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I’m not your token Jew: Max Czollek

INTERVIEW! Jewish Berlin-born author Max Czollek takes a German-centric look at how the country treats its Jews offering a novel if no less damning perspective beyond the current political discourse.

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Photo by Lydia Goolia

Taking a critical step away from the polemics on antisemitism that plague the current political discourse, Jewish Berlin-born author Max Czollek offers a refreshing but no less damning take on the way Germany’s been handling its Jews.

When it comes to Jews in Germany, it’s hard to avoid being caught in the Zionism-antisemitism conundrum as framed by Middle-Eastern politics. Max Czollek sidesteps the ideological cul-de-sac to focus on a more German-centric, but equally polemical indictment of how Germany treats its Jewish minority. His target: a culture of ‘integration’ that instrumentalises Jews to construct a new national identity freed from its Nazi past. His 2018 book Desintegriert euch! (De-integrate yourselves!) is a whimsical anti-integration manifesto that questions the roles German society assigns to migrants in order to propagate the image of a rehabilitated Schland. According to Czollek, we are all extras in a theatre of integration that stabilises modern German identity. What do ‘solidarity’ cutout kippas have to do with national flags at World Cup games and the rise of the AfD? Czollek connects the dots and presents a blueprint of resistance doused in humour.

Germans like to view themselves as world champions when it comes to remembering the horrors of their past – they’re Gedächtnisweltmeister, if you will. Is that a problem?

Gedächtnisweltmeister (Remembrance World Champions) isn’t a bad term at all to describe how Germany has styled its own self-image when it comes to remembering national socialism and World War II. A central narrative of modern German identity that emerged from the 1970s onwards is that they are no longer Nazis. This culminated in a speech by former Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985, in which he no longer spoke of the Germans being “defeated” but rather “liberated” by the Allies. This idea of collective liberation, of being freed together with the Jews, so to speak, is central to the idea of a new, modern and better Germany – and it’s precisely this self-image that allows people to start hanging German flags again, to be proud of their country, to develop a positive national image.

One could call this a healthy sense of belonging, a display of national togetherness… What’s so wrong about it?

There is abundant research showing that an increase in nationalism also increases antisemitic and racist sentiment. What I am wondering, though, is how this desire for national identification contradicts the New German self-image as redeemed, positive and friendly. It seems as if the desire for nationalism and Heimat is telling us a second, different story pointing to questions of continuity with Nazism and its fundamental political concepts that people living in a post-national-socialist society like Germany would like to ignore. But without understanding precisely this continuity of German history, it’s impossible to understand what’s happening right now: namely, why a fifth of society would vote for a far-right nationalist party like the AfD. People in love with this New German self-image fail to even realise we’re in a crisis here.

Your book is a call to de-integrate ourselves from German society. What do you mean by that exactly?

De-integration is the antithesis to the integration paradigm – and integration is another very German term to describe a mode of belonging to society. It suggests cultural hegemony of a societal centre which decides who belongs to Germany and who doesn’t. This is often referred to as Leitkultur. But it also places various minorities under suspicion of not being worthy, feminist, liberal, enlightened or democratic enough. What we have to understand is that this puts a quarter of society under general suspicion – this is the number of people with a foreign background in Germany.

So what should be done according to you?

The demographic structure of German society has shifted tremendously in recent decades, but sadly our political concepts are mostly stuck in the past. We need to develop a critical perspective on the performative roles society assigns to us. Not everyone has to love this country to be a part of it and people will have to accept that some just don’t want to sing the national anthem or wave the German flag.

The Deutsche Bahn had to backpedal on its plans to name an ICE train after Anne Frank, and the biscuit empire heir Verena Bahlsen claims her family treated foreign forced labourers well, paying them the same as Germans. Are such incidents symptomatic of a society that relativises the crimes of the Third Reich or just gaffs?

I would say they’re symptomatic. A recent example that I’ve been thinking about a lot is the Bundeswehr’s new ad campaign. They’re recruiting with the slogan “gas, water, shooting – handymen wanted”. This is a play on how the plumbing firm that German comic character Werner works for advertises itself: “Gas, Wasser, Scheiße”. At no point, apparently, did the Bundeswehr stop and think that gas, considering the historical connection of the German army to chemical warfare and Zyklon B, and water, if we consider waterboarding, are problematic terms for what is the successor organisation of the Wehrmacht. Best case, this is just down to naivety, but I’d rather see it as another calculated breach of the limits of acceptable discourse; the PR-agency they were working with is known for those things.

