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March 11, 2014 5:31 pm

New Book Explores the Awkwardness of Life as a Jew in Modern Germany

avatar by Joshua Levitt

Yascha Mounk. Photo: Twitter.

Yascha Mounk. Photo: Twitter.

Yascha Mounk, a young Jew who grew up in Germany, has published a book about his experience, which was often awkward as a result of “philo-Semitism,” where people he met were overly kind to make up for their country’s role in the Nazi Holocaust three generations ago, according to an interview in Deutsche Welle.

Mounk, who now considers himself a New Yorker, studied at Cambridge University and Columbia University and is currently a PhD Candidate at Harvard University’s Government Department. His book, ‘Stranger in My Own Country. A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,’ was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“Growing up, I experienced some straightforward anti-Semitism,” Mounk said. “A few times, people became hostile when I told them I was Jewish. But I found it easy enough to deal with that. In those kinds of situations, I could respond by telling people who seemed to have a problem with me, ‘You know what? I’m proud of being Jewish – deal with it!'”

“In my experience, the ‘philo-Semitism’ that was pretty widespread when I was a kid was actually much more difficult to react to. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Germany started to deal with its past much more seriously. People talked to their parents about what they had done during the War. And then they wanted to demonstrate how sorry they were for that past.”

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“Back in those days, on the rare occasions when people met a ‘real live Jew,’ they’d often try to show just how sorry they were for Germany’s past. So I’d sometimes end up feeling like a flesh-and-blood object of their desire to atone.”

Mounk said people would sometimes become nervous when they learned he was Jewish, or try to be especially nice to him. “It made me feel like I wasn’t quite German, but some kind of weird, exotic other,” he said.

Mounk said that part of the reason he moved to New York was that it got to a point where he “didn’t want to be the person who instigated this whole historical drama from contrition to rebellion against the past, every time I mentioned who my ancestors were.”

He also described the awkwardness of Germans of his generation trying too hard to make light of his Jewish past: “The problem is when people make joke(s) about Jews just to show that now, finally, we Germans are allowed to makes jokes about the Jews again. They don’t make these jokes to be funny; they’re trying to make a political statement. When jokes are told in that spirit, they end up having a pretty uncomfortable edge.”

As to his Jewish identify, Mounk said his experiences in Germany and New York couldn’t be more different: “So the funny thing is that in Germany I felt more and more Jewish, but New York – a city of one and a half million Jews – has made it possible for me not to identify myself as a Jew anymore.”

He described a future in Germany where the kindness offered to Jews in this generation needs to be extended to other minorities, particularly Muslims who now make up a large part of German society, meaning that “German-Germans” are becoming relatively less each year.

“Can we redefine our country as being truly pluralistic, truly multi-ethnic, truly open to people from different cultural backgrounds? This is not only a matter of relations between Jews and Germans. It is also a matter of relations between Germans and all kinds of other immigrants.”

“So as long as people still cling to the idea that Germany is defined by one kind of ethnicity and one kind of never-changing culture, it will end up making Jews feel like they can’t quite be at home here either. So, for me, the question is, Who will win this debate about German identity? And I don’t know the answer to that. I am hopeful, but it could go either way.”

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