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Being Jewish in an Imperiled Democracy

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On February 5, 2020, a political earthquake shook Germany. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right political party, helped select liberal Thomas Kemmerich as premier of the state of Thuringia—the first time that this party could tip the scales in any major election. While public indignation compelled Kemmerich to quit three days later, the AfD’s popularity and influence in eastern Germany was undeniable. 

Across the Western world, from Germany to Britain, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the United States, right-wing populism is on the rise. Moreover, with that rise, there has been an increase in discrimination and violence against ethnic and religious minorities, including Jews. In this environment, many Jews have wondered: What does being Jewish mean to them? What is their place in society? Which politicians and parties might ameliorate the turbulent situation? 

Across the Western world, from Germany to Britain, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the United States, right-wing populism is on the rise.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I began researching the Scholem family of Germany, the world was a different place. Ethnonational populism remained marginal, and the idea of democracy, toleration, and other liberal norms were not seriously in question in the West. To study the political and cultural choices of interwar German Jews was an exercise in historical curiosity, but I could not have argued that it was immediately relevant for contemporary experience. Today, it is hard for me to look at current politics and the debates they spawn without thinking of the Scholems, who lived in Berlin until 1939. 

This large family of upper-middle-class German Jews experienced the uncertain promise of the Weimar Republic, the economic strains of the Great Depression, the disintegration of German democracy, and the gradually increasing horror of Nazi rule. Through it all, they, and thousands of German Jews like them, debated the best strategies to deal with changing circumstances. 

Today, it is hard for me to look at current politics and the debates they spawn without thinking of the Scholems, who lived in Berlin until 1939. 

My book, The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction, illuminates how one representative family experienced this tumultuous era and explores the choices they made.  While most family members sought a middle path as politically liberal Germans and religiously liberal Jews, others did not. The universalism of Communism and the Jewish particularism of Zionism appealed to some German Jews who considered the status quo inadequate to deal with new challenges to their place in German society. Four brothers—Reinhold, Erich, Werner, and Gershom—chose four different political options. Ultimately, after 1933, German Jews like the Scholems weighed the possibilities and risks of emigration, with some escaping only at the last moment and others, not at all.

Gershom Scholem, center, meeting with his brothers Erich and Reinhold in Montreal as they fled Germany in 1938.

Additionally, their identities as Germans and as Jews were not static. As the family’s correspondence over nearly seventy years reveals, their expressions of Germanness and Jewishness manifested themselves differently and took on new meanings in response to external stimuli. For the Scholems and their peers, being Jewish was a social and cultural affiliation more than a religious affiliation, at least until Hitler defined them as not German. During the Nazi years and after the Holocaust, family members continued to embrace or reject affiliation with German culture, but even then, stated identities often did not match lived realities. 

The Scholems’ experience has an unmistakable echo in 2020 not only for Jews but also for other minorities throughout the Western world as populism erodes the liberal consensus and tolerance diminishes. When ethnonationalist voices pervade the media and hold sway in parliaments, minorities’ political choices and debates on identity have new importance.


Jay Howard Geller is Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and co-editor of two books on the history of the Jews in Germany. 

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