You argue that there is a performative element to Jewish identity in German society, borrowing sociologist Michal Bodemann’s concept of Gedächtnistheater (theatre of remembrance). What role do Jews play?

The very presence of Jews in our society, for example, serves as proof that Germany is no longer Nazi. It’s completely irrelevant what Jews actually do, or where they come from, it’s just important that they’re there. This symbolic function of Jews as a representation of Shoah victims is so dominant that no one seems to remember that 90 percent of the Jewish community in Germany migrated from the Soviet Union. In fact, it’s almost entirely a migrant or post-migrant community. In a kind of Jew porn, a Jewish presence serves as a wank bank so German society can feel better about its past. The figure of the Jew is a projection of the desire for the self-construction of a new German identity. Of course, this identification of Nazi politics solely with the Jews ignores, say, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of whom were also persecuted and killed.

Do you ever feel like you’re reduced to this specific Jewish figure?

Sasha Marianna Salzmann and I organised the De-Integration Congress at Gorki based on our own experiences as artists, namely that our work was always pigeonholed as Jewish writing. In reality, there aren’t any Jews. There are only people who are, amongst other things, Jewish, just as there aren’t any Germans but rather people who are also German. This is intersectionality 101. Sasha and I wanted to define a space that would refuse a satisfaction of German desire by being the token Jews who always comment on antisemitism, Israel and the Shoah. And this remains a challenge.

You coin the term Integrationstheater (integration theatre) in your book. What do you mean by that?

German society imagines itself as a pluralistic and open one. To an extent that’s true. But when there is talk about integration, it’s almost always about Muslims. No one’s really asking whether Russian-Germans are well integrated, and that counts for French and British expats too. Migrants therefore also play certain roles that are assigned to them and which aid the construction of the new German self-image. This role is split in two. On the one hand, there are those bad migrants “we” don’t want to have: gang-raping hordes of men at Cologne train station, for example. And then there are good migrants like the ones who score goals for the national football team. These roles can shift, however. If you’re not scoring enough goals anymore – like football player Mesut Özil – then you become a bad migrant whose loyalty is questioned and who is made responsible for the deplorable performance of the German team at the last World Cup.

Neo-Nazis ran riots against refugees in Chemnitz last summer and the AfD is represented in every state parliament as well as in the Bundestag. Is Germany flirting with fascism again?

The AfD is above all a symptom but we need to ask what in our established ways of thinking as a society enables something like the AfD to become so strong so quickly. After the last general election saw the rise of a völkisch party in an unprecedented number, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said we are an anti-antisemitic and antiracist country. But are we really? Isn’t this just an expression of hope that has no bearing on reality? And don’t we need a far more critical approach to analyse and tackle the continuity of racism, nationalist thinking and antisemitism in present-day Germany? In my eyes, the AfD is a “völkisch” party just as much as a racist party – both things are connected in a German history of right-wing political thought.

Interestingly, the AfD likes to market itself as the protector of Jews against antisemitic Muslims. Meanwhile, islamophobic Pegida bangs on about wanting to defend our Judeo-Christian culture…

The emergence of the new right in Germany is to a certain extent contingent on the fact that Jews are a part of it. If those parties don’t accept the presence of Jews in Germany, then they are operating outside of the tolerated frame of discourse. It’s an entry requirement for political discussion. What’s interesting though is how you can say you’re pro-Jewish and then be as racist as you want. It’s like a joker card you play to allow you to say other things. The question I am asking in my book and articles is whether the Jewish community should take them up on this offer of standing beside right-wing Germans in their fight against Muslims or whether we create spaces within society where Muslims and Jews can live together without fear.

Parties across the spectrum from the CDU to the Linke have been reclaiming right-wing terms like Heimat or Volk and you’ve condemned that “rhetoric of tenderness”. But could this also be a legitimate strategy to win back voters lost to the AfD?

