Several weeks after the election, I took a road trip through the South. It was my first time in the region: beyond a Miami spring break in college and a volunteer trip to New Orleans after Katrina, I had never seen the America below Washington, DC. At the end of our first day on the road, we decided to stop for dinner in Staunton, Virginia. As we pulled off 81 onto Lee Highway behind a truck with a confederate-flag sticker plastered on the cab window, I felt surprised to feel a thrill of familiarity. Nine months before a group of torch-bearing supremacists made the connection coarsely obvious, I recognized Germany in Virginia.
I moved abroad when I was twenty-two for a year-long internship at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Like the South, Berlin is a place where the past is never far from mind: streets named Karl-Marx-Allee, buildings marked with bullet holes, and the path of the Berlin wall traced by a double row of red cobblestones—a pink scar that runs through the city streets, a semi-healed wound underfoot. But unlike America, Germany has made an art out of re-appropriating its history into its landscape and creating sites for meaningful confrontation. From my vantage point, the Jewish Museum Berlin was at the heart of the city’s reckoning processes. Debates about how a painful and traumatized past should be woven into a country’s mythology were being enacted in the warped galleries of the Daniel Libeskind-designed building. Driving past the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton, Virginia, I thought back to my time at the museum. It seemed as though America might have something to learn from their example.
The Jewish Museum Berlin opened in September 2001. The security concerns that surrounded the opening of a major Jewish museum in Germany’s capital were only heightened when the terrorist attacks in New York caused the public opening to be pushed back two days. As with any memorial process in Germany, its construction was the result of decades of public deliberations, committees called and disbanded, and negotiations between Jewish leaders and city officials. (There is a reason that Germans have a word like Vergangenheitsbewältigung to describe the process of coming to terms with the past—it’s because it takes them such a long time to go about it). It is significant that approval and budgeting for the museum didn’t kick in until after the country’s reunification in 1991: one of the first major projects of Bundesrepublik Deutschland was to create a museum in its capital devoted to German-Jewish history. In order for Germany to show the world that it was a new country, it first had to show that it had a handle on its past.
Walking through the museum, visitors might be taken aback by the tone, which is willfully cheerful, bordering on juvenile. Americans will ask if they missed the part about anti-Semitism; Israelis wonder why there is so little about the Holocaust. But the museum is designed for a German audience. It presents German-Jewish history as a single narrative, refuting the myth of an era when Germany was solely “German.” Instead, it argues that Jews have always been part of the fabric of German society, and even more, that Germany has been at its best and most innovative when it embraced a pluralistic national identity.
In my position at the museum, I traveled around to different departments, serving as something like the resident native English speaker for much of the museum’s communications and publications staff. Although a number of the senior officials in the museum are Jewish and the museum works closely with Berlin’s religious community on its programming, I was the only Jewish person in any of the teams I joined. And as the kind of West Coast Jew who grew up with Christmas trees and an understanding of Hebrew that stopped after the letters on a dreidel, I found myself in a strange position: my colleagues would defer to me on questions of Jewish culture and tradition, but they knew more about the history and religion than I did.
In my last few months in Germany, the museum debuted a new special exhibition. “The Whole Truth… Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Jews” was put up in March 2013. The exhibition mimicked the Jewish tradition of question-and-answer to approach issues and subjects that weren’t covered by the museum’s permanent exhibition. The questions ranged from “How do you recognize a Jew?” to “Is it okay to make jokes about the Holocaust?” “With an even-handed and witty touch,” the exhibition guide explained, “we present questions through extraordinary objects and installations taken from religious practice, everyday life, and contemporary art.”
The exhibition itself was straightforward, although striking for its aggressive color scheme of grey and magenta. The “even-handed and witty touch” often meant that the questions were obliquely answered, and often avoided the very issue they seemed to raise. For example, “Is it okay to make jokes about the Holocaust?” was responded to through a series of film clips, drawn from Larry David, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, and one German comedian making jokes about the Holocaust with no other commentary. “How do you recognize a Jew?” was answered by a room full of floating kippas. One exhibit asked visitors to vote by putting tokens into tubes, indicating that they thought Jews were particularly “good looking,” “influential,” “intelligent,” “animal loving” or “business savvy.” In these instances, the designers of the exhibition neatly bucked the responsibility so often placed on minorities to explain parts of their existence that should be obvious. Instead, accountability was transferred onto museum guests, asking that they reevaluate their acceptance of stereotypes and question their reliance on museums to provide them with packaged answers. But as I walked through the exhibition a few weeks after it opened, I wondered if something wasn’t getting lost in translation. There were far too many tokens in the “business savvy” container for my liking.
For the final question, “Are there still Jews in Germany?” the museum broached the issue a little differently. At the end of the exhibition hall, there was a glass box encasing a pink bench, where every day for two hours a Jewish volunteer sat and answered any question the visitors might put to them. In other words, to answer for the existence of Jews in Germany, the museum put a Jew on display.
Before the exhibition opened, the curator asked me if I would be willing to take a shift in the box. I said no, claiming that I was shy and my German wasn’t good enough to field everyone’s questions. In reality, I didn’t feel Jewish enough to speak for a people. In America, I had never thought of myself in terms of my race or religion; I had never been forced to think of myself in any terms at all. This is just one component of the privilege afforded to whiteness—a multi-faceted identity I could pull from and reject at will. Even if in German eyes I couldn’t escape being put into a figurative box, I decided that I didn’t want to be put in a literal one.
