Saturday, June 26, 2010


The first time I ever met a German, I slept with her, or rather - next to her. I had no choice. I was 18 years old and trapped on a chilly mountaintop on the island of Crete. With me was a Geordie chap my age named Alex, whom I met on the ferry over. We missed the last bus descending to the valley and ended up building a campfire not far from two blond girls who were putting up a tent.

Finally we amassed the courage, invited them to sit by our fire and in return received an invitation to sleep the night in their tent. The chill was intensifying as we entered, they saved our lives, no less. I lay by the chubby one, careful not to disrespect my hostess despite the narrow space. She giggled through the night in her sleep, as sweet a person as I've ever known.

Hitler came up the next morning, as we all descended into the gorge of Samaria. I think I brought him up. I've been bringing him up since when meeting Germans, an act that simultaneously breaks and forms the ice. Ultimately, young Germans and young Israelis are like-minded about history, although I did find a few of my German friends to be undereducated about it. I would use German terms such as "Einsatzgruppen" (SS death squads, responsible for systematic massacres) and notice a raised brow. My teachers taught it, theirs didn't.

Then again, you speak to young Israelis about the massacre of Kafar Qasem, inspired by the same Einsatzgruppen, and recieve a similar raised brow. We never like to look at our own faults, but we do like to look at the faults of others and in that Germany is an underprevilaged nation. While all of Europe is taking the case of the Palestinians and faces Israel with hard questions, the Germans are forced to go easy on us. No one likes to have "Look who's talking" thrown in their faces.

This isn't a new story, of course. I heard that journalists who get a job with "Bild", Europe's most succesful tabloid, published in Berlin, must sign a form stating they will never write anything critical of Israel. These days, as international media screams in joyful rage, Bild journalists must be tearing their hair out much of the time.

The Bild is unhelpful, but in general the German media's dillema is a good thing. Bereft of the mandate to be unreasonable, it must be mature in its treatment of Israel. Those who read my blog regularly know exactly how much I encourage criticism of Israel, but if it isn't fair it's not pragmatic. Germany is a country that can produce mature, helpful criticism at this time, and I hope it picks up the glove and does so.

Not only the press is influential. Last night I had an astounding theatrical experience. Frankfurt's Mousonturm theatre brought to Tel-Aviv it's production of "My First Sony", a theatrical interpertation of a Hebrew novel by Benny Barbash. The director, Stephane Bittoun, is German-Jewish. He staged a terrificaly subtle presentation of one Israeli family's decomposition, one that is so humorous and elegant one doesn't quite understand how come it moves us to tears. This is the greatness of German theatre since Brecht. It does not seek to emulate life, thus it is life.

All the family's misadventures are recorded by one of the children on a primitive tape recorder. The entire play is a record of things that have been, which is what our present is due to become. Bittoun's all German crew treat Israel's enormously complex present with a mix of courage and elegance. Everything is there, the settlements, the Einsatzgruppen, the emotionality of being Israeli.

Itka and I were standing outside the Kameri theatre, wiping tears from our eyes. "My First Sony" was a promise. There's a culture besides our own that shares our history and has the capacity to contribute to our future. It's endowed with the sensativity to see what's happening here and the responsibility to treat it tastefully, carefully, maturely. I wouldn't expect much from "Bild", but other Berliners can be true allies to all of us here, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

I take that promise seriously and am glad for it. Hence, I will be rooting for Germany on Sunday as it faces England at the world cup. Somewhere out there, my kind German host from that Cretan mountaintop will be cheering along.

(Image on top is of my dear friends in Berlin-Neukölln, twin city to Bat-Yam, Israel.)


יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

There's been some uproar on my Facebook page over my statement that the Kafar Qasem massacre was "inspired" by the Einsatzgruppen. With your permission, I'll repost my explanation here:

I used the word "inspired" not in its simplistic, artistic sense. I don't think anyone sat there and thought: hey! these SS chaps had just the right idea! let's learn from them how to execute Arab villagers.

Nevertheless I'm convinced that this is the same violence. that the bullets that killed the villagers in Kafar Qasem were ripples of the same wave that killed the victims of Babi Yar.

Violence doesn't vanish, it changes form and reemerges. The Abusive father's son will turn into an abusive father himself. The killers of Kafar Qasem were psychologically wounded by the events that have taken place in Europe briefly beforehand. Those events had everything to do with what they did.

Am I blaming Hitler for Kafar Qasem? In a way, yes, but this doesn't remove the IDF's responsibility to it. The Third Reich itself was driven by the German hurt and violence of WWI, that doesn't clear it of any blame.

There's another point worth making. In the late 40s mass killings and deportations have become so routine, that no one really felt there was much of a deal with them. (I'm basing this statement on the testimony of a Palmachnic friend who took part in emptying villages) Millions have been deported, millions have been massacred. This sense remained into the 50s. Only later did we redevelop greater sensitivity to human life.

My point is that not only the violence came from Europe. Our immunity to it was also a product of WWII. This too is a form of inspiration. If my choice of words turned out harsher and less clear than I have intended, I hope it was cleared up now.

Anonymous said...

What shocked me more the inability of Israelis to form an orderly queue back then when I was working in Israel and that was, how much its policies where just a mirror image of … Nazis Germany, back then…. in the post war years it was applicable. Now, to hang on to such views and values when the rest of the western world which thinks its moved on seems, such a hypocrisy mostly on the part of the west. However the racial discrimination I experienced towards me in Israel has always inform me of how I should and should not behave. So everything that came from before, is relevant it is up to us to make it better and not so.