On the Legibility and Categorization of Vulnerability in Post-Holocaust Germany

In an article published 1996 in “The New Yorker,” the paper’s columnist covering Europe, Jane Kramer, describes herself strolling through the streets of Schöneberg, a quiet, residential neighborhood in the Western part of Berlin. While walking Kramer takes notice of a memorial project that had recently been installed in the neighborhood. The project consists of 80 aluminum signs that are attached to lampposts all over Schöneberg. The signs feature various decrees, that slowly, methodically, placed the Jews once living there outside of the pale of German life, and eventually, outside the category of the human. Each sign quotes one decree, in a single phrase, such as: “Jews are forbidden to own pets” or “Jews are forbidden to grow vegetables.” Jane Kramer eventually reaches a sign that shows the last order, dated February 16, 1945: “All files involving anti-Jewish activity are to be destroyed.”[1]

On one level, this order is an unsurprising attempt of a capitulating party to destroy its own traces, and thereby to evade victors’ justice. Yet there is more going on here, as perhaps sensed by Jane Kramer, who referred to the sign as “the first official revision of the Holocaust.”[2] I would like to follow this thread and read this order as the beginning of a political transition, a “conversion-moment,” akin to what political theorist Robert Meister calls a “survivor-story” after evil: “Political transitions,” so Meister, “are ‘survivor stories’, that reflect a non-neutral judgment on the history that preceded them: They are about what the past will have been now that ‘we’ have changed, and what it would have been had ‘we’ changed sooner. Political transitions thus instantiate a temporal reconstitution of the ‘we’.”[3] The “survivor story” is addressed to beneficiaries who do not identify with perpetrators, quote Meister: “It encourages them to acknowledge past evil as what they would have opposed so that future evil will not have been a repetition of it. The effect of this confession is to make the moment of its occurrence, the present, as discontinuous with the now repudiated past.”[4] (Hence, “all files involving anti-Jewish activity are to be destroyed”).

I will suggest that the identification of the German state as a would-be rescuer (rather than would-be perpetrator) led, especially following unification in 1989, to an imaginary “merging” of the would-be-rescuer – the new German state – with the figure of the Jew: The new German state, as would-be rescuer, speaks in the voice of a victim, to whom National Socialism happened, and who today has to defend itself against an old/new enemy, coined “new antisemites”. In the second part of my paper, I will relate to the circumcision debate of 2012 as a moment that disturbed this constellation. The fact that many Jews do practice circumcision complicated the affective identification with/as Jews: this specific bodily practice was incongruent with the figure of the Jew as commemorated and reenacted by the German state. Yet, I will show that also in the course of this debate, the Jew was eventually re-integrated into a normative, secular-liberal body politic: The debate evolved around the German state’s responsibility vis-a-vis Jews as an already historically injured collective, that therefore requires special, exceptional protection. Jews were affirmed as “victims that matter” in the sense that their renewed injury (for example, through a criminalization of circumcision) was understood to shed the “wrong light” on new Germany, and thus become a source of shame to its non-Jewish citizens. Along these lines, I will suggest that exceptional moral considerations vis-à-vis Jews are the constitutive exception of the status quo, an exception that underlines the normativity of secular-liberal affects and norms.

1.) Judaism and Jews as sites of German identification: Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Germany successfully transitioned – so the story goes – from genocidal monoculturalism into a “tolerant,” in any event pro-Jewish, democratic ethos of state. The centrality of the figure of the Jew, however, remained: As before the Holocaust, the national imaginary, definition, foundation, and boundary of “Germanness” is negotiated via a consideration of figures of Jews and Judaism.[5] Figures of Jews and Judaism played, in the words of sociologist Michal Bodemann, “ideological labor” for a state in need of moral legitimation.[6]

The suitability of these figures for post-war state-building was premised, to some degree, on Jews’ absence; an absence that enabled the emergence of a kind of Holocaust commemoration culture, the central characteristic of which was an idealized “merging” of Jewishness and Germanness, and a corresponding non-distinction between victim and bystander: The German state became a bystander who, as a “survivor” of evil, testifies to the innocence of victims, who “too” are survivors of evil. As early as 1965, Gerschom Scholem writes: “In recent years a tendency has become visible, which has been seized by many Germans all too enthusiastically, according to which the seizure of power by the Nazis was, in a higher sense, a kind of historical accident without which everything between Germans and Jews would really have been making tolerably good progress…corresponding to this is now an unlimited and uncritical posthumous enthusiasm for the epoch of Jewish assimilation in Germany the documents of which often enough cause one’s words to fail.”[7] Scholem goes on to comment on the “posthumous” Germanification of Jews: “After having been murdered as Jews, the Jews have now been nominated to the status of Germans in a kind of posthumous triumph; to emphasize their Jewishness would be a concession to their anti-Semitism. What a perversion in the name of progress…”.[8]

Following the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany, no longer a mere “buffer-state” against the threats of the cold war, required demonstration of its new self as a democratic, liberal, modern state. In this context, Holocaust commemoration (which dominated German Jewish politics in the decades after the war) gave way to what some coin, sarcastically, “reforestation”: It was now no longer commemoration, but the idea of a “Jewish renaissance” on German soil, that was traded as unified Germany’s most valuable guarantor of its democratic character. Corresponding to the posthumous “Germanification” of Jews in commemoration culture, thus emerged the complementary phenomenon, that I’ll coin the “Judaization of Germanness”: [9] When democratic principles required demonstration, Jane Kramer argues, identification with or as Jews was taken up as part of a “German duty.”

Two brief examples: In the first picture, a poster of an association in Magdeburg, in which local citizens lobby for the erection of a synagogue under the motto “Otto needs a synagogue.” Otto is the medieval founder of the city, who had a policy of “religious tolerance,” according to the association’s website. In the second picture, a poster created by the Antonio-Amadeo-Stiftung, a Berlin-based association that aims to fight antisemitism and racism, and has an annual “action-week against antisemitism.” The poster reads: “6 Million murdered Jews in the Holocaust. Their wounds. Our scars.”



