Book Feature: Beyond Stereotypes — Being Jewish in Germany

By Liza Weisstuch

An illuminating new book suggests that, post-Holocaust, the question is no longer whether Jews should live in Germany but how they should live there.

Being Jewish in the New Germany by Jeffrey Peck. (Rutgers University Press)

Read an excerpt from “Being Jewish in the New Germany.”

Last year marked the 60-year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but time has not softened American cliches that caricature Germans as diehard Nazis and racists. In his thoroughly researched and comprehensive volume Being Jewish in the New Germany, Jeffery Peck, a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow in residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, argues that this institutionalized stereotype not only has little to do with reality, but carries significant political ramifications.

Peck presents a picture of a reunified Germany that hosts a thriving Jewish community whose members scoff at those who would criticize them, including other Jews, for building a life in the country where Hitler planned his Final Solution. “While German Jewry was once thought to have literally been destroyed for the present with no future, its growing new community may now ironically be the site for rethinking not only Jewish German life, but also a redefined notion of the Jewish Diaspora for years to come,” Peck writes. The question is no longer whether Jews should live in Germany — the challenge is how they should live there.

Peck delves headlong into the slippery territory of identity politics and what it means to be Jewish not only in Germany but throughout the world. Gathering evidence from a multitude of sources, including the debate around Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s contentious book Hitler’s Willing Executioners and the placement of the 2005 Berlin Holocaust Monument, he arrives at a multifaceted and dynamic understanding. For Peck, being Jewish is not based simply on religious belief nor must it be substantiated by maternal lineage. It is, at its core, a culture that spans a spectrum of manifestations.

Peck’s conclusion is not new, but his evidence is fresh and strategically presented, albeit sometimes with a touch too much of the tone of a cheerleader rooting for the community. “Religion, identity, politics, sexuality, education, business, and culture all figure into the mathematics of commenting on a Jewish population that…has grown [in Germany] by leaps and bounds,” he writes. The author’s strength lies in his ability to smoothly blend contemporary politics, cultural theory, sociology, history, hard demographic data, and even a bit of anthropology.

For instance, ruminations on the contemporary industry that memorializes the Holocaust — in monuments, museums, books, film and television — emerge from a study of how the institutionalization of memory evolved during the Vietnam War. Peck is also effective at showing how second and third-generation German novelists depict the possibilities of Jewish life in Germany instead of representing its daily reality. He cleverly equates his literary analysis of contemporary Jewish representations to the essence of Jewish identity, which is fated to be “reinterpreted again and again, generation after generation, in one historical context or another.”

Libraries worth of books and academic departments of study have been generated around the idea of how, post-World War II, the Jews founded Israel, and, in that context, how the politics of memory have helped define Judaism. But this volume sets itself apart because Peck brings the issues up to the minute by examining the role cyberspace plays in influencing Jewish identity. Interestingly enough, it’s not always a beneficial role. Though the Internet is useful because it connects Jews long scattered in the Diaspora, he alludes to other scholars’ observation that virtual Jewishness is a realm shaped by imagination, not actual Jewish life. He notes how the resurgence of popularity of Old World Klezmer music is often not perpetuated by Jewish musicians but by those who make a fetish of the style.

Despite the effort from second and third-generation Germans to responsibly acknowledge the Holocaust, the mass murders are still defining, especially since Germany, as a nation, has a controversial record when it comes to immigrants. Peck examines the lives of Muslims, particularly Turks, in Germany today and links their treatment with that of how the Jews were controlled during the Third Reich. In this way he illuminates how Germany’s relationship with foreigners contrasts with that of other countries, including the U.S. and Canada.

Peck began his research in 1988, just as the Berlin Wall was wobbling. He gathered a lot of information while living in the city, witnessing how the changing demographic — particularly an influx of Russian Jews — changed the way the German Jewish community viewed itself, which influenced how the latter interacted with American and Israeli groups. At one point, Peck quotes a poor Russian-Jewish immigrant who bluntly talks about how the German Jewish community considered her a lesser Jew because she had a non-Jewish husband.

“Apparently,” Peck concludes, “being Jewish, whether American or Israeli, transcends national boundaries, except in the case of Germany, whose Jews retain a national affiliation that won’t disappear. Just as the German Jews who went to Palestine during the 1930s were treated rudely by their fellow Ashkenazim, Jews living in Germany still continue to be subjected to harsher standards than Jews elsewhere.”

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