It’s a perennially reoccurring question: What makes someone Jewish? Answers vary, touching everything from the blood in your veins to the prayer book on your shelf to the egg bagel on your plate.
Yascha Mounk, a 31-year-old German Jew who’s a doctoral candidate at Harvard, has offered another definition: You are a Jew if your parents or grandparents were called out as Jews, persecuted as Jews, and killed as Jews. “In a sense, this was enough,” he writes in a new book, Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany. “If to speak honestly about their life stories is to become, in the eyes of most beholders, a Jew—and if being a Jew, in turn, means not being a true German—then, so long as I lived in Germany, my family history made me a Jew.”
In his book, Mounk explores German attitudes toward Jews during the 70 years following the Holocaust (Mounk's parents and grandparents are Eastern European Jews, and he was born in Germany). But he also offers a broader theory about identity: that people understand themselves and others through their genetic ties to history’s victims and oppressors. This pattern develops repeatedly and in diverse contexts, Mounk argues: In Germany, there’s collective guilt about Jews and the Holocaust; in America, a similar phenomenon shapes discourse around blacks and slavery. Each new generation matures into its role as steward of historical hatreds; although the legacies of genocide and enslavement become refracted through time, young people can’t escape the grievances of prejudices past.
The resulting emotions they experience range from anxiety to hostility. Writing about Germany, Mounk points to philo-Semitism and overt racism as related reactions to the same historical guilt. He has many personal anecdotes to support this theory. There’s the exchange he has with a friend, Markus, who converted to Judaism out of shame after seeing a documentary about the Holocaust as a teenager. There’s the tasteless joke about incinerating Jews and fitting them into an ashtray, defiantly cracked over beers by thirty-something Stephanie. There’s recurring, self-conscious praise of Woody Allen, embellished for Mounk’s “benefit” lest he take offense at criticism of the wordsmithing of a fellow member of the tribe. His examples fall somewhere between absurd and macabre: Filtered through time, historical guilt has morphed into self-loathing, defiant contempt, and paranoid self-censorship.
This has also been true in the German public sphere, Mounk writes. In 1974, the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote a play laced with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, claiming to critique German attitudes toward Jews. Lines like this made that claim seem questionable:
And it is the Jew who is guilty because he makes us guilty, for he is here. Had he stayed where he came from, or had they gassed him, I could sleep better today. They forgot to gas him. This is no joke, that’s what I think, deep inside of me.
Fassbinder’s play was eventually panned by critics and shuttered in theaters, but the piece represented a tense uncertainty, Mounk writes. Could “the nervous taboo against all forms of anti-Semitism … finally be lifted,” as Fassbinder and his supporters wanted? Or would Germans be forever doomed to keep an eye on the past, unsure of the boundary between criticism and insensitivity?
As these questions gained prominence in the public sphere, Mounk writes, the answers hinged on whether it’s possible to draw a “finish line” on the moral burden of the Holocaust. Especially starting in the 1970s and ‘80s, a vocal group of German intellectuals expressed resentment at “being made to feel guilty” about crimes against Jews, arguing that there should be a statue of limitations of sorts on moral responsibility. If it were even possible for public intellectuals to artificially define such a boundary, Germany certainly hasn’t hit it; Mounk’s experiences suggest that young Germans are still struggling with their ethnic inheritance.
Is it possible to to be freed from responsibility for the past, even after a long time has gone by? What's the half-life of historical guilt?
Perhaps this is the most important lesson from Mounk’s book: Ethnic alienation is more personal than political. Mounk speaks German without an accent; he looks similar to his fellow countrymen; he doesn’t even observe major Jewish holidays. Yet growing up in Germany in the 1990s and 2000s, he felt totally different from his peers. Almost implausibly, the abstract idea of collective national guilt defined his everyday life in a big way.