aas_aktionswochen_plakat_02 Kopie

As noted by Gerschom Scholem in the mid 60ties, the “revived” Jew, who was now adopted and appropriated by “improved Germans,” was decisively a figure of the past. Robert Meister depicts this starkly: “Western Europe, and especially West Germany, rebuilt itself on the archeology of a cosmopolitan Jewish civilization that had been destroyed in the two great wars of nationalist excess. If the Judaism celebrated by Herman Cohen, Jewish rationalism, was supposed to bring about a postnationalist cosmopolitanism to Europe, a “virtually Jewish” postwar Europe could celebrate itself as the resurrection of the dream to which Cohen’s generation had given voice. Western Europe’s “cities without Jews” would now commemorate and celebrate (and I add: reenact) their Jewish heritage and represent themselves as its cultural continuation.”[10] Just as the pre-war cosmopolitan Jew was discovered as the ideal German citizen, the ideal contemporary German citizen, too, began to self-configure as a successor of the cosmopolitan Jew, who is now, just as Jews once, endangered by Nazis (now: “new Nazis”). It is not trivial, I think, that according to various statistics of anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, the person who typically reports him- or herself as a victim of anti-Semitic activity is not him- or herself Jewish, but codes as anti-Semitic that which attacks him/her as a carrier of new, cosmopolitan, democratic Germany.[11]

The very act of reporting an anti-Semitic incident seems to fulfill a specific function in what Meister coins the “temporal re-constitution of the ‘we’ after genocide”: There is a certain thirst for the anti-Semitic attack to occur in order to repudiate it, to highlight and demarcate that, which one is not, meaning: the anti-Semitic attack needs to be constantly re-experienced as something, which is to be condemned, which one does not do, which others do. The dividing line between past and present, between “Jews are not allowed to have a pet” and “all files related to anti-Semitic activity are to be destroyed” has to be felt in the present, and the now disavowed German past be re-experienced, in order to be repudiated, and one’s new self be assured; the non-identification with perpetrators be underlined precisely in order to fortify an all too precarious border between past and present.

2.) What does this identification of German and Jew mean for the legibility of injuries, the vulnerability of minorities in post-Holocaust Germany? I will take a brief glimpse now at the circumcision debate that erupted in Germany in 2012, because this debate, I think, disrupted the above-described lineup, and revealed the possibilities and impasses of the usurpation of Jews as sites of national rebirth.

The debate started when a doctor reported to state authorities light complications after a Muslim’s boy’s circumcision. A regional court then ruled that since circumcision was hitherto not legally regulated, the doctor and the child’s parents had not committed a criminal offense, that from now, however, circumcision would be considered illegal. In a matter of days the court’s decision sparked a nation-wide debate, that quickly morphed into a German-Jewish debate about the scope (or limits) of Germany’s historical responsibility specifically vis-à-vis Jews – despite having been triggered by a Muslim boys’ circumcision and affecting many more Muslims than Jews.

The epistemological-legal framework, within which critiques of circumcision placed their arguments, was “critique of religion”: a framework, that is deemed either laudatory, or in any case legitimate: an attempt of liberal citizens to regulate a religious practice, that is incompatible with secular notions of autonomy, agency, physical integrity, and freedom. What motivated these arguments, was not a principled stance “against Jews,” or even “against Judaism,” but rather, the affirmation of the category “religion” as an expression of private, voluntary faith. Circumcision, a pre-discursive bodily inscription, that is precisely not a voluntary, self-reflected act of an autonomous individual, was beyond the legitimate sphere of “religion” in the modern-Protestant sense of the term, and as such breached a categorical boundary: a breach, that could not be tolerated even in light of Holocaust-induced mercy vis-à-vis Jews, so circumcision’s opponents.

Those, who defended the practice – Jews and non-Jews alike – affirmed the debate’s epistemological frame: Defenses of circumcision either sustained the normativity of the secular body by pointing at its medical benefits, and its concomitant compatibleness with the secular, allegedly unmarked and natural body. Or they referred to memory of the Holocaust as imbuing the German state with exceptional responsibility vis-à-vis Jews, subjecting Jews to moral considerations that, without genocide, would not be applicable: “We would become a nation of comedians if precisely here Jews would not be able to conduct their religion freely,” as Angela Merkel put it. This line of argument was premised on memory of the Holocaust as impacting German’s affective registers vis-à-vis Jews: a renewed criminalization of a Jewish practice could be linked back to the monstrosity of genocide, the “pastness” of which would be put into question through a renewed injury in the present. Unlike those opting for circumcision’s criminalization, its defenders’ aversion was thus suppressed and kept in place by shame – yet like its opponents, its defenders, too, could not recognize circumcision except as a trace of the past that is repugnant and must be repudiated.

Both sides thus affirmed the normativity of the secular body, but diverged over the precise scope and content of historical responsibility.[12] Both sides, to put this more sharply, affirmed the secular state’s production and definition of the category “religion” as a matter of private, voluntary belief, thereby principally affirming the possibility to criminalize Jewish and Muslim practices precisely under the doctrine of religious freedom.[13]

Historical responsibility “won”: The German parliament eventually passed a law that legalizes the performance of male circumcision within six months after birth by “qualified personnel.”[14] In contrast to Islamic bodily practices, that are increasingly restricted and criminalized, this Islamic and Jewish practice was sanctioned by state intervention. The protection of non-Christian religious practices thus hinges on memory of the Holocaust, and the degree to which memory infuses hesitance, mercy, and shame into German citizens’ affects. Muslims in Germany can practice circumcision, because they could, like stowaways, hide in the slipstream of historical responsibility vis-à-vis Jews, and clandestinely “join the ride.” Whether or not an Islamic bodily practice is sanctioned or criminalized, thus depends on the degree to which Muslims can invoke “historical responsibility,” that is, the degree to which their injury is perceived of as implying at least a potential injury of Jews too, the degree to which Muslims can benefit from German conscience as “new Jews” or “as if Jews,” and as such become “worthy” of protection. While the circumcision debate theoretically demanded political cooperation between Muslim and Jewish collectives, it was thus also the moment that re-produced Jews and Muslims’ asymmetrical, unequal positioning.

kopftuch mit kippa 3

To conclude: The circumcision-debate revealed a tension between Jewish bodily practices and majoritan secular-liberal sentiments, or more precisely: it revealed the difficulty of integrating Jews into a secular body politic premised on Protestant religionism. Relatedly, it troubled the definition of violence as a result of supposedly irrational and stereotyping expressions and biases predicated on biological claims: the debate revealed the secular gaze as one that – with the best of intentions, so to say – renders the bodies of minorities vulnerable, by demanding an alignment with majoritan moral and aesthetic sensitivities.

Exemption from the latter is granted to the Jewish collective because the Holocaust’s political and affective impact disables a renewed problematization of a Jewish body: The circumcision debate did not trigger a discussion about the genealogy, institutionalization and normativity of the Christian-secularized body, rather, it led to an intentional, regulated setting aside of the norm, in order to enable the toleration of the normatively untolerable (circumcised) body: the debate stabilized, rather than particularized the normative body; the exceptional tolerance vis-à-vis Jews became the constitutive exception of the status quo. Acceptance of this exception is a way to demonstrate the successful conversion to a democratic, “pro-Jewish” ethos, in which Jews function as cosmopolitan buffers to Christian-secularized affects and norms, that remain carefully institutionalized in the secular state.

