* This article, by Robert Ogman, was first published in German in Jungle World 44/2019.
Just days before the deadly attack outside the Halle synagogue, bracketed between the Jewish New Year celebration Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur, a friend of mine wrote to me what’s become a popular motto to summarize Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” The self-parodying motto, widely known in Jewish communities, refers to the triad of historical experience and social practice: doom, salvation, and affirmation of life. It recalls succinctly and humorously the permanent state of threat, the miracle of survival, and the necessity of rejoice. No holiday better encapsulates this triad as Pesach, when the story of slavery under the Pharaoh and exodus from Egypt is retold, and liberation is rejoiced over a large feast and four glasses of wine.
Yet just days later, when a heavily-armed neo-Nazi attacked a Halle synagogue on Yom Kippur, we were quickly reminded that the motto does not refer to closed historical events of the past which we have left behind. Wie Brecht schon sagte, “Der Schoß ist fruchtbar noch, aus dem das kroch.” When in today’s ‘post-national’ Germany, 25% of the population can imagine that something like the Holocaust could repeat itself here, then we – the main Feindbild – know that the triad danger-resilience-and affirmation of life refers equally to our current reality which we have to navigate in our own times. From this, there appears no simple and final redemption – not liberal cosmopolitanism, socialist internationalism, or even Jewish self-determination.
Yes, the Jews may have given the world the bible, broke out of the cyclical view of time, affirmed self- and societal development rather than obeying and mimicking nature – ideas taken up successively by all the monotheistic religions and secular culture alike – but for these gifts, the world has filled its libraries with lies against them.
Society permanently updates its assault with new rationalizations: first the Jews were the Christ killers, then the poisoners of wells, next the bringers of the bubonic plague and black death, afterward the destroyers of society with money and abstract value, then the undertakers of traditional culture with the assertion of universal equality, then blamed for colonialism and “the Middle East conflict”. A broken record always adapted to the times. In the fantasy world of the murderer in a Pittsburgh synagogue one year ago, south American migrants are not fleeing poverty, war, and oppression to seek better lives in the U.S., but instead are simply pawns manipulated by Jewish conspirators to demographically and culturally undermine the white Christian majority in the U.S. for their own interests. This ideology was mimicked in the manifesto of the Halle attacker Stephan B. According to his warped mind, the Syrian and Afghani exodus from their war-torn countries is not the flight of real people seeking security and better lives. No, instead these individuals lack agency and are mere “golems” – just dust brought to life by Jewish mystics through alchemical transformation, and brought to Europe with the devious aim of displacing German Christians and installing Jewish domination. For this reason he decided against attacking a Mosque, and sought instead to “cut off the head” of the supposed “plot”, and attack Jews.
So after we prayed, each in our own religious or secular ways, that the terror in Halle would end quickly and without any deaths or injuries, we screamed out in fury at the fascist danger. We criticized the ideology of that supposed lone wolf Stephan B., and the thousands of armed neo-Nazis throughout German society, which has infiltrated the police and security forces. We raged against the cuts to anti-racism education programs and right-wing extremism prevention projects. We criticized the intellectual instigators, the far-Right “Alternative for Germany” party, which have been called the “political wing of right-wing terrorism”. And we damned the authorities for minimizing our security concerns.
But yet, as loud as the “Never Again!” proclamations were in the media, social media, and at public vigils, so extremely silent were the people around me. So few were the phone calls or messages from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or self-described “comrades” in the days after the attack. So easy it was to post something stupid banner on Facebook – so difficult they must have found it to reach out and ask, “how are you holding up?” How formally correct, and how socially and emotionally removed at the same time! This too is this state of Germany amid the “outrage” after Halle.
At our vigils we mourned the senseless loss of life, and we said the mourner’s kaddish for Jana L. and Kevin S. during services. Political commentators quarreled about whether the attack was of an antisemitic character, or directed instead against “society as a whole”. What a stupid exercise. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation that totalitarianism makes all human life superfluous, and at the same time, that it has deep, critical differentiations which cannot be smoothed over – a contradictory truth we should try to keep in mind. The two unique individuals who did not belong to the Jewish community, but were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, were reduced by the fascist mind to nothing but superfluous matter, disposable objects in the mission to rid the world of Jews.
And while mourning the senseless loss of life, we also marveled at the narrow avoidance of a massacre – yes this contradiction could not cover up the miracle of survival. Yes, they tried to kill us (again) … and yet we survived! A remnant always does. We marveled at the wonder of a simple wooden door to stop evil, to stop a massacre in the unprotected Halle synagogue.
On the way to the hospital to be treated for shock – death narrowly escaped – the congregations’ survivors danced, and sang out “The Jewish people live on!” Upon nightfall, they congregated in the hospital cafeteria, completed the holiday prayers, blew the Shofar (the ram’s horn) signaling the end of Yom Kippur. They broke their Yom Kippur fast and drank beer.
The struggle against antisemitism is simply the fight against the reduction of life to mere matter, to an impoverished conception of ‘nature’, ‘race’, blood, labor, and force. And so this very cause must too defend the autonomy of life over all external causes. Hence after doom and salvation, we affirm life. We reject the objectivization and projections by anti-Semites, and also those by well-meaning ‘antifascists’ alike, and assert ourselves as subjects within history, through the renewal of our traditions. This is why it made sense, following the “Tree of Life” synagoge shooting in the United States, to call “all out for Shabbat!” For it is this creative interruption of time and space – the disruption of everyday life and labor, the halt to practices that change the world (through utilization and instrumentalization), and instead the uncompromising and simple affirmation of life – which may be a necessary part of the efforts to repair the world, of Tikkun Olam, or if secular terms are preferred, to “make it whole”, in the words of Ernst Bloch. That a similar call was not made in Germany may say much about the different political cultures in these two countries, but it doesn’t call for simple mimicry. There is much to be changed, but there is also much to be disrupted and affirmed – so we proclaim and sanctify life, for to live is our struggle, so let’s eat!
* This article, by Robert Ogman,g was first published in German in Jungle World 44/2019.