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.”
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.” 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’.” 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.” (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. Figures of Jews and Judaism played, in the words of sociologist Michal Bodemann, “ideological labor” for a state in need of moral legitimation.
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.” 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…”.
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”:  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.”
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.” 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.
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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.