[1] Jane Kramer, The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany, New York: Random House 1996. I could not find the article in The New Yorker’s archive, though the book is supposedly a collection of essays that were published in The New Yorker.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Robert Meister, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights, Columbia University Press 2010, p. VIII (preface)
[4] Ibid., p. VIII.
[5] On “figures” cf. David Nirenberg, Anti Judaism: The Western Tradition, Norton 2013. Nirenberg does not address the contemporary figuration of the Jew. Cf. Sarah Hammerschlag, The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought, University of Columbia Press 2010.
[6] Michal Bodemann, “The State in the Construction of Ethnicity and Ideological Labor. The Case of German Jewry,” in: Critical Sociology 17.3 (1990), pp. 35-46
[7] Gerschom Scholem, “Once More: The German-Jewish Dialogue”, in: G. Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis. Selected Essays, edited by Werner Dannhauser, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books 2012 (first published by Schocken 1976), pp. 65-70 (p. 67). This is a translation by Dannhauser of: G. Scholem, “Noch einmal: das deutsch-jüdische Gespräch,” Bulletin des Leo Baeck Instituts, No. 30 (Tel Aviv 1965), pp. 167-172.
[8] Gerschom Scholem, “Jews and Germans”, in: G. Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis. Selected Essays, edited by Werner Dannhauser, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books 2012 (first published by Schocken 1976), pp. 71-92 (p. 72). This was first published as “Juden und Deutsche” in Judaica 2, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1970, pp. 20-46. It was presented as a lecture at the World Jewish Congress in Brussels 1966. The translation is of this lecture, not a re-print of the English adaption in Judaica. Regarding the “Germanification” of Jews cf. also Jonathan Laurence, “(Re)constructing Community in Berlin: Turks, Jews, and German Responsibility,” German Politics & Society 19/2 (59) 2001. See also Christoph Schmidt, Israel und die Geister von ’68: Eine Phänomenologie, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (2018); Tzuberi, “Reforestating Jews: Tzuberi, Hannah, “Reforestating Jews. The German State and the Construction of ‘New German Judaism’,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 2020/2; Michal Bodemann, “Reconstructions of History: From Jewish Memory to Nationalized Commemoration of Kristallnacht in Germany,” in: Bodemann (ed.), Jews, Germans, Memory. Reconstructions of Jewish Life in Germany (Ann Arbor; The University of Michigan Press, 1996), 209.
[9] See Weissberg, “The Sound of Music: Jews and Jewish Culture in the New Europe.” The Idea of Europe, ed. Susan Suleiman (special issue), Comparative Literature (2006), 403-417; Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish, Reinventing Jewish Life in Europe (Berkeley; University of California Press, 2002); Michael Brenner, “The Transformation of the German-­Jewish Community,” in: Leslie Morris/Jack Zipes (eds.), Unlikely History. The Changing German-­Jewish Symbiosis (New York; Palgrave 2002).
[10] Robert Meister, After Evil, pp. 186-187.
[11] This coding is routinely reiterated when politicians across the political spectrum, but also representatives of Jewish institutions, frame an attack on Jews as an “attack on all of us,” on “democracy,” and encourage the wider population to demonstrate solidarity via the donning of a kippa or a Magen David necklace. Banally, a deed can have an anti-Semitic motive but affect nonetheless a non-Jewish person. But that explanation leaves much unexplained. Cf. also the IHRA definition of antisemitism and Peter Ullrich’s critique thereof.
[12] Tzuberi/Doughan, “Säkularismus als Herrschaft und Praxis. Juden und Muslime im Kontext säkularer Wissensproduktion,” Schirin Amir-Moazami (ed.), Der inspizierte Muslim. Zur Politisierung der Islamforschung in Europa, Bielefeld: transcript (2018), pp. 269-308; Schirin Amir-Moazami, “Investigating the Secular Body: The Politics of the Male Circumcision Debate in Germany,” in: ReOrient, vol. 1/2, 2016, p. 25-48.
[13] This point is made by Daniel Boyarin (in a not yet published paper, but also in his book on Judaism). Cf. also Saba Mahmood and Peter Danchin, “Immunity or Regulation? Antinomies of Religious Freedom,” South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 1 [2014]: 154.
[14] Without explicitly stating so, this law sanctions primarily Jewish practice.
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The Dangers of a Remote Past: A Re-Visit of the “Spiegel History-Controversy”

The German magazine Spiegel History published a special issue earlier this month on the “History of Jewish Life in Germany.” The issue roughly covers the 11th century until now. It features medieval communities in the Rhineland, pogroms, the Christian anti-Judaism of Martin Luther, migration from Sefarad, emancipation, Moses Mendelssohn, Yiddish, Glikl von Hameln, the rise of racial anti-Semitism, the Shoah, the decades following the genocide, and an epilogue situated in the present day.

The cover page shows a photograph of two so-called “Ostjuden,” Eastern European Jews. It is a black-and-white shot of two men, one sitting on a chair, the other standing and leaning on a cane, who are engaged in casual conversation. They are wearing black knee-long coats and hats, and each is bearded. The one who is standing seems a little older than the other. Maybe he is in his late sixties; his beard is white. The photograph was taken on Grenadierstrasse (today: Almstadtstraße), in front of the “Leihbibliothek Rosenberg”. Grenadierstrasse is located in a Berlin neighborhood referred to as “Scheunenviertel” and was once home to the majority of Jews who were fleeing pogroms and poverty in Eastern Europe. Some tried to emigrate, mostly to the US, yet others stayed. In 1925 approximately 41,500 of them lived in Berlin, which amounts to 22 percent of the city’s Jewish population.[1]

"Im Scheunenviertel"

This is the original picture, published in Eike Geisel: Im Scheunenviertel. Texte, Bilder, und Dokumente. Severin und Siedler 1981; courtesy of Yossi Bartal

To be sure, Ostjuden are not normally referred to as German Jews. Germany, the nation-state, was not their primary reference of identification. Yet they surely belonged to “Jewish Life in Germany.” To more assimilated contemporaries they were a source of embarrassment, a reminder of what they had overcome; others, however, were attracted to them, and marked them as carriers of Jewish authenticity which their parents and grandparents had lost. The Spiegel cover plays on this icon of authenticity, that goes along “non-Germanness,” strangeness, and it emphasizes this also in the title: “Jewish Life in Germany. An Unknown World Apart.” The subtitle distances “Jewish life in Germany” from Germanness; it exoticises.


