A White Plain with Black Spots. About Jews, Muslims, Europe and “Civilization”

I. To the mainstream German mind, the world is a white plain upon which black spots struggle against one another. The Germans watch from above, give good advice – but the black spots don’t get it, and this is because of their religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, radicalism, extremism. All these are highly charged catchwords in contemporary German discourse, and their meaning is: We Germans, are the normal non-fanatics, the white plain, where peace, culture, and civilization dwell. The black spots need to be educated by us, so as to make them “fit” for the white plain. We must teach them that religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, radicalism, extremism is bad, so that they may become good members of our society. We, and only we, define “religious extremism.” It is not that THEY, the others, have to teach US about OUR wrong perceptions, our lack of understanding, our Eurocentric upbringing, the limitations of our secular-liberal conditioning. It is the other way around: We have to teach THEM about how to stop being “religious fundamentalists.”

For example, the debate concerning ritual circumcision two years ago: During this debate, opponents of the rite frequently argued that children should receive a “religiously neutral” education, the pre-condition of which is, of course, a “neutral body”: A body not circumcised. It was virtually impossible to let proponents of this “neutral body” understand, that a neutral body does not exist. The uncircumcised male body is historically and ideologically a result of a particular Christian hermeneutics of Scripture,[1] that substituted the “circumcision of the flesh” with the “circumcision of the heart.” The uncircumcised penis does not express religious neutrality, but is as culturally-religiously inscribed, as is the circumcised penis. This German incapability to comprehend one’s own religious and cultural particularity may be transferred to other debates, too: The “normal” and “neutral” female body is the one that is not covered by a head-covering. But “hair” is not neutral and the woman without a head-covering is as ideologically inscribed as the one with a head-covering.

II. Jews and Muslim occupy very different positions in contemporary German imagination about the nature of German society. When the Germans hear the word “Jew,” they think of a secular, liberal white male, for the most part, a Woody Allen type, or a Seinfeld-type, and if Israeli, than Idan Reichel, or a homosexual soldier, or an ex-religious now-artist. This imagined Jew is an idealized version of the “new Germany,” with a fine touch of otherness that contributes, of course, to his cultural worth. This imagined Jew is prevalent in media-coverage and very much loved.[2]

The Jew is perceived of as an anti-thesis to that which the German imagines to be “the Muslim.” “The Muslim” is the not-yet-educated, non-liberal, homophobic, women-oppressing, taste-lacking “other” of Woody Allen. The Muslim is everything the Jew is not. He is religious, a fanatic, he has no humour (see the debate about the Danish cartoonist), he has no taste, does not read books, does not live in an “Altbau with Dielen,”[3] does not shop in the BIO-Company,[4] and above all: He hates our precious Jews. When in the summer of 2012 the debate concerning ritual circumcision went viral, people were SHOCKED when learning that not only “notoriously primitive” Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews, but “normal” Jews, too, do ritual circumcisions! Nobody was surprised about Muslims doing this, since Muslims are “all the time” doing primitive things, but Jews?! Our beloved Jews?! (The Anti-Deutschen, in consequence, worked hard to show that Muslim ritual circumcision is indeed barbaric, while Jewish circumcision is beneficial.[5])


In the Bio-Company, melons come in wooden boxes straight from the tree


And this is where we live

Do not get me wrong: I know that there IS anti-Semitism out there. Germany does not in its entirety embrace the Jews. Yet, when we talk about mainstream media-representations, and Germany’s political and cultural elite, I think, we can safely expect a default-pro-Jewish attitude as opposed to a default anti-Islamic-attitude: If a German newspaper would run a story about “Judaism” analogous to the latest Focus-story about “Islam,” a public outcry would follow in an instance, and rightly so. But there is no public outcry, because anti-Muslim racism is NOT as bad to the German self as is anti-Semitism. A burning mosque is not as bad as a burning synagogue. If ritual circumcision was practiced by Muslims only, be sure, it would not have gained protection by Germany’s political elite. Nobody would have bothered outlawing a Muslim ritual (just as nobody, indeed, bothered outlawing Muslim teachers’ head-coverings).

This is not so, because Germans are “more” anti-Muslim than anti-Semites – absolutely not. Jews are the “good minority” and Muslims are the “bad minority,” not because the Germans suddenly like the Jews, but because the terms of national exclusion have changed: Whereas in the past, the integrity of the German nation was achieved through safeguarding the purity of the “German race,” the nation is now kept pure through the exclusion of religious elements, that endanger the “Wertegemeinschaft” (the “community of values”) Today, the vocabulary of exclusion does not entail the “race,” but the norms upon which our “culture” rests: That, which is to be excluded, monitored, controlled and circumscribed, is that, which does not fit into our “culture.”

