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Germanophobia is also a problem

Crass and insensitive comments by radio talk-show hosts unfortunately surface from time to time. One of these, brought to my attention in my capacity as anti-Semitism monitor at the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, was in response to reports that one of the World Cup venues had run out of beer. While I can’t cite the exact words used, the comment went along the lines that the reason why this had not happened during the previous World Cup held in Germany was because Germans, having set up the concentration camps, knew all about organising mass catering.

Because it was not possible to ascertain on which station the comment was made, no action could be taken in the end, but the matter got me thinking. Of course such a remark, apart from being decidedly unfunny, is tasteless and offensive. Jewish people can certainly object to it, since it treats the Holocaust as a subject for humour and, it could further be argued, through its casual reference to catering en masse belittles the grim realities of systematic starvation that in reality prevailed in the camps.

Thinking further, however, I also realised that such thoughtless statements must be just as offensive to German people as well. Whatever barbarous acts that took place in the past, Germany today is a model democracy with an excellent human-rights record and has been for a very long time. It must surely be galling, therefore, for modern-day Germans to continually be identified with, and characterised by, the crimes of a preceding generation that in most cases took place even before they were born.

Related to this was something else I noted during the World Cup: with few exceptions, those Jewish people I spoke to were hoping for Germany to lose. Nor was it necessary to enquire why this was so. Given the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust and the ubiquity of the subject in modern-day Jewish thought, culture and education, one can understand why Germany, even today, is still regarded as in negative terms. To acknowledge that something is understandable, however, is not necessary to imply that it is also logical, or even fair.

My own, mild, response to this was to point out that Germany today was amongst the most pro-Jewish, as well as pro-Israel, countries in the world. Its Jewish community, mainly comprising immigrants from the former Soviet Union, is one of Europe’s largest and the only one that is growing. Certainly, it made more sense for Jews to support it over such countries as Brazil and even Spain, whose foreign policies tended sharply towards the anti-Israel camp. (As it happened, I also was not keen on Germany winning the cup, but only because they had done so three times before, while being finalists on another four occasions, and it would be good for someone else to win for a change. When it comes to sports, I am becoming increasingly less partisan as I get older, all part, no doubt, of the gradual dying of the fire in my middle-aged belly.)

While chewing over all of this, I became aware of a recent incident involving a visit of an official Iranian delegation from the city of Shiraz to its German sister city of Weimar. Part of the delegation’s programme was to visit Buchenwald, one of the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, and its memorial to those 50 000 Jews and others who died there. When it came down to it, however, the Iranians refused to go. This was not unpredictable given that in the recent past Iran, under the auspices of its foreign ministry, has hosted a conference aimed at promoting Holocaust denial (and is planning another), while its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has openly raved about malignant global Jewish conspiracies in a way all too reminiscent of the original Holocaust’s architects.

The interesting point here is the response of the Weimar City Council, which was to refuse to meet their guests from Shiraz. It is no small thing to snub a visiting international delegation. The incident was indicative of the kind of genuine abhorrence in which Holocaust denial is held in mainstream German society, where denying that the Nazis committed genocide against the Jews remains a criminal offence. (Whether prohibiting this kind of discourse — scurrilous and malign in intent though it may be — is in fact consistent with normative democratic principles is another discussion).

I suppose the point of this post is that, while always being aware of what took place in the past, nations should be judged as they are now rather than what they were in previous generations. In addition, I believe in treating all people on their individual merits, even if they do come from countries where human-rights abuses are rife. Condemning people on the basis of their national, ethnic or religious identity rather than as unique, individual personalities is, after all, the essence of prejudice.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.