That’s the cover

This act of marking Jews as different, at the hands of a non-Jewish German magazine, triggered an outburst of protest from the representative mainstream organization of Jews in Germany, as well as among prominent Jewish journalists and academics: Many Jews in Germany associated the act of marking and distancing with dehumanization and the horrors of genocidal extermination. The cover was read to say: “you do not belong here,” neither in the past, nor in the present. The terms of belonging to Germany, however, were thereby reproduced and affirmed: In an official statement, the Central Council of Jews in Germany slammed the cover for “triggering anti-Semitic stereotypes.” In an op-ed in Jüdische Allgemeine (https://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/kultur/liebe-spiegel-redaktion), and in countless further exclamations on social media, the picture was read as distasteful reminder of a stereotypical (i.e. Orthodox) Jew that the German Jew has never been and surely now is not. A misrepresentation. This historical photograph of actual Jews chatting casually on a Berlin street was associated with crooked noses, greed, dirt, poverty, signifiers of backwards “religion” (peyos, hats, beards) – all that stinks. At times it seemed as if the Jewish gaze at this picture was intertwined (or worse, determined) by an anti-Jewish gaze, and a resulting incapability to see beauty, to sense pride, in two perfect Jews, whom anti-Semites define as ugly, unworthy, backwardly religious and archaic.

The very act of historical association with these Jews could not be tolerated: these Jews may have undeniably lived on German soil, yet they are apparently not part of our own collective history. They are a misrepresentation of what we truly are and have been. The correct historical reference point is, accordingly, a bourgeois, assimilated citizen. The two Ostjuden, as if they could jump off the cover, endanger Jews’ belonging to Germany in the present.

The cover is, of course, not representative of so many years of Jewish life in German-speaking lands, and it also does not claim to be so. Covers are generally not representative, and no cover can ever possibly represent the entire scope of “Jewish life in Germany”. At best, the editors could have opted for a collage showing different “kinds” of Jews over a longer period of time. Up until now, indeed, nobody ever admonished the equal non-representativeness of highly assimilated German Jews on German cover pages, or as name-givers to everything from schools to community centers: Nobody ever objected to the preponderance of Leo Baecks, Heinrich Heines and Moses Mendelssohns. The problem for some critics did not consist in the cover’s lack of representativeness, but rather in the choice of this specific representative, this specific embodiment of “Jewish life,” which traces Jews’ history back to a now repudiated past.

I suggest that German Jews’ repudiation of this specific past points at a formative undercurrent of post-war “reconciliation” politics. According to political theorist Robert Meister, specifically West Germany configured itself as a legitimate successor to its missing Jewish culture: a post-genocidal state built upon the archaeology of a cosmopolitan Jewish civilization that had been destroyed. Germany’s strong identification with its “missing Jews” as the foundation of its own (German) culture, Meister reasons, places some kind of “Yiddishkeit” itself as a source of German pride:

“If the Judaism celebrated by Herman Cohen, Jewish rationalism, was supposed to bring about a postnationalist cosmopolitanism in Europe, a ‘culturally Jewish’ postwar Europe could celebrate itself as the resurrection of the dream to which Cohen’s generation had given voice. Western Europe’s ‘cities without Jews’ would now commemorate and celebrate their Jewish heritage and represent themselves as its cultural continuation.”[2]

What is commemorated here is the murdered Jew as “proto liberal cosmopolitan citizen of Germany,” a Kulturbürger, whose murder can be configured as a “loss” to the German nation-state: a “self-injury.”[3] (Scholars such as Micha Bodemann or Robert Meister noticed and commented upon this common German post-war understanding of the Holocaust as “bad” on account of the damage it did to the German state.) Within a political formation that understands itself as a post-genocidal “continuation” of the murdered, Jews are a bifurcated figure: On the one hand, they have been granted political autonomy in the sense that they do not have to identify as Germans. They can identify as Israelis, or as incidental Germans who are “by heart” Israelis. An “Israeli-themed picture”[4] on the Spiegel’s cover would probably not have sparkled protest by German Jewish organizations, and would not have been read as implying “you do not belong here.” Yet, while association with a different place (that is, a different state) is a source of pride and does not imply alienation, the association with “Ostjuden” is read as a displacement unto a different time, a strange and problematic origin.

And having such origin, it seems, potentially undermines the terms of recognition underlying the post-war incorporation of Jews into the German state. Patchen Markell, in his critique of multicultural exchanges of recognition between minorities and the state, argues that the transition from an exclusionary or assimilatory to an inclusionary strategy of state sovereignty, that is supposed to respect and represent “difference,” is premised on, and directed at rendering the social world legible and governable:

“Multicultural exchanges of recognition (…) demand neither the overcoming of difference, nor its confinement to the private sphere; but they do require that it be overseeable and manageable: in short recognizable. They aim to secure the sort for sovereignty James Scott associates with the administrative state, which does not sweep away difference but instead measures it, maps it, categorizes it, renders it ‘legible’, – and sometimes, enforces certain limits on the acceptable expressions of cultural difference.”[5]

To appeal to the state for recognition of ones own identity – to present oneself as knowable – is to offer the state the reciprocal recognition of its sovereignty that it demands, and those striving for recognition will frame their requests in ways that abet rather than undermine the state’s aspiration towards sovereignty: Appeals to the state for recognition as Jews will be formulated in ways that attest to the German state’s commemoration of pre-war German Jewish citizens, who stand in as sharers of a common religious and secular tradition. The two men on the Spiegel’s cover-page disturb the idea of Germany as a cultural continuation of its murdered Jews, and do not lend themselves as cosmopolitan buffers from liberal citizens’ Christianity, carefully institutionalized in the secular state.

