Can German Jews ever be  part of the "homeland"?
Can German Jews ever be part of the "homeland"?

The German word “Heimat” loosely means the “homeland,” but in fact encompasses more.

Heimat describes being part of a common national bond, of shared history, trust and nostalgia. It includes a sense of kinship, comfort and common purpose. It represents the physical, emotional and spiritual sanctuary of Germans regardless of status and is a feminine word that suggests nurturing unlike Vaterland which implies masculine power.

Heimat, since Luther, gave Germans a sense of belonging and identity with regard to region, dialect and country.

German Jews, were often regarded as “Heimatlos” and rootless-the wandering Jew as envisaged by church founder Augustin and reinforced by Martin Luther.

Challenging this exclusion, Jewish educationist Kurt Tucholsky envisaged a concept of the Heimat that depicted a genuine and persistent love of the German organic space.

Despite enthusiastically serving the Kaiser and Germany in the First World War, with over representation and disproportionate casualties, a sense of belonging to the Heimat was at best tentative.  Following the war, popular belief that the Jews had “caused” Germany to lose took hold and was exploited by the Nazis.

Jews, no matter how much assimilated or even converted, simply did not belong. In pro-Nazi philosopher Heidegger’s essay ”Heimat,” the most prominent Heimat writers Auerbach and Weill-both Jews- were excluded.

During the Nazi era, the concept of Heimat was also defined as “blood and soil” thereby excluding any “foreigners” from this sense of belonging. The Nazis went to great lengths to detach Jews and Judaism from German history and instead promote a dejudaised Heimat consisting of a Christian National ethos that explicitly rejected Jews.  

After Hitler came to power the public burning of Jewish Bibles across Germany was common. As historian Alon Confino observes in his “A world without Jews,” Germans were determined to reshape their new identity, devoid of Judeo-Christian roots. Instead, Germans embraced an identity in which Heimat morphed into a new form of Christian-German nationalism becoming an independent entity in itself.

Most Christian clergymen in Nazi Germany embraced this idea. It was rationalised that just as Luther revolted against Catholicism, so the church had to despatch Judaism and Jews. This was done at first through the 1935 Nuremberg Laws which incrementally deprived Jews of most rights-even the right to buy flowers. Depersonalisation and dehumanisation were part of the Heimatlos agenda that culminated in the mass murder and physical destruction of Europe’s Jews.

After the war, the concept of Heimat was put on the back burner.

In the early 90’s, a reunited Germany invited Jews from the FSU to immigrate to Germany. While most were not raised in a Jewish culture, they did bring skills in engineering, medicine and other sciences.  Yet, only in 2003 - a full 58 years after Nazi Germany - was Judaism raised to a legal par with Catholicism and the Lutheran Church.

The term Heimat has also made a comeback and come to denote something positive, viz.,multi cultural inclusiveness. The AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party uses the slogan “Unser Land, unsere Heimat”(Our country, our Heimat)  as a rallying cry for nationalistic cohesiveness.

Climbing on the populist bandwagon, Chancellor Merkel’s government introduced a Heimatministerium, that raised some eyebrows.

There is however a significant sense of paradox.

Despite the Heimat’s promotion of national cohesiveness as an ideal, Dr Merkel appointed Dr Felix Klein to check growing anti-Semitism in Germany which she says is shameful and embarrassing. Anti-Semitism does not fit in with the modern idea of Heimat.

The government has recently agreed to increase funding for security at Jewish venues. Synagogues, schools , kindergartens and other Jewish places have armed guards to prevent attacks as have occurred both in Germany and in other European cities. Jews have also been advised by the head of the Central Council for Jews in Germany not to wear a traditional kippa in public.

Police have also advised the Jewish Community not to display their logo on the wrapping of their mail, while mezuzot should be affixed inside their doors away from the public’s view.

I recall when asking a passerby in the street where a particular synagogue was that I was looking for, chuckled as she said “keep going straight till you see police cars and guards.”
In other words, Germany’s desire to protect its Jewish citizens, casts them apart from mainstream Germans. This is not what the new Heimat is meant to be.

I recall when asking a passerby in the street where a particular synagogue was that I was looking for, chuckled as she said “keep going straight till you see police cars and guards.”

This week, a visiting Jewish professor was assaulted by an Arab-German  allegedly shouting,” No Jews in Germany.”

The solution to the problem of protecting Jews has in itself created another problem which is incompatible with the idea of Heimat.

The irony is also that the word “Hebrew”  (Ivri) means “from the other side-the other,” which is what is happening in the Heimat.

Security is of course essential. Yet, Dr Klein must surely realise that more security is a band aid measure. Education that starts with the Holocaust will also not solve the problem.

With Germany the leading country of Europe, the stakes are high.

A complete overhaul of school education that includes the 4000 year old history of the Jewish people, the millennia old Judeo-Christian symbiosis in German history and the role of the churches  to this day, is essential to making post-war and post- unification Germany the Heimat it wishes to be.

With Germany becoming increasingly polarised by difficulties integrating Islamic asylum seekers, left and right wing extremism and a weakened  federal government, the Jewish community may well wonder “what Heimat?” as they observe more armed guards in front of their institutions.

Ron Jontof-Hutter is the author of the satirical novel: “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist.”