As could be expected, this part of the exhibition didn’t go down easy. Journalists branded it as the “Jew-in-the-Box,” and it was reported on across Europe and in America. “We wanted to provoke, that’s true, and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable,” one of the curators told reporters. “But that’s fine by us.” The idea was, she explained, more about the visitor than the subject in the box, but that did little to calm the controversy.
Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany told newspapers that the glass box reminded him of the box Adolf Eichmann was held in during his 1961 trial: “Why don’t they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat, and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?” Even Henryk Broder, a German-Jewish commentator with a reputation as a provocateur, commented to a reporter from Foreign Policy that he found the exhibit “pathetic and useless.” If the exhibition were to feature a Muslim, he suggested, it would have been burned to the ground before it even opened.
But the Jew-in-the-Box had its defenders. Leeor Engländer, a columnist for Die Welt, told the New Yorker, “I think it’s fantastic.” He made the argument after his own time in the box that it mirrored the way Jews were treated in post-WWII Germany: as emissaries required to explain their culture, or as priests, resigned to listen to confessions while being asked to give an ungivable absolution. Engländer continued, “People ask me, ‘How do you feel, sitting in the box?’ I say, ‘It’s no different to be in this box or to be at a cocktail party.’”
Although the idea of putting anyone in a glass box in a museum runs the danger of being crass, I found it rather clever. What its international critics may not realize is that many Germans who visit the Museum may have never encountered a Jewish person. Jewish communities are largely restricted to Germany’s big cities, often in self-contained communities. Despite the museum’s best attempts at education, Jews are still something of a mythical group. The exhibition also plays on one of the fundamental ironies of heritage museums: it offers a sanctuary to a culture whose people were never provided with security and belonging. The “Jew-in-the-box” exhibit was actually inspired by the journalist Richard Schneider, who wrote about the opening of the museum in 2001: “I am a living exhibition object. People…who in their contact with me are encountering a Jew for the first time in their lives, tend to react with confusion…. Suddenly I am seen as in a showcase, as a rare example of a species under glass, which one does not actually know, but thinks one does.”
As I’m writing this, it is easy to offer ways for how America could learn from Germany’s example, particularly now. Part of what allowed this exhibition to be staged was Germany’s identity as the land of the perpetrators. A sense of responsibility for the crimes of World War II pervade every aspect of German society, from school curricula to the country’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. In Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is not Abuse, she cites a series of studies that explore the difference between shame and guilt. “People who come from guilt very much want to negotiate, and are able to apologize and admit fault, can make concessions, and are invested in positive resolution,” she writes. “People coming from shame, on the other hand, direct anger, aggression, and blame towards the other party.” The phrase “white guilt” is bandied around a lot, but it occurs to me that what we may be looking at is actually a case of white shame. White Americans, particularly in the north, are quick to decry the sins of the confederacy. But we are much slower to admit to slave-owning relatives, to analyze the troubled legacy of white feminism, or to consider how money earned on the slave economy created institutions we proudly lay claim to. And, of course, in other strains of white culture, there is the stubborn insistence that the Civil War was fought over a way of life, not the preservation of supremacy.
Perhaps what white America needs is to feel guiltier. If so, we might be ready for the kinds of encounters that could result in real progress, rather than half steps designed to maintain the status quo and keep shame under wraps. What the exhibition did so effectively was to galvanize the German and Jewish communities to engage in a dialogue about their past and the demographics of the present. Those who were brave enough to sit in the box reported the experience to be meaningful, the strangeness of the context giving way to refreshingly candid questions and confessions from Germans and Jews alike. Sites of confrontation are necessarily uncomfortable, and it is exactly this unease that enables brave conversations to take place.
While anti-Semitism is far from over in Germany, and perhaps even growing, it is not the most public attitude toward the Jews. Instead, as W. Michael Blumenthal, the founder of the Jewish Museum Berlin writes, “A widespread—and to a visitor astonishing—philosemitism is on display, and many Germans have developed a palpable fascination with all facets of Jewish life.” In 2014, the writer Yascha Mounk wrote a memoir about his experience growing up as a Jew in Germany, recalling greater discomfort with the level of enthusiasm his identity received than any hate or discrimination. This attitude can border at times on the fetishistic, and it can allow for a problematic distinction between Germany’s attitudes toward its Jewish and Muslim populations, whose German-ness is still treated as up for debate. As much as Germany has come to terms with its past, it is still grappling with how it can form its future.
While activists are focused on tearing down Confederate monuments, a move that is long overdue, I have found myself siding with the critics who have wondered if the process is not too simplistic. As others have suggested, it could be more powerful to leave the statues but to erect a counter-monument that would complicate the statue’s narrative and engage it in a new way. Rather than to erase a statue, we could come together and make use of it to tell the complicated story that is America, one that would recast heroes as perpetrators and consider the old idea that pride doesn’t come from being right but from admitting wrong. But we have yet to reach the conversation about what we will choose to put on display. It’s hard enough to take something down. It’s much harder to put the right thing up in its place.