*Thanks to Andrew Mark Bennet, Yossi Bartal and Emily Dische-Becker for their critical comments, suggestions and revisions.
[1] These numbers are taken from Anne-Christin Saß: Berliner Luftmenschen: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in der Weimarer Republik, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2012, 66. In an earlier version of this blogpost I had misstated the percentage as “46%” – an anonymous reviewer informed me that the 46% of page 67 of the book refers to the proportion of East European Jews in all Berlin’s foreigners. Thanks for this correction.
[2] Robert Meister: After Evil. A Politics of Human Rights. Columbia University Press 2011, 187.
[3] In parliamentary debates, for instance, a normative commitment to a support of Jews and expressions of the desirability of a Jewish revival, are commonly articulated through back-references to Jews’ “contribution to German culture,” their identification with the German state, the Prussian state’s laudable edict of tolerance, the importance of Judaism as an origin of Christianity, the Jewishness of Jesus and so forth.
[4] What I mean by “Israeli themed picture” is something like a picture of an Independence Day party, or a picture of a community gathering center, or a Jewish school’s class-room with an Israeli flag-garland as decoration.
[5] Patchen Markell: Bound by Recognition, Princeton University Press 2013, 170.
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Sending my daughter to an “orthodox kindergarten”

We were sitting in a small café. It was freezing cold outside, and a mixture of students and residents of this local upper-class, slightly villagishy suburb bumped into the café to warm up – the café looked like every café, the muffins, the coffee, the soup and the people looked like every people. A bit of Christmas-decoration on each table, and a candle. “Where does your daughter go to kindergarten,” she asked. Without noticing, without intending to do so, I tried to blur the answer and indicated the kindergarten’s location (as if this would answer the question): “In the north.” She asked again. And I tried to answer in a way as casual as possible, pretending carefree naiveté: “It’s the community-kindergarten; the one in the north.” Silence. “It’s this community,” and I uttered the name of this specific Orthodox community, while starring at the menu, as if I intended to order another coffee.

Her judgment came in an instant: “This is problematic. Very problematic.” The word “problematic” was repeated a couple of times over the next two minutes, which did not include an identification of the exact problem. The problem is, apparently, obvious to every reasonable human-being: It is logically impossible that we do not agree regarding the fact that there is a problem. So why do you send your daughter to the problem despite knowing it better? Why do you not shield her from the problem? Why are you not doing her good? If those people send there kids over there, well they do not know any better, brainwashed, as they happen to be. But you? Academic middle-class German woman? Are you not a feminist?

On my way back into my office, rushing through the cold dark, I tried to concentrate on the cold piercing through my clothes. I placed my head on my desk, closed my eyes – I have no time for this shit, I have to work, I have to get my work done. But how does she dare to assume that I sacrifice my child? How does she dare to think that I am willfully not giving her the best? How does she dare to take the problem for granted, once and for all? What am I doing here at all? Why did I try to evade the answer – the exact name of the kindergarten – and why did I eventually refer to the name of my kindergarten as if it was a shame? Why do I try to pass as “not-problematic,” knowing fully well that this attempt is doomed in any case?


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Erinnerungen an eine andere “Kippa-Demonstration”

Vor ein paar Jahren, ich glaube es war 2013, stand ich zusammen mit vielleicht 30 anderen Leuten im Nieselregen vor dem Rathaus Neukölln. Ich war damals Co-Organisatorin einer Demonstration, die sich gegen das Neutralitätsgesetz an staatlichen Schulen richtete, sprich: es ging um Religionsfreiheit für Menschen, die in ihrem alltäglichen Leben einen Hijab, eine Kippa, ein Kopftuch, oder was auch immer tragen. Ein paar Demonstrationsteilnehmer hatten eine Kippa auf dem Kopf, andere einen Hijab, andere gar nichts, egal. Wir hatten natürlich keine institutionelle Unterstützung oder prominenten Redner – das Rednerpult hatten wir am Vorabend aus Paletten konstruiert, die eigentlich der Unterbau des Bettes einer der Organisatorinnen war. Einige Passanten stellten sich zu uns – es gab Flyer auf Deutsch, Arabisch, Türkisch, Hebräisch und Englisch – aber viele wussten auch gar nicht, dass es so etwas wie das Neutralitätsgesetz überhaupt gibt: man denkt hier ja eh nicht an diese Berufe. Die gesamtgesellschaftliche Solidaritätsrate belief sich auf ungefähr 0,00001%. Wenn ich mich richtig erinnerte, berichtete das Stadtteilmagazin neuköllner.net über uns.

Warum ist die eine Demonstration so, und die Andere so? Warum ist die eine Demonstration eine vollkommen marginalisierte Veranstaltung, und die andere Demonstration ein mediales Großevent? Für mich zumindest ging es bei beiden Demonstrationen um ein und dasselbe: um innergesellschaftliche Solidarität, um Religionsfreiheit, darum, dass man sich auch als sichtbar jüdische oder muslimische Person in öffentlichen Räumen sicher aufhalten können sollte, ohne Schikane, ohne die Angst schief angeguckt zu werden, ohne strukturelle Diskriminierungen wie sie durch monokulturelle Neutralitätsideen entstehen.

Und doch scheint heute etwas anderes geschehen zu sein. Im Laufe der medialen Vorbereitungen zu „Berlin trägt Kippa“ wurde die Kippa – und nur die Kippa – immer mehr zu einem Symbol, das stellvertretend für „unsere Demokratie, unsere Werte“ steht. Das heißt, es ging eigentlich nicht mehr um Religionsfreiheit, die ja notwendigerweise auch z.B. kopftuchtragende Frauen eingeschlossen hätte, sondern um die Kippa als Ausdruck der westlichen Zivilisation, eine Art Antithese zu – klar, den Kopftuchträgerinnen und deren barbarischen Männern. Das bedeutet nicht, dass dies die Intention der Organisatoren war, dass dies die Absicht aller TeilnehmerInnen war, dass dies zwingend so ist, wenn eine „Kippa-Demonstration“ ausgerufen wird. Es bedeutet aber, dass die Anerkennung der Verletzlichkeit und Schutzbedürftigkeit einer Minderheit sich erstmal nur darauf stützt, dass diese Minderheit als Symbol von „uns“ – unserer Demokratie etc. – gelesen werden kann. Es geht nicht mehr darum, dass eine Jude als Jude, sondern ein Jude als Ausdruck von deutscher Staatsräson eine Kippa tragen kann.

Natürlich liegt der Umstand, dass eine gewisse Schutzbedürftigkeit speziell von Juden in Deutschland anerkannt wird, an der Erinnerung an den Holocaust, und es war genau diese Erinnerung, die der Religionsfreiheit von Juden und Muslime hierzulande auch schon zu Gute kam: Als die Beschneidungsdebatte 2012 ausbrach, erklärte Angela Merkel, dass es einfach nicht sein könne, wenn „wir das einzige Land sind, in dem Juden ihre Religion nicht praktizieren können.“ Die Erinnerung an den Holocaust kann also eine Form der politischen Gnade hervorbringen, in deren Windschatten andere Minderheiten sozusagen unbemerkt mitsegeln können – genau deshalb hätte die AfD ja auch so gerne einen „Schlussstrich“. Trotz des Schutzes, der die Erinnerung ermöglicht, löst sie jedoch einige grundlegende Problem nicht: Was passiert, wenn die Erinnerung verblasst? Was passiert mit all jenen, die diese Form der politischen Gnade nicht aufrufen können? Warum muss eine muslimische Frau, um für ihren Hijab eintreten zu können, über den Hijab eine Kippa stülpen, oder in anderen Worten: Was bedeutet es, wenn ich – um ein Argument für meine Religionsfreiheit zu machen – zu einem Symbol „unserer Demokratie“ werden muss, und zu einem Symbol „unserer Demokratie“ scheinbar auch erst nach einem Genozid werde? Warum ist die eine Demonstration so und die Andere so?

