''Not Assimilating is a Choice''

Interview with Susan Neiman

Susan Neiman is the Director of the Einstein Forum.


Susan Neiman: Can I start by asking you couple of question? Just to have some sense of who I'm talking to. Because, you know, sometimes people come and they want to talk about Jews in Germany, and they really start from zero... But you have been here for how long?


Daniel Miller: I've lived in Berlin for three years, and I lived in Israel for one year.


SN: You went to Israel looking for a home in the world?


DM: No! No!


SN: I know many people wouldn't want to admit it. But that is one reason why people do go there. Do you come from a Jewish family?


DM: I have a Jewish father and a Polish Catholic mother. But you know, I think the Israelis are not actually Jewish... And that the real Jews in Israel are the African and Vietnamese foreign workers who live in the New Barcelona neighbourhood near the Tel Aviv bus station.


SN: I have three children, who went through five years in Tel Aviv. By the end, they were completely assimilated. When we came here one of my daughters started going to an American-German school, and I remember that one time she was asked by her teacher if she could explain Hanukkah to the class. And she looked at him, and without batting an eyelid, or realizing that she was saying something funny, and said: “But you have to understand, I'm not Jewish, I'm Israeli.'' So you are absolutely right, at least in terms of the impressions that the kids get...


DM: Do many people come and ask you about Jews in Germany?


SN: Sure... I guess because of some of the books I wrote, and because of the Einstein Forum, I now count as one of the Jewish intellectuals in Germany. So yeah, I get asked questions, and it really does depend on who you're talking to, what you can say... But what is it exactly that you want?


DM: Did you see the films?


SN: Yes... I liked them very much. Zamech was so powerful that I thought it was a documentary, and I cried during the speech of the wife...


DM: So you are sympathetic to our cause?


SN: When I came to Berlin in 1982, I was the only Jew that most Germans had ever met in their lives. I remember other Jews asking me: ''What are you doing? How can you justify going there?'' And I think that this decision, and then deciding to stay was somehow itself an act of faith in the Jewish Renaissance in Europe. Because I really didn't start identifying as a Jew until I came to Berlin. Both my parents were Jewish, but I was really raised more as a child of the civil rights movement. I saw myself as someone with a sense of solidarity with other oppressed peoples, with some kind of mildly serious Jewish cultural thing in the background. But then I came here, and being Jewish became something I wanted to take more seriously. So I thought a lot in the eighties, and then also later, about being part of doing things toward reconstituting a Jewish community.


DM: What kind of things did you think about being part of?


SN: I remember that Diana Pinto, who is this very fine political scientist in Paris, tried very hard for a number of years to put together a pan-European group of progressively-oriented Jews. We met several times and we had some nice meetings. The last one was six or seven years ago. I think that she felt afterwards there is not a critical mass of European Jewish intellectuals anymore,. I mean left-leaning Jewish politically-interested intellectuals, people who wereare Jewish-identified and played some kind of role in their countries, but who wereare not part of the official Jewish community. Her feeling was there was not enough of a critical mass...


DM: And you lived in Tel Aviv for five years between 1995 and 2000?


SN: Yeah. And when I came back to Berlin, I can remember Israelis being really angry with me, and calling me a traitor to my face for leaving Israel to go back to Berlin. My kids got a lot of shit for it in school at the time. Now, eleven years later, their friends are so jealous, and are desperately trying to figure out ways to come to Berlin. That has a lot to do, of course, with the situation in the state of Israel, which is horrible...



DM: What do you mean?


SN: These are high crisis times. There's just no way you can get around it. Israel is putting everything it has into making international politics focus on the Jewish question, and that has to be addressed. You can't still say: ''Look, I'm a Jew, maybe I spent some time in Israel, maybe I am an Israeli living abroad, because like, so many Israelis, I cannot stand the place anymore, and I'd just like to revive the great marvellous European Jewish culture that did so much until 1939...'' You cannot do it without taking a stand towards  Israel.


DM: The problem is the angle of critique. But I want to return to your point about numbers. Because if you include within the set of all the Jews, not only Jews defined according to traditional definitions, but anyone prepared to affirm some kind of diaspora identity, than you have quite a large....


SN: There's a member of my staff, a brilliant young man, whose parents were born in the Soviet Union, whose father was Jewish, but who wasn't raised with any sense of a Jewish identity. But if you are a Jew, or even just someone whose spent a lot of time in New York, you can tell in a minute he's just got certain kinds of Jewish intellectual gestures. He won't identify himself as a Jew, because he is completely fluent in four different languages, he's lived and worked in four different countries, he's 34, and he rather considers himself to be part of a generation which is multinational. There are lots and lots of people like that now. Do you want to call them Jews?


DM: Yes.


SN: Why? Because they feel rootless? I think that this is a mistake. There are so many people now whose homeland has vanished. There are so many refugees... and not even refugees, just people who have been uprooted in an age in which it's no big deal to travel. They grew up in one country, and studied in a second country, and then got a job in a third country, that is so common! Perhaps the Jews were the forerunners of the diaspora experience. But there is an Indian diaspora, a Chinese diaspora, a Vietnamese diaspora... Do I want to call these people Jewish? Just because of this one fact about their lives, this sense of rootlessness? No!


