Why I'm Ending My Boycott of German Cars

Revelations occur in strange places, including in the magma chamber of a dormant Icelandic volcano. 
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Going inside the Thrihnukagigur volcano via a window cleaner's basket (Wikimedia)

So I told Mrs. Goldblog last week that I had a revelation.

“Did you find Jesus?” she asked.

No, not quite that big, I said.

My revelation concerned German automobiles, I said. Specifically, it has been revealed to me that it is now theoretically possible for us, as a Jewish family, to buy a BMW. The chains of belief and sentiment and psychic unease that have kept me from making such a purchase have been sundered.

Mrs. Goldblog immediately registered her dissent, though she understood the source of my volte-face: It was the result of a visit we had just made to a dormant Icelandic volcano.

I will explain the Iceland link in a moment (and as a bonus, I will also include a gratuitous Leibovichian “This Town” moment) but first, some background on my longstanding boycott of German cars. Like many Jews, I have found the idea of associating myself in an ostentatious, or at least highly visible, way with German automobiles somewhat ethnically discrediting, and vaguely nausea-inducing. German industry was deeply complicit in the work of the Nazis, and I felt that putting some distance between my family and the Mercedes/BMW/Volkswagen combine (especially Volkswagen) was a way of honoring the memory of the Jews murdered by the Germans. My boycott doesn’t extend to German coffeemakers, or to Lufthansa (though its seats are very uncomfortable), or to visiting Germany itself. Why, some of my best friends are German! (Actually that’s not true, but not for any political reason. I just don’t know a lot of Germans.)

My boycott has targeted cars only. Many Jews, of course, don’t participate in this unofficial boycott (proof that it is only partially honored can be found in my synagogue’s parking lot on Rosh Hashanah) and I have recognized for a long while that this boycott is not rational, or rooted in smart policy thinking.

The first time I visited Israel, I was surprised to see a large number of German cars on its roads. Most taxis are German, and many trucks as well. This is the vestigial byproduct of the reparations paid to Israel, and to Shoah survivors living in Israel, by Germany. I’m guessing that many American Jews who see these vehicles in Israel are at first shocked, and then discomfited, and then find themselves accepting this strange post-World War II reality. I know a couple of people who bought German cars only after visiting Israel. (By the way, for an interesting discussion of German reparations, please see Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject, toward the end of his important article on the issue of reparations for African-Americans.)

There’s an even deeper and highly symbolic connection between German industry and Israel—one of potentially world-historical importance—that has helped move my thinking on this subject, and that is the make-up of Israel’s submarine fleet. At this moment, nuclear-armed Israeli submarines are patrolling the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran, making sure that the regime in Tehran understands the second-strike consequences of threatening Israel’s existence. The first two Dolphin-class diesel submarines in Israel’s fleet were gifts from Germany, made in the days following the first Gulf War. (German companies had been identified as having sold chemical-weapons precursors to Saddam Hussein’s regime—a very embarrassing development.) Two more were subsequently purchased, and a fifth is on its way.

The point is, if German submarines are good enough for the Israeli Navy, they should be good enough for a Shoah-haunted American Jew.

Still, I was ambivalent on the subject, until last week.

My family and I were in Iceland on vacation (very beautiful, very expensive, very wet) and we decided to visit a dormant volcano called Thrihnukagigur (no, I can’t say it, or anything else in Icelandic). This is the only volcano in the world, we were told by Iceland government propagandists, that can actually be explored from the inside. (For whatever reason, when Thrihnukagigur stopped erupting roughly 4,500 years ago, its magma chamber didn’t collapse on itself, perhaps in anticipation of future tourism revenue.)

There is talk about blowing a hole in the side of the volcano, which would allow easy access to the cathedral-like chamber. A rude, bad idea that I hope does not come to pass. For now, the only way inside is to be lowered down the throat of the volcano through a narrow vent at its peak. A few years ago, a group of clever people decided that a window-cleaner’s basket, connected to a pulley system rigged to a prone crane stretched across the volcano’s mouth, would represent an efficient way to deliver visitors to the floor of the empty magma chamber.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept. In particular, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of sending my children into a dormant (not, it should be noted, extinct, but merely dormant) volcano in a window-washer’s basket. Thrihnukagigur is not Bardarbunga, the volcano that is currently rumbling under Iceland's largest ice cap, but it ain't beanbag either.

On the three-mile walk to the volcano—through a desolate and lovely lava field—I asked a guide to explain the volcano elevator in detail. She said the process is simple: We strap you into a harness, and then you walk across a plank over the mouth of the volcano to the window-washer’s basket. You climb down into the basket (it holds six people) and then the basket motorman lowers you 400 feet to the floor of the volcano.

Does it ever break? I asked.

No, she said. “It’s a German engine. Very reliable.”

A German engine! They weren’t screwing around at this volcano! I was about to entrust the lives of my children to a window-washer’s basket dangling over the mouth of a volcano, and I was beyond pleased to learn that this machine was German. To my surprise, "German engine" brought to mind at that moment happy images of fastidious Bavarians in white coveralls, instead of the usual, which is to say, Himmler.

This is the moment I told myself that my boycott might have reached its natural conclusion. I was ready for a push anyway, but now, since the words “German engine” were filling me with hope and relief, then perhaps the car I use to transport my children should be powered by one.

The engine worked as promised, the basket was lowered successfully into the cold, empty chamber—which is beautiful and awe-inspiring and freezing—and more important, the basket brought us up 45 minutes later. It was actually quite thrilling, but there was no one to talk to about it on the long, lonely walk back through the lava field (I’m one of those people who overshares putatively interesting travel experiences with strangers—good luck sitting next to me on a long flight). Luckily, midway through the walk, a small group of tourists appeared in the distance—the next wave of volcano virgins. We were on a narrow path, and as the line of tourists passed us, I scanned their faces, looking for someone who might want to hear my excitement. Luckily, I found one.

“Mike Froman?” I said. One of the tourists was United States Trade Representative Mike Froman. That’s what I said to my kids—“Kids, it’s United States Trade Representative Mike Froman.” Mike was surprised to see me as well, because we were in a lava field in Iceland. No place is safe from the press.

When we got back to Reykjavik, I said to my wife, “Mike Froman, huh?" And then I said, "I was very glad it was a German engine. Weren’t you?”

“Hmm.”

“It’s funny. I was so happy that our Jewish children were going to be protected by a German engine. How’s that for irony?”

“Ironic,” she said, not ceding an inch.

I have two missions before me: Convince her that the boycott is over, and then find a way to actually pay for a BMW.

I’m hoping that United States Trade Representative Mike Froman might be able to help me find a deal. 

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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