Tagesspiegel 25.04.2018

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Jakob Augsteins Kommentar und das “Kippa-Experiment”

Bildschirmfoto 2018-04-19 um 10.24.49

Am 18. April, kurz nach dem Angriff auf einen Kippa-tragenden Israeli, twitterte Jakob Augstein einen Kommentar, der schnell ein Welle der Empörung nach sich zog. Augstein, so hieß es, definiere das Tragen einer Kippa als eine Provokation; Juden sollten die Kippa also lieber absetzen. Der Status mache das Opfer zum Täter: ganz so wie Frauen manchmal nahegelegt wird, ihre Kleidung sei eine Provokation, die einen Angriff ja nur so auf sich ziehe, argumentiere Augstein, dass die Kippa-tragende Person den Angriff sozusagen selbst zu verschulden habe.

Das Problem ist, dass Augstein dies so nicht schreibt: Er beschreibt die Wirklichkeit, in der eine Kippa als eine Provokation genutzt wird und einen Angriff hervorruft, als eine gestörte Wirklichkeit, das heißt, er kritisiert zwei Dinge: Zum einen, dass eine Person die Kippa als einen Versuchsgegenstand benutzt und zum Anderen, dass die Versuchspersonen auf den Test reagieren, der Test also perfide „erfolgreich“ ist: Die gestörte Wirklichkeit, von der Augstein spricht, bezieht sich darauf, dass die Kippa im Rahmen eines Testes benutzt wird und der Test „funktioniert.“

Das Schwierige an Augsteins Post ist, dass sich seine Kritik nicht nur auf diejenigen bezieht, für die die Kippa offenbar eine Provokation ist, auf die sie gewaltsam reagieren. Die „gestörte Wirklichkeit“ bezieht sich auch auf denjenigen, der das Experiment durchgeführt hat und die Kippa aufsetzt „um mal zu gucken was passiert.“

Man könnte an dieser Stelle kritisieren, dass Augsteins Post damit die Kritik an dem Initiator des Versuchs, also des Opfers, in den Vordergrund rückt und sprachlich eine Art Mittäterschaft evoziert: „Gestört ist die Wirklichkeit, in der eine Kippa im Rahmen eines Versuches benutzt wird.“ Dabei würde Augstein mir wahrscheinlich zustimmen, dass, sofern es um das Verurteilen der Gewalt geht, es völlig egal ist, warum eine Person eine Kippa aufsetzt: unabhängig davon ob die Person jüdisch oder nicht jüdisch ist, ob sie einen „Test“ durchführt oder einfach nur ihre alltägliche Kopfbedeckung trägt, darf sie keinem Angriff ausgesetzt werden. Und trotzdem denke ich kann der Umstand, dass es sich um einen „Test“ handelte, thematisiert werden: In dem Moment, in dem eine Kippa im Rahmen eines Experiments getragen wird, wird sie auch als eine Art potentieller Reizstoff definiert. Dabei wird im Ergebnis natürlich genau dieser Reizstoffcharakter angeprangert, da idealerweise die Kippa ja eben keine Reaktionen hervorrufen sollte – gleichzeitig bleibt zumindest mir aber ein fader Geschmack, da soziale Versuche eine Realität eben nicht nur abbilden, sondern sie immer auch konstituieren. Das bedeutet nicht, dass der Initiator der Versuchs „Schuld“ an der ihm angetanen Gewalt trägt, aka „he was calling for it.“ Es bedeutet nur, dass eine Realität, in der die Kippa als ein Reizstoff eines soziologischen Experiments benutzt wird und funktioniert, tatsächlich deprimierend ist.


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“Welcome to Jerusalem” in the Jewish Museum Berlin: Ideas, Reflections, Questions

Almost every exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin, both its temporary exhibitions and the former now-to-be-replaced permanent exhibition, is structured along identical lines: The three so-called “world-religions” each occupy one segment, and in each segment the respective religion’s “view on” dietary laws/circumcision/head-coverings etc. is being exhibited. Through this arrangement, the argument for, say, the legitimacy of head-coverings is made through pointing at Jews, who also (sometimes) use head-coverings. The argument for the legitimacy of ritual circumcision is made through pointing at Jews, who also perform ritual circumcisions, and so on. The protection, that Jews can invoke through calling upon the state’s historical responsibility in face of its genocidal history, is extended to include Muslims – simply because Muslims as Muslims and Jews as Jews are not granted such protection. [1]

In light of this pedagogy, the newly opened temporary exhibition on Jerusalem is necessarily challenging. Whereas it is relatively easy to make an argument for political equality as long as the debate circles around Jewish and Muslim practices, that run counter the normative claims of a (supposedly) homogenous German “value community,” Jerusalem is the point where political cooperation collapses, where a visitor cannot be educated to “tolerate Muslims, because they do things similar to Jews.”

In the following, I will first describe the segments devoted to the conflict and then move to the segments that exhibit “religious” Jerusalem, that is, the segments that entail the standard “Jewish/Muslim/Christian perspectives on Jerusalem” concept. I am adding, as a disclaimer, that my aim is not to give a comprehensive, all-inclusive documentation of the exhibition: I didn’t look at every object, didn’t read each and every text-tag, and am not even commenting on every segment. I am simply reflecting on the questions that the exhibition made me think of. Obviously, different visitors will see different things, and have different questions.


The conflict-section begins with a dark room, in which non-commented video-documentation is arranged in a full circle above the visitor. Flickering images of Balfour, massacres, the declaration of independence, refugee camps, wars, suicide bombings, the handshake of Oslo, the assassination of Rabin, the wall. The circle quotes the iconography of the conflict. A bird-eyed narrator, looking from above at devastation and triumph, arranges image after image, icon after icon, dryly, the only interference being very short phrases projected in between the video-sequences, such as: “The Partition Plan of the United Nations is adopted by 13 against and 10 abstentions.” Or “The British Troops leave Palestine. The State of Israel is declared.” In the end of the video-installation, a wall encloses the visitor, aggravating the feeling of suffocation, of being trapped – I am not trapped, I thought, I can go everywhere, almost, or maybe I too am trapped, in a different way.