That, which does not fit our “culture” is identified as “religion” and the principle bearers of “religion” are, in common German thought, Muslims: Whatever a Muslim does – it is because of his “religion.”[6] The Jew, in contrast, is to Germans the personification of “culture”: When Germans imagine the Muslim, they see ISIS; when they imagine the Jew they see an intellectual or an artist (and the Orientalists among them see the nice, old rabbi with a white beard, who speaks “words of wisdom,” but is, of course, no religious fundamentalist). Since Muslims are the epitomes of “religion,” whereas Jews are the epitomes of “culture,” it is the Muslims whose capability of “integration” is questioned, and who require Germany’s disciplinary, educational measures: No one would dream about questioning Judaism’s compatibility with democracy, but doing the same with Islam? Of course, all the time!

III. In cynical manner, our contemporary politics of exclusion is being “whitewashed” through the ideological inclusion of precisely those people, whose communities were erased from the maps of Europe through our past politics of exclusion: the Jews. We delve into a narrative about a “Judeo-Christian civilization,” upon which our “Abendland” supposedly rests – the little remaining problem being, of course, that the “Judeo-Christian civilization” somehow murdered its Jewish part: 60 years ago, we made a “little mistake” and unfortunately identified the Jews as incapable of civilization (and humanity, eventually) – but we’ve learned our part, and now do rightly exclude the Muslims, or should even do more efforts in this direction – I quote Henryk Broder: “In fünf Jahren, wenn es in Dresden so aussieht wie in Neukölln heute, und in Neukölln so wie in Islamabad, wissen wir mehr.“[7] (“In five years, when Dresden will look like Neukölln today, and Neukölln like Islamabad, we will know more.”) Just that 60 years ago, Neukölln was the Scheunenviertel; just that we already know more.


Almstadtstr. 16, in Berlin’s “Scheunenviertel,” today part of Mitte [8]

In as much as the Jewish community has a collective interest in its survival as a distinct, religious group, a political-ideological embrace of the “Jewish-Christian-civilization” seems highly ambivalent. The search for alternative political unions is thus not as much a matter of love, as it is a matter of strategy. Or to put it simply: The Jewish call for an Islamic-Jewish political cooperation is born out of necessity, not (necessarily) mutual empathy.

The question, which follows out of this is the following: On what grounds can the Jewish community opt for a political union with the Muslim community, when the overwhelming majority of Jews are proponents of 18th-19th century German liberal or Reform Judaism, the quintessence of “Christian-Jewish civilization”? That is, a kind of Judaism as it was imagined and made by a Protestant majority-culture, and internalized and propagated by Jews themselves? How can you be a partner in politics, when ideologically and practically you embody a kind of Judaism, that epitomizes the dissolution of the Jewish community into the bosom of universalism, the redemption of the letter (the law) in the disembodied, universal, “inner” truth of the spirit? Is this going to be a union of the spirit (the Jews) and the body (the Muslims)? Or do you attempt to find some “smallest common denominator” (maybe circumcision)? Or do you mean to speak for the Muslims on account of your vague memory of once having had a body, too?

[1] Cf. for example Paul: “A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the spirit, not by the letter.” (Romans 2:29)
[2] Since the “Jew” testifies to the “new German self” (the democratic, tolerant, multicultural), Germany invests a lot in whatever is equipped with this tag – regardless of the actual rather small number of Jews living here.
[3] An „Altbau with Dielen“ is a fancy old house with high ceilings and wooden floors. In terms of semiotics, it is a must-have of Berlin’s urban cultural, intellectual, academic, artistic population.
[4] The BIO-Company is a supermarket with organic and/or otherwise defined “better food.” As far as my own shopping-habits are concerned, the difference between the BIO-Company and other shops is mainly one of design: products you buy in the BIO-Company are wrapped up in nicer boxes. They look better – the customer feels better.
[5] A few anti-Deutsche straightforwardly opted in favor of prohibiting circumcision both to Jews and Muslims, arguing that „good Jews” in any case don’t practice circumcision. Others opted for the strategy I describe above.
[6] Accordingly, also anti-Muslim racism is usually perceived of as an enlightened “critique of religion.”
[7] http://www.welt.de/debatte/henryk-m-broder/article135586551/Das-deutsche-Festival-des-Wahnsinns.html
[8] For more information see: http://www.jmberlin.de/berlin-transit/en/orte/talmudtora.php

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6 Responses to A White Plain with Black Spots. About Jews, Muslims, Europe and “Civilization”

  1. miandl says:

    You write:
    “Is this going to be a union of the spirit (the Jews) and the body (the Muslims)? Or do you attempt to find some “smallest common denominator” (maybe circumcision)? Or do you mean to speak for the Muslims on account of your vague memory of once having had a body, too?”