DM: I agree there is a tension. But there are also historical reasons for making this move. You can see there is a new far-right in Europe organized around a Muslim Question....


SN: But have you noticed all of those parties, or nearly all of them, claim to be very pro-Israel and pro-Jewish in order to be anti-Muslim...


DM: Yes! And that's why it's important to state solidarity, from a Jewish position, and a historical position, with the European Muslims...


SN: In my own life, I grew up in a kind of universalist position, than maybe a ''Bundist'' position... where you are fundamentally international, but you've got to preserve Jewish culture, and that's werewhere your heart is. I guess at this point in my life, and I believe am not confusing my life with history, I think that internationalism is the way to go. Yes, I have particular roots, as a Jew, and I have some Jewish traits, and there are even certain things that I feel much more comfortable talking about with only Jews. But I wonder if a Jewish Renaissance is the way to go, especially since you're not really tying it to Jewishness. You need to think about what you are doing when you are using this signifier. And particularly what you are doing in Europe. Because what this word means to people who haven't spent a serious amount of time thinking about it, is either victim, which is what it means in Germany and I suspect in other parts of Europe as well. Or it means Israel, and it means, as many people are starting to feel but it is not yet socially acceptable to say in Germany unless you are a Jew, and I am, and so I'll say it, it means that state of Israel has abused its victim status...


DM: This bipolar definition is exactly what should change. And this is our proposition. Perhaps the Jew can be better defined in the context of this global diaspora...


SN: I don't think so. I think ''Jew'' means something way more specific.... But just suppose it was the other way around.... The Indian diaspora is much larger in terms of numbers than the Jewish diaspora. Supposing an Indian said to you: ''I value certain things about the diaspora, and it doesn't have to be the Indian diaspora, I value Jewish, African and Chinese diasporas too, but I'm going to call it the Indian Renaissance.'' Would you feel offended? I would...


DM: Really?


SN: Yeah! I would say: ''Guys, nothing against Indians but you're submerging my specific culture! Either you just call it Diaspora, and this means everybody who wanders around living in multiple cultures, or, you are submerging my culture in yours, which is way larger than mine... We are talking about a billion people here! There have never been a billion Jews in the world. You have this very long and rich Indian tradition, with holy scriptures  and a serious scholarly tradition and art, and so where is my tradition in that?''


DM: But why would you say submerge? Why not overlap?


SN: Because as long as it called Indian, that's got the top priority. It's what the Germans call leitkultur. Unless it's just called Diaspora, in which case I can look at the Bhagavad Gita and Mid'rash or whatever. I've got nothing against movements that take this sort of ''Bundist'' position: ''We are not saying our culture is the best one, we are simply saying that we are value particular traditions and we want to keep them alive, while also valuing and being interested in other cultures.'' I also have nothing against, at least theoretically, a purely internationalist position, although when that goes too far against individual traditions, as we've seen, there are problems. But I'm not sure what your describing is intellectually coherent. Or emotionally coherent.


DM: But you cannot  intervene in the Israel discourse without being Jewish, and without a conception of Jewish identity which is as militant as Zionism. But what is this conception? It is the diaspora conception...


SN: It seems to me that you have to say, either, we're into an idea of diaspora, this is the twenty-first century, and a huge proportion of people, some highly educated, and some highly uneducated are moving around the world, and they take it for granted that their life will not be confined to one country, and that's a phenomena we need to be looking at, and perhaps the Jews, or the history of the Jews can provide interesting lessons. And you become the Diaspora Renaissance. Or you remain the Jewish Renaissance, and you say, yes, we are interested in other diasporas, but fundamentally we are a Jewish organization which is open to anybody who has a Jewish background or converts, through any form of conversion, and who wants to identify as a Jew. We welcome other people, and want to bond with other groups within their own diasporas, because we are not nationalists in that sense. But you need to place more weight on the Jewish aspect, if you want to play the role that, I agree, needs to be played.


DM: You could say the Jewish aspect of the movement has more to do with the Jewish question, and issues of  identity and difference and immigration and integration, and assimilation, and conformity, then with Jewish identity as such. What is the status today of this question? What is the meaning of assimilation, for example, in this world of diasporic movements?


SN: You know, I have cousins where both of the parents were Jewish. They were, for reasons that nobody could quite figure out, less interested in Jewish identity. The kids had no Jewish education whatsoever. And you look at them now, and particularity their children, you would have no idea that their children were Jewish. In three generations, here are children who don't know anything about Judaism, who don't care anything about Judaism, who don't care about Israel, either for or against it. It is easy to assimilate. It can't be done in one generation, but can be easily be done in three. So, not assimilating is a choice.


This interview was conducted in Potsdam on September 21, 2011 by Daniel Miller, and transcribed and edited by Daniel Miller.


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