Maybe in order to slightly lighten up the visitors’ moods, the next room features something like a Jewish “cabinet of curiosities.” One sees papier-mâché models of various Jewish sub-groups, such as Satmarim with anti-Zionist signs in their hands, the Women of the Wall, on screen: rages against the latter, messianic Jews advocating the rebuilding of the Temple, in the corner: a little sign by the Rabbanut prohibiting Jews from entering this area, a full-sized reconstruction of Miri Regev in her Cannes dress. None of these figures is contextualized: They appear as erratic groups, people with contrasting “issues,” that have no particular ideological genealogy, or represent different visions of the very essence of Jerusalem that would require an explanation.

The “cabinet of curiosities” does not include Palestinians, who are, however, subject of the next room, entitled “Traces of Memory.” This room is an exhibition of black/white photographs of places that once were inhabited by Palestinians, and are now wastelands, or the locale of new buildings. Next to each photograph is a tag, that shows the exact cartographical coordinates of the place, and next to the tag, another, larger tag with a first person narrative of an individual, who recounts his or her childhood memories of the depicted place. Even though this room is running counter the conventions of memory as cultivated and practiced in dominant political, scientific and medial (German) discourses, it seems important to note that Palestinians here do not appear as agents. In contrast to the activity depicted in the “cabinet of curiosities,” Palestinians here are framed as memory. I do not learn anything about the shifts and transformations of the Palestinian resistance movement, about internal struggles, about life in the refugee camps, about the Palestinian Diaspora, about the political claims engrained in memory. Crucially, I do not learn about Palestinian Jerusalemites’ legal status following the 67’ census and up to today. This room then seems to give memory a visual presence, but does so without spelling out the political implications of the latter: A bird-eyed narrator screens through the land, and peels layer by layer of the map, and finds another layer, and yet another layer, and in between them the ruins, which he marks by fixing a little needle on his map and recording a witness’s story. Palestinians are memory, while Jews (“pious protesters”) struggle over the way their state is supposed to look.[2]

This can be read, maybe, as an attempt to represent the conflict’s asymmetry. Yet, I’d like to think a bit about the representation of Jewish memory in this museological context, too. And just to be clear on this: my question about Jewish memory is not motivated by an attempt to undo Palestinian memory.

In its visualization of absence and loss, the “traces of memory” – inadvertently – seem to mirror another absence, one, which a visitor encounters in the beginning of the exhibition. Among the more central, eye-catching objects on display in the “religious” segment on Jewish Jerusalem is a model of the Temple, truncated in blue light – blue, probably in order to indicate its “fictive” character. It’s not really there, or as the exhibition catalogue puts it: “In medieval Jewish travel literature, the former temple area is described as a desolate desert – true to the memory image of the destroyed temple, and in contradiction to the architectural reality of the magnificent dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque.”[3]

Such separation between memory and reality is, of course, nothing spectacular, and part and parcel of a classic secular practice of separation of the “pious sentiment” from rational investigation.[4] The difficulty here is, that Jewish memory of the Temple and its destruction constituted Jews’ reality – a reality that cannot be represented, or measured, in a materially substantial presence, and as such, also cannot be juxtaposed and paralleled to the presence of other monuments (such as models of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Al-Aqsa). Given that Jews for most of the time had no access to Jerusalem in any case, it seems that Jewish Jerusalem consists not so much in buildings or souvenirs, but in a millennium and more of liturgical, theological, philosophical, and legal texts bespeaking an unbreakable attachment – that is, Jewish Jerusalem is about a certain way of being in the world.

The latter is referred to in a showcase that displays a Torah Scroll, a Yad (a Torah-pointer), Rimonim and a volume of the Talmud Yerushalmi, accompanied by a tag explaining that following the destruction of the Second Temple, exegesis of Scripture substituted the daily offerings. And again, while this is, of course, standard chronology, the destruction of the Temple and the lack of political sovereignty did much more than generate an exegetical project. They entailed a notion of history having come to an end, and God having exiled himself from the world, in the words of Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin: “[T]hough originally exile referred to the territorial situation of the Jews vis-à-vis the Land of Israel, it came to refer as well to the more distant position of God vis-a-vis the destiny of the Jewish people and the world as large. In this way, exile carries a temporal understanding according to which History (in its biblical understanding as sacred narrative) has come to its end. Thus the exile of the Jews and their dispersal were, in this conception, regarded as evidence of the condition of the entire world, and conserved the desire for its improvementAccording to this Jewish viewpoint, the exilic existence was not outside of history, but rather embodied the very state of “history” itself.”[5] The destruction of the Temple then engendered a concept of history, that differed from the Christian concept of progressive history, meaning, the time of Jerusalem was unlike the time of Rome, which became the fundament of the secular time as imposed by the nation-state.[6]

As a precondition for the toleration of the Jews and their assimilation into Europe, however, this notion of exilic time was denied: The idea of a Jewish nation-state emerged and gained political momentum with the fragmentation and de-politization of the Jewish tradition in pre-war Europe, that is, Judaism became a religion and the state (whatever state) the exclusive site of the political, when the Jewish nation was shattered (as in Clermont’s Tonnerre’s famous statement “It faut tout refuser aux Juifs comme nation et tout accorder aux Juifs comme individus”), when the aforementioned exegetical project lost normative binding, when rabbinic authorities lost political power, when Jews became individual citizens, or were supposed to become citizens. The emergence of the Zionist movement is captured, accordingly, by some scholars (along Zionists’ self-depictions) in anti-assimilationist terms, while at the same time it is pointed out, that this anti-assimilationist project was premised on the internalization of Christian ambivalence towards the Jews, an “extreme attempt to assimilate Jews into the Western narrative of redemption and progress,”[7] and it was initially contested by some Jews on these grounds (and by others with different rationales, of course). Wouldn’t it be important then to map the emergence of the Jews’ “return to (secular) History” and negation of exile not “only” vis-à-vis Palestinian memory and presence – as determining Palestinian exile –, but to situate it also as a response to (or adaption of) European secularization, nation-state building and “civil improvement,” thereby making a point for the state’s ambivalence qua state also for Jews?


When leaving the exhibition, visitors can place postcards of Jerusalem on a wall, one next to the other. It seems that besides “God bless the Jewish people” and “Free Palestine,” most visitors chose a line such as “Love is the answer,” or “Not Muslim, not Jewish, not Christian, only human” – the exhibition had apparently affirmed their sense of looking as “only humans” at Jews and Muslims fighting against each other instead of living, as humans do, in peace and harmony. One should not judge an exhibition by its guest-book, and I do not argue, of course, that this is the exhibition’s message – after all, the exhibition-space is relatively small, itself a contested territory. However, I suggest that a conversation about the exhibition could take as its starting point not the “view at Jewish/Christian/Muslim Jerusalem,” but alternatively, precisely the loss that occurred when Jerusalem’s Jewishness could be granted realness only on condition of its conceptualization as a nation-state’s capital. The motives of memory, loss, and destruction are, in different ways, woven into this exhibition, and maybe the political question at its heart then is: What kind of presence – political (not only museological-artistical) presence – can memory and loss have?