    The biggest obstacle to any cooperation is that it is convenient and comfortable for the Jewish Community to let the Muslim communities continue to be a lightening rod which gives the Jewish Community a measure of protection. That the Zentralrat in the meantime is prepared to cooperate on specific common issues (circumcision, shechten) is already positive, but this doesn’t unfortunately lead to revision of the general strategy. Nonetheless there are signs that the Jewish Communities are tentatively being prepared to speak publicly alongside the Muslim communities,.

    Your critique is spot-on regarding the liberal wing of the Jewish Community. The orthodox would have more common cause with the Muslim communities but have been unwilling to give common politics and the development of a continuing relationship any priority. Frustrating but understandable: rebuilding our own communities is of course more important, but it is a question of what sort of community one builds and how one educates ones children. The Israeli view, which darkens the whole picture unnecessarily, predominates and blinds those who would have most to gain from a political alliance.

    The most recent developments may change things, since the muslim community has also sought to distance itself more from ist radical fringe as well as to gain political Advantage in Germany from doing so (recognition as an “official” religion) and has received encouragement from the Zentralrat der Jüden in doing so.

    Must post a piece I wrote 10 years ago on the same question.

  2. miandl says:

    no, never published it, though I should have done so. Will try and get it online now since it has renewed relevance again today. Will let you know once it is accessible.

  3. Thank you! Very much looking forward to reading it!

  4. Lena says:

    Ein höchst interessanter und lesenswerter Text! Ich habe lediglich einige Anmerkungen dazu (sorry, dass ich damit etwas spät dran bin, doch das Thema ist ja ohnehin nach wie vor aktuell):

    “I think, we can safely expect a default-pro-Jewish attitude as opposed to a default anti-Islamic-attitude”

    Ja, ABER: Die “grundsätzlich positive” Haltung zu Juden bezieht sich in Deutschland eigentlich immer nur auf jene Juden, die man entweder für einen anti-islamischen “Diskurs”, also eine bestimmte (keineswegs sympathische) politische Agenda, instrumentalisieren kann oder die dem herrschenden Bild, wie “ein Jude” sein “soll”, entsprechen, d. h., die so leben und sich so verhalten, wie weite Teile der Gesellschaft es erwarten, nämlich:

    – “aufgeklärt” (statt “primitiv” und “rückständig”)

    – säkular (statt religiös, traditionsverbunden, “fanatisch” und “fundamentalistisch”)

    – “universalistisch” (statt “partikularistisch” und “tribalistisch” —> deutsch-christlich-protestantische Normen werden häufig als “universelle Werte” verkauft)

    – “assimiliert” und “angepasst” (anstatt an der eigenen religiösen Identität festzuhalten)

    – “witzig” (statt “humorlos” – wehe, jemand kann / will über religionsfeindliche Karikaturen nicht lachen!)

    – kein Kopftuch (als Frau) tragen

    Nun gibt es selbstverständlich viele Juden, die nicht so sind, wie ein großer Teil der deutschen Mehrheitsgesellschaft es gerne hätte – zum Beispiel die Orthodoxen und “Ultra-Orthodoxen”, deren Zahl vor allem in Israel und den USA auch stark ansteigt. Was werden die Deutschen tun, wenn sie herausfinden, dass eine wachsende Gruppe von Juden eine Reihe von Gemeinsamkeiten mit “dem Islam” (der in Deutschland bekanntlich äußerst negativ gesehen wird) hat – sprich: nicht anti-religiös, sondern im Gegenteil sehr fromm ist, ausschließlich koschere Speisen konsumiert, die Haare mit einem Kopftuch bedeckt, nicht bereit ist, die eigene Religion aufzugeben, usw. ? Es kann leider durchaus sein, dass dann in Zukunft gegen Juden (wieder) genau so Stimmung gemacht wird wie gegen Muslime – und DAS bereitet mir Sorgen.

    • Absolut, ja. Ich habe darüber auch an anderer Stelle geschrieben, in einem Blogpost namens “Unrule Religion.” https://wordpress.com/post/mandolinaforpresident.wordpress.com/844.

      Die Frage, die aus dieser Beobachtung folgt wäre dann auch eine, die sich auf die deutsche Erinnerungskultur oder Vergangenheitsbewältigung bezieht. Also, in welchem Sinne gelten Juden jetzt als “gute” Andere? Unter welchen Prämissen? Und was bedeutet das für die Bedingungen, unter denen Minderheiten überhaupt Gleichstellung und Schutz im nationalstaatlichen Kontext einfordern können?
      Ich würde (vorsichtig) argumentieren, dass Juden erstmal durch die Erinnerung an den Genozid eine gewissen moralische Verantwortung des Staates aufrufen können, aber eben nicht unbedingt als religiös definierte Minderheit. Und in diesem Sinne wird sich Islamophobie und anti-muslimischer Rassismus dann letzlich konsequenterweise auch gegen die jüdische Minderheit richten, bzw. diese Elemente sind ja bei Höcke usw. auch schon zu erkennen.

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