Then we take Berlin


I admit my eyes glazed over, and not solely from the jetlag, when I flipped open my laptop at 6 a.m. Berlin time and found that Roger Cohen had returned again to his favorite subject. 

As is fast becoming his trademark, Cohen’s latest missive did not fail to provoke, thus helping these lazy eyes focus, if momentarily. I will leave to others to address his core contention that the various conflicts in the Middle East today, far from contests between forward-looking democrats and backward-looking theocrats, are really just a variation of 19th century, European-style balance of power jockeying. 

Sitting here in this city so freighted by history, I’m more interested in something else Cohen raises: the notion of Israeli — but really Jewish — exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, Cohen wants none of it, just as American liberals chafed when George Bush talked of the United States as the greatest nation on earth, one set on fulfilling a unique, divinely ordained destiny. 

Israel does see itself as exceptional, but I’d suggest that it’s more than the fact that, while successful by most metrics, it remains a country with no recognized borders and no peace. Israel is exceptional because Jews see themselves as exceptional. "Chosen" is just another word for it. It’s not so much that the shadow of the Holocaust makes Israel unique, as Cohen suggests. Rather, the Holocaust is just the most potent and recent reminder that exceptional things happen to the Jews. 

It would be nice if the Jews could achieve normalcy. What neurotic East Coast Jew, reared on Matt Christopher books and the corn-fed Americana of network television, doesn’t long for the tranquility and easy security of the mythic American middle? Though rich as inspiration for books and movies, the endless identity crises of American Jews are rather cumbersome as psychological baggage. And to the extent that Zionism’s purpose was to deliver Jews from the jaws of their singularly oppressive history, then it has clearly come up short. 

Cohen would like us all to just get over it. But if ever there was a city to remind you that history is not so easily shucked, it’s Berlin — even more than Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, one lives constantly in the past — from the cobblestone streets, to the atavistic costumery of the city’s various religious communities, to the interminable tribal conflicts that make a mockery of the forward march of progress. History smacks you in the face the moment you arrive, so much so that it’s audacious even to fantasize of a stable, pragmatic peace. 

Not so here. Though a modern city in every sense of the word, Berlin’s history is nevertheless ever-present, if less overtly; it doesn’t so much confront as shadow you. In Jerusalem, history is a shackle. In Berlin, it’s ghost. 

Cohen spent years in Berlin as a foreign correspondent, and understands the psyche of this place far better than I ever will. So I would have expected he’d recognize that even in a city that has moved on from its painful past — a recent Cohen dispatch marveled at how a country that defined the major conflicts of the 20th century just had an election no one paid attention to — history continues to lurk in all its ambiguities. 

A Jewish Berliner remarked to me yesterday that Germans don’t know how to react to Jews — the living and breathing kind, not the quaint shtetl Judaism of their school texts. And young German Jews, while not wanting to forget the Holocaust, don’t want to be encumbered by it either. That kind of ambiguity is significantly less acute in Israel, where "Never Again" has a more potent, immediate, and clarifying meaning. 

To Cohen, that Holocaust sensibility is blinding, not clarifying. Israel would be better off seeing its current predicament through a more pragmatic lens. And he may well be right. But that would require accepting that, despite being the target of an evil that still defies comprehension, the Jews are just another people acting out their role on the stage of history. And that would require undoing much of the mythology that Jews — perhaps for understandable reasons — have been teling themselves about themselves for the better part of their history. 

Yes, normalcy would be a welcome respite from all this wrestling and identity deconstruction, and certainly from the historical burden that Jews have borne for two millennia. Peace in the Middle East would be even nicer. But if the prerequisite is Jews thinking of themselves as normal, we may be waiting forever. 

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