[1] Doughan/Tzuberi, „Säkularismus als Praxis und Herrschaft: Juden und Muslime im Kontext säkularer Wissensproduktion”, Der inspizierte Muslim. Zur Politisierung der Islamforschung, Schirin Amir-Moazami (ed.), Bielefeld: transcript 2018
[2] Palestinians as „not-memory“ appear in video-sequences depicting daily life in Jerusalem. The sequences are taken from the documentary 24h Jerusalem by Volker Heise and Thomas Kufus. These are uncommented portraits of individuals walking through their daily affairs, offering a “kaleidoscope of biographical insights” (https://www.jmberlin.de/en/exhibition-welcome-to-jerusalem). They are political in the sense that the very existence of Palestinians in Jerusalem and their existence’s representation in this documentary is itself political.
[3] Exhibition catalogue, pp. 13-14.
[4] Exhibition catalogue, ibid.
[5] Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Secularism, the Christian Ambivalence Towards the Jews and the Notion of Exile,” in: Ari Joskowicz and Ethan B. Katz (eds.), Secularism in Question: Jews and Judaism in Modern Times, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 276-298 (https://bgu.academia.edu/AmnonRazKrakotzkin)
[6] See also Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, ibid., and the work of Ruth Mas and Johannes Fabian on secular time.
[7] Ibid., but see also the latest book of Cynthia Baker, entitled “Jew” and Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin’s article on “Diaspora.” On the civil improvement debates in imperial context cf. Jonathan M. Hess’ book on “Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity,” Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and Ambivalence,” Patchen Markell, “Bound by Recognition” and specifically on the entanglement of intellectual domination in biblical scholarship and political domination, James Pasto, “Islam’s Strange Secret Sharer.”

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On Modern Warfare

The following is a long quote of Talal Asad, in Formations of The Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press: 2003, p 116-118. The key-sentence is this: “Human life is sacred, but only in particular contexts that the state defines.” Possibly, this is banal, or can be thought of as banal, but it pushes one to think “beyond states.” I think that this move is intellectually neccesary, if not politically feasible at this point in time.

I re-read Asad in the aftermath of the latest flood of pictures about the horrors of warfare in Syria (or what once was Syria), in an attempt to understand something beyond that inevtiable feeling of numbness and apathy. How much is too much? Who decides how much is too much? For whom? Why do we think in terms of states, when states fail as frameworks, that safeguard human dignity?  I am not sure, right now, if there is any “use” in these questions, as I am not even sure anymore in all of this intellectual reasoning being something more than self-referential exercises of thought, that do not change a thing. My point in posting/quoting this is simply to have people engage in a more “profound” thinking about state-violence, about the linkage of states and violence, and the violences that can be unleashed by “formations of the secular.” So here is the quote:

“The military historian John Keegan wrote of the new practices of “deliberate cruelty” over two decades ago when he described some of the weaponry employed in twentieth-century warfare: “Weapons have never been kind to human flesh, but the directing principle behind their design has usually not been that of maximizing the pain and damage they can cause. Before the invention of explosives, the limits of muscle power in itself constrained their hurtfullness; but even for some time thereafter moral inhibitions, fueled by a sense of the unfairness of adding mechanical and chemical increments to man’s power to hurt his brother, served to restrain barbarities of design. Some of these inhibitions – against the use of poison gas and explosive bullets – were codified and given international force by the Hague-Conventions of 1899; but the rise of ‘thing-killing’ as opposed to man-killing weapons – heavy artillery is an example – which by their side-effects inflicted gross suffering and disfigurement, invalidated these restraints. As a result restraints were cast to the winds, and it is now a desired effect of many man-killing weapons that they inflict wounds as terrible and terrifying as possible. The claymore mine, for instance, is filled with metal cubs…, the cluster bomb with jagged metal fragments, in both cases because that shape of projectile tears and fractures more extensively than a smooth-bodied one. The HEAT and HESH rounds fired by anti-tank guns are designed to fill the interior of armoured vehicles with showers of metal splinters or streams of molten metal, so disabling the tank by disabling its crew. And napalm, disliked tor ethical reasons even by many tough minded soldiers, contains an ingredient which increases the adhesion of the burning petrol to human skin surfaces. Military surgeons, so successful over the past century in resuscitating wounded soldiers and repairing wounds of growing severity, have thus now meet a challenge of wounding agents deliberately conceived to defeat their skills.”[1] (Incidentally, the mushrooming or “dum-dum” bullet, invented in British India in 1897, is reported to have been “so vicious, for it tore great holes in the flesh, that Europeans through tit too cruel to inflict upon one another, and used it only against Asians and Africans.”[2])

One might add to this that the manufacture, possession, and deployment of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and nuclear) must be counted as instances of declared governmental readiness to inflict cruel death upon civilian populations even when these weapons are not actually used. In brief, cruel modern technologies of destruction are integral to modern warfare, and modern warfare is an activity essential to the security and power of the modern state, on which the welfare and identity of its citizens depends. In war, the modern state demands from its citizens not only that they kill and maim others but also that they themselves suffer cruel pain and death. Human life is sacred, but only in particular contexts that the state defines.

So how can the calculated cruelties of modern battle be reconciled with the modern sensibility regarding pain? Precisely by treating pain as a quantifiable essence. As in state torture, an attempt can be made to measure the physical suffering inflicted in modern warfare in accordance with the proportionality of means to ends. That is the principle supported by the Geneva Convention. The principle states that the human destruction inflicted should not outweigh the strategic advantage gained. Only necessary punishment of noncombatants should be used. But given the aim of ultimate victory the notion of “military necessity” can be extended indefinitely. Any measure that is intended as contribution to that aim, no matter how much suffering it creates, may be justified in terms of “military necessity.” The standard of acceptability in such cases is set by public opinion, and that standard varies as the matter moves in response to contingent circumstances (for example, who the enemy is, how the war is going).”


Francisco Goya, Las mujeres dan valor (The women are courageous), plate IV of series “Los desastros de la guerra” (The disasters of war), 1st edition Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes San Fernando 1863

[1] J. Keegan, The Face of Battle, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 329-330.

[2] Daniel Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Modern History, vol. 51, 1979, p. 256.

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