Where on earth does this optimism come from though? After being appointed Innenminister Horst Seehofer renamed his ministry Heimatministerium, explicitly with the goal of taking some wind out of the AfD’s sails. Seehofer’s first act in this position was then to declare that Islam doesn’t belong to Germany. That’s not a reappropriation of Heimat. That’s an adoption of a right-wing perspective – and that’s one way this strategy fails.

After an antisemitic incident in Prenzlauer Berg last year, a campaign was launched to wear kippas in solidarity. Similarly, after the Federal Ombudsman for Antisemitism Felix Klein recently advised Jews against wearing a kippa in public, there were renewed calls to wear them, especially ahead of and during the annual pro-Palestinian Al-Quds demonstration in Berlin. Is this an effective form of solidarity or victim fetishisation?

Funnily enough, Sasha Marianna Salzmann and I had already made our own foldable paper kippas at our De-Integration Congress in 2016 with the words “become a part of the problem” printed on them. The idea was essentially to question why Jews sporting kippas are always so central to public memorial rituals. If Germans can rebuild synagogues and lead Jewish museums they can do that on their own too – they don’t need Jews for this performance. The left-wing taz newspaper and tabloid Bild have recently copied our idea and published cut-out kippas. And I think this points to a tendency to increasingly associate Jews with a religious, orthodox Judaism. None of my Jewish friends in Germany actually regularly wear the kippa, which is, of course, not only a religious but also a male symbol. However, for some people, solidarity campaigns like these are really important and I get that. I just find it a bit strange and kitschy.

Peter Schäfer has resigned from his post as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin after the museum’s Twitter account shared a taz article in which Jewish and Israeli academics accused the German government of being instrumentalised in Israel’s fight against the BDS protest movement. Before that Schäfer had already come under criticism for inviting an Iranian delegation to the museum. Are Jewish cultural institutions being instrumentalised?

This question not only crosses several layers of a complex Jewish-German relationship, but also inter-Jewish relations. The specific case around Peter Schäfer is a testament to an intensifying struggle within the Jewish community to define a legitimate expression of Judaism. It’s no coincidence that a tweet of the Jewish Museum about BDS triggered his resignation. This points to a direct clash between people like the “Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East” or the Israeli scholars recently signing a petition for a more differentiated treatment of BDS and, on the other side, the Bundestag together with Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, who maintain that such a perspective is ‘antisemitic’ and, ultimately, not a legitimate Jewish opinion. It’s in this context that the Zentralrat’s head, Josef Schuster, has criticised the Jewish Museum for not being Jewish enough.

In your opinion, should a non-Jew like Schäfer run a Jewish Museum? It’s a credibility problem, isn’t it?

Jewish museums in Germany are largely run by non-Jews. That in itself is a bit weird. It gets even weirder when you consider that the German state formed a commission on antisemitism a few years ago without including any Jews. Both cases point to the self-sufficient dimension of the Gedächtnistheater. It doesn’t necessarily need any Jews to maintain itself. This is also why we distributed DIY kippas to our guests at Gorki: so that non-Jews could also partake in all the Jewish rituals connected with remembrance and relieve the Jews of their roles. But the Jewish Museum serves many purposes, only some of which are actually connected to Judaism. German Judaism is part of a pluralistic democratic society. As such its institutions, as well as the Jewish Museum, should display this plurality – and that means maintaining internal diversity and not politicising it in such a way that grants and denies the status of Jewishness according to ideology.

But any Jewish issue is highly politicised these days, by both the press and politicians. Do you see any space for a reasonable debate without it being immediately hijacked by the polarisation opposing antisemitism and Zionism (as an intellectual spillover of the Israel/Palestine conflict)?

My work on de-integration has been an attempt to open that space. I don’t feel like we have so far been hijacked by the Israel-Palestine conflict or any discussion on antisemitism which is at least as restricting. However, we are constantly experiencing requests to position ourselves on those issues. The festival at the Gorki or the Jüdische Kulturtage are our way to constantly try to reframe those questions and keep the debate open.

Born in Berlin in 1987, Max Czollek attended the Jüdische Oberschule Berlin before studying politics and receiving his PhD from the Centre for Research on Antisemitism. He co-curated the festivals De-integration – A Conference on Contemporary Jewish Positions in 2016 and Radical Jewish Culture Days in 2017 at the Maxim Gorki Theater. He’s also a member of collective G13 and has published two poetry volumes. Desintergriert euch! was released in August last year.