Monday, April 20, 2009

Germans and Jews

So I considered posting something about Roger Cohen's latest, but Matthew of Stanford, CA pretty much covers it, writing, "I think it's a really obnoxious way to start an article by saying that the perpetrator of genocide has managed to move on more successfully than its victims."

To preempt a possible response to Matthew (sorry folks - looks like I'll have to post after all): Should the Holocaust be evoked as an excuse for everything that goes wrong in Israel? No - just as colonialism can't be blamed every time a formerly colonized but now independent society screws up. But to say, gee, look how wonderfully Germany's doing, after getting past a stage during which it was convinced of its own national and racial superiority, as versus Israel... it's just missing something fundamental about the psychology of the thing. To say that Germans have created "a wonder from the ashes" - it's unfortunate wording. Yes, Germans and Jews were both in bad shape postwar, and yes, there's all kinds of complex stuff going on in the German psyche, then and now, but really, it's not the same thing at all. Which brings us back to Matthew's excellent point.

So this makes me thing of a couple things. One, "Walk on Water", the Eytan Fox movie, in which a macho Israeli learns pacifism from a gay German descendant of a Nazi war criminal, a young man who wants to know why we can't all just get along. There, as in Cohen's piece, the German and Israeli situations are painted as analogous, and we're supposed to see the German way as superior. Germans are, in the film, gentle and tolerant creatures, granted with some 'issues' stemming from their heritage (neither Axel nor his sister has German lovers, preferring Arabs and Jews, respectively - Axel even makes a point in saying he's never been with German men). But it's ultimately the Israeli with the lesson to learn, which he learns, abandoning Mossad for the rearing of a towheaded half-German baby, the great, symbolic Rebirth at the end of the film.

The other thing I'm reminded of by Cohen's 'look how great the Germans are doing these days, compared to the Jews' is how well his column supports the 'oops, my bad' school of nation-building. As in, the Germans got rid of the populations they didn't want, were able to say, 'That was so wrong of us, we'll never do it again', and now get Roger Cohen praising their 'recovery.' One wonders what Roger Cohen would say to a theoretical Israel that had, in 1948 or 1967, gone the 'oops, my bad' route, killing off the Palestinians, feeling really bad about it... and then conveniently rebuilding the homogeneous (OK, there could be some Arabs, just as there are some Jews now in Germany) civilization they'd wanted in the first place. Hmm.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

“To say that Germans have created “a wonder from the ashes” - it’s unfortunate wording” is more than unfortunate wording. It shows his utter contempt for Jewish sensibility.

It’s intolerable that Roger Cohend should preach to people he treats with so much contumely.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"But it's ultimately the Israeli with the lesson to learn, which he learns, abandoning Mossad for the rearing of a towheaded half-German baby, the great, symbolic Rebirth at the end of the film."

Warning: Spoiler ahead:

It is one of my favourite movies, and I beg to differ with this interpretation. Both Axel and Eyal change by the end of the movie. When Eyal cannot bring himself to finish off Axel's grandfather, a wanted Nazi; it is Axel who finishes the job. Earlier, when Axel and Eyal are in the subway, a group of homosexuals is being bullied by some skin-heads and when the incident gets too violent, Eyal draws out a gun and the thugs scamper away. He later apologizes to Axel for his reflexive reaction nut Axel tells him, much to the viewer's surprise that he was glad he did it. He seems to have learned that sometimes it is not enough "to completely purify yourself. Your heart needs to be like it's clean from the inside: no negativity, no bad thoughts."

The film ends with an exchange taking place, between the German's aspired saintliness and the Israeli's principled toughness. Consequently, they become more alike. I thought the movie was something of a fairy tale. A nice "might have been" beating the actual odds that a story like that could happen.

Phoebe said...

I also think it's an excellent movie, but I'm not sure the learning process, such as it is, is an exchange. If Axel changes, it's a) a whole lot less than Eyal does, and b) primarily because he's learned something new and disturbing about his grandfather. Axel learns, at most, that sometimes violence is necessary, but the cases in question are pretty uncontroversial - in order to defend people being beat up in the subway; in order to kill a war criminal. Eyal, meanwhile, learns that everything he's ever believed in, including the justice of his own national cause, is actually wrong. It's not enough for him to get past his machismo and have a gay friend, or to realize that modern-day Germans are not guilty of their ancestors' crimes - both worthy lessons, I should add. He has to see, as Axel does, a parallel between the German treatment of the Jews and the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. The message of the film is not necessarily that the Israelis are Nazis, but that there's this great big category of Mean Behavior, and that we should all be Nice. So, it's naive, and in its naivete, risks sending a pretty screwed up political message.

The thing is, most of the movie is really great, and much more nuanced, I realize, than what I wrote above makes it sound like. What I find disturbing is really the end of the movie, especially when juxtaposed with the beginning. Death, violence, and dead ends are represented by the Israeli wife, while new beginnings are only possible via... a blond baby.

Anonymous said...

Roger Cohen gives the game away by his denouncing Israel for building the separation fence. Cohen never mentions that the fence/barrier was promoted by the Israeli left, and not the Likud. It was built after hundreds of Israeli civilians, many of them teenagers and children, were deliberately murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers, many of whom were encouraged and financed by Iran backed groups. The fence was a last resort. Cohen says that Israelis should simply unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and that presumably there would be no terrorism and no suicide bombs. Hamas has never accepted Cohen formulations, although he tells us that a Hamas leader in Damascus told Cohen's friend Henry Siegman that Hamas might accept a "long term truce" provided Israel firs withdrew to the pre 1967 borders, and took all
sorts of other measures that Hamas would order Israel to do.And on that basis, Cohen wants Israel to immediately remove its security fence and all checkpoints. Between 1967 and 2003 and 2004, the security fence did not exist and there were not many checkpoints. It was only the suicide bombers, most egged on and financed by Iran, that finally forced Israelis to build a fence. Cohen thinks Israeli fears are irrational. After all, Jimmy Carter says Israel has a strong army. A strong army can't stop a suicide bomber who is brainwashed and merely has to cross a frontier. From the security of London, the British Mr. Cohen has no such worries.

Tom said...

One wonders what Roger Cohen would say to a theoretical Israel that had, in 1948 or 1967, gone the 'oops, my bad' route, killing off the Palestinians, feeling really bad about it... and then conveniently rebuilding the homogeneous (OK, there could be some Arabs, just as there are some Jews now in Germany) civilization they'd wanted in the first place.*Ouch.*