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Yascha Mounk, Copyright: Yascha Mounk
Image: Yascha Mounk

Jewish in Germany

Interview: Miguel Zamorano
March 11, 2014

Will Germany ever become a truly pluralistic society? German-born Yascha Mounk recently published a book about being a Jew in Germany, and tells DW why his hopes for true integration are reserved.


What is it like to be a Jew in Germany? The German-Jewish author and intellectual Yascha Mounk was born in Germany to Polish parents and grew up in a country that still struggles with its recent past. In his book, "Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany," Mounk describes what this struggle means for German society and for him as a non-religious Jew. The challenges that Mounk sees ahead for Germany are not only relevant for German-Jewish relations but for German society as a whole.

DW: What problems do you encounter when you tell people in Germany that you are Jewish?

Yascha Mounk: Growing up, I experienced some straightforward anti-Semitism. A few times, people became hostile when I told them I was Jewish. But I found it easy enough to deal with that. In those kinds of situations, I could respond by telling people who seemed to have a problem with me, "You know what? I'm proud of being Jewish - deal with it!"

In my experience, the "philo-Semitism" that was pretty widespread when I was a kid was actually much more difficult to react to. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Germany started to deal with its past much more seriously. People talked to their parents about what they had done during the War. And then they wanted to demonstrate how sorry they were for that past.

Back in those days, on the rare occasions when people met a "real live Jew," they'd often try to show just how sorry they were for Germany's past. So I'd sometimes end up feeling like a flesh-and-blood object of their desire to atone.

Why is this a problem?

In one way, it wasn't. Of course I knew that they were driven by the best of intentions. And, naturally, not everyone would react like this - a lot of people treated me perfectly normally. But on the occasions when people did become nervous, or try to be especially nice to me just because I'm Jewish, it set me apart. It made me feel like I wasn't quite German, but some kind of weird, exotic other.

To feel like a real German, you would expect them to treat you just the same as anybody else?

It would be great if we could get there. A lot of people are now calling for what in German is called a Schlussstrich - a kind of line underneath the past. They're saying, "Look, it's been so long since the Holocaust. My generation and I have nothing to do with it anymore, so let's just forget about the past." And there's something very understandable in this revolt against the excesses of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung - against this sometimes obsessive desire to face up to the past.

But when people are demonstrating that they're not giving you special treatment, when they're saying, often a bit passive-aggressively, "Look, I won't treat you special just because you're a Jew," then they end up treating you very weirdly again. So, unfortunately, the normality we all wish for can't just be decreed by fiat.

Interior of a synogogue, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk
Mounk says his Jewish background was less relevant in New York, a city with a large Jewish populationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

You left Germany to live and study in New York. Was this passive-aggressive behavior a reason for you to leave for the US?

It was part of the reason. I got to a point where I didn't want to be the person who instigated this whole historical drama from contrition to rebellion against the past, every time I mentioned who my ancestors were.

Making jokes about Jews in England or the US is not uncommon. Would you say that this could be a problem in Germany?

A joke always depends on the spirit in which it's told. The English like to make jokes about everything and everybody - in this way, they mock the very clichés these jokes invoke. I love that about England. Some of my German friends are similar: They make jokes about everything, including Jews, and it's absolutely OK. They're relaxed about it, so it's funny.

The problem is when people make joke about Jews just to show that now, finally, we Germans are allowed to makes jokes about the Jews again. They don't make these jokes to be funny; they're trying to make a political statement. When jokes are told in that spirit, they end up having a pretty uncomfortable edge.

In your book you come to describe how some Germans - by insisting on the Schlussstrich-mentality - are causing a negative effect on the future of German society. Why is that?

Its worst effect is not on the relationship between Jews and Germans, but rather on that between Germans and other immigrants - especially Germans of Turkish descent. The Schlussstrich-mentality leads people to say, "We've been far too nice to immigrants because we were scared to insist on our German identity. Now it's finally time to tell them that this is our country, and they have to take on our culture."

This has made it more difficult for Germany to take on a truly diverse and multiethnic identity - something that the country needs to do in order to face the future. Because of depopulation, we need more immigration. Unless we want to abolish the social welfare-state, there is no way around that.

Living in New York, is there anything you miss in Germany?

I miss Munich and Berlin. Perhaps ironically, I also miss a good Schweinsbraten [Eds: pork roast]. But the good thing about New York is that you can get anything. There are some decent places to get a Schweinsbraten now. And if I want a Weissbier most bars have that as well. Since come back to Germany regularly in any case, my Heimweh [Eds: homesickness] is not very strong.

Is it true that in New York no one really cares about your religious background?

Yes. People will ask you about your background, but it doesn't make much of a difference to them one way or the other. The next day, they'll probably have half-forgotten what you told them. So the funny thing is that in Germany I felt more and more Jewish, but New York - a city of one and a half million Jews - has made it possible for me not to identify myself as a Jew anymore.

Do you see this also taking place somewhere in the future in Germany?

This is linked to a major question: Can we redefine our country as being truly pluralistic, truly multiethnic, truly open to people from different cultural backgrounds? As I said earlier, this is not only a matter of relations between Jews and Germans. It is also a matter of relations between Germans and all kinds of other immigrants.

There's some reason for hope. If you go to some big cities, you will see that this attitude is starting to become a reality. But there are also people who are very much against that. Some people on the political right even try to co-opt Jews in order to exclude Muslims. When they talk about Leitkultur, they cleverly say, "What we need is a Judeo-Christian 'lead culture.'" It's a clever political strategy: I can't be racist - look how much I love the Jews! But I don't think this is going to work.

So as long as people still cling to the idea that Germany is defined by one kind of ethnicity and one kind of never-changing culture, it will end up making Jews feel like they can't quite be at home here either. So, for me, the question is, Who will win this debate about German identity? And I don't know the answer to that. I am hopeful, but it could go either way.

Yascha Mounk studied at Cambridge University and Columbia University, and in Paris. He is currently a PhD Candidate at Harvard University's Government Department. His book, "Stranger in My Own Country. A Jewish Family in Modern Germany," was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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