religions, to the extent of renovating and maintaining synagogues, and paying salaries of rabbis and other support staff. In the case of the ever-persecuted Jews, this extends to security – every synagogue here has a posse of armed policemen on round-the-clock duty outside.

Well, let us start with a short analysis of the community’s internal issues and their relations with the German nation and state. The government, for reasons of historic guilt complexes, are very anxious to retain a Jewish community in their country that will appear to the casual observer to be thriving. The majority of ordinary German Jews (as distinct from the Russian Jews who have moved here) are a largely staid bunch, being either too old or seeing it as politically inexpedient to seek change in religious practice and organisation.

The state support for synagogues is based on a status quo that suits both the government and the German Jewish hierarchy who have seats on the national council that oversees distributions of vast sums of state funding for synagogues and other communal organisations. The majority of funds go to nominally Orthodox but largely conservative synagogues, and the elite prevent Russians or other undesirable Jewish alternatives from taking hold.

This elite group can also take credit for the “growth”, ie influx of largely illegal immigrants to boost numbers, despite maintaining traditions that drive the few young German Jews away. This is true of both Orthodox and Reform brands of Judaism here. And if that doesn’t work, the Russians using their majority to force changes that essentially recreate the environment of back East probably will.

Ultimately German Jewry exists for the most part as a somewhat pathetic memorial to the once-thriving communities that set the agenda for the development of a modern Germany as it emerged from the Franco-Prussian War, in every field from economics and politics to philosophy and the arts, and hence as a constant reminder to those who turned against them.

With all this in mind, let us return to my friend’s big fear. The state, in the form of policemen outside shul buildings are great for deterrent value against the casual thug, but if their own lives were being threatened by a substantial mob or well-armed terrorist, would they step aside? Worse, if they were subverted by the attacker (or even the state), could they turn their weapons on those inside the buildings under their protection?

My thoughts on being a Jew in modern, undivided Berlin are that whilst the forward-thinking and liberal classes may support the notion of a successful return of the Jews, they are still unloved and unwanted in person, especially in the eyes of the working classes who have turned to the politics of the far-left and far-right, neither of which are sympathetic. Berlin also has a very sizeable Turkish population, which despite the geopolitical picture (alliances between Israel, Turkey and the United Satans of America) is often very hostile, perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to their own dismal position in German society.

It takes a lot for the Vatican to be pro-Jewish, but even Pope Benedict (Ratzinger to you), on his visit to a synagogue in Cologne - only the second ever by a pope to a Jewish place of worship - felt he had to issue a warning that anti-semitism was on a worrying upward trend.

My friend is a libertarian. He has recently started reading too many American social, economic and political theorists and now has an urge to get a green card and/or start bearing arms (the Second Amendment is a particular bugbear of his – I keep explaining that despite America’s previous control of a chunk of the city, German law does now apply in the Berlin region). He was keen to argue that the community here should take security matters more firmly into their own hands as a matter of morality. I asked whether this meant working outside the law or alongside it.

Ultimately, at root in the debate is a key question of how Jews behave in the Diaspora, and what purpose they serve in living there when alternatives abound, from Herzl's initial idea of assimilation, through the normalising effect of the Enlightenment, to the idea of Zionist nationalism and a Jewish state anywhere, to one actually in our historic homeland. In my next posting, I will attempt to tackle the relationship of Jews to Zionism, and whether it should be "Israel, right or wrong"...

2 comments:

Eric said...

Hmm.. I quite enjoyed these last couple of posts.
I'd like to point out a few things though.

1. Re. Jews in Germany: AFAIK, Yekkes were a minority in German shuls even before the arrival of the XUSSR Jews. Back in the 80s, IIRC, they were already outnumbered by DPs ("displaced persons"), plus people who fled from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in the 50s, plus a few Israelis, plus a few Allied troops who stayed on, married a local or whatever. Most of these became naturalized citizens a long time ago, but nevertheless the community here has not been - or been perceived as - "native" like the London one for a long time.

2. Libertarianism etc.: I had just came across these ideas and arguments recently, so probably got a bit carried away. Being more libertarian than your average German is not exactly very difficult, all I'm doing is trying to see beyond my knee-jerkingly pro-redistribution, wolly-leftwing, pro-EU, anti-American upbringing. So cut me some slack, OK?

IIRC the idea behind my ranting was that a community that organised stuff (e.g. funding, self-defence or other) for itself would probably appear less "pathetic" to you and me than what we now see.

BTW, did you know that our endless arguing that evening totally exasperated my dearest? Blogs are a great medium for shouting off, but in real life both of us might benefit from slightly smaller mouths...

Smooth said...
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