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In the battle of Archbishop vs. Prime Minister, who has history on their side?

Home_Secretary_-_Rwanda_Visit_2

Over the Easter weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke out against the Government’s newly announced plan to send some people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda. Welby called the plan ‘against the judgment of God’; his predecessor, the distinguished theologian and scholar Prof Rowan Williams concurred. Neither the Prime Minster, nor the Home Secretary, were thrilled when Welby called the UK plan to send away those arriving via small boats across the English Channel ‘subcontracting out our responsibilities’. Rumours suggest Boris Johnson criticised Welby harshly for the comments.

Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby. Credit: World Council of Churches

There is important historical context for Welby’s claim against the Prime Minister, but it might go unnoticed because of the current public verbal jabs. If one goes all the way back to when the biblical statements on the treatment of people seeking asylum on which Welby builds his argument were written, one can see clearly that Johnson’s government closely resembles the imperial, colonial programme of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that oppressed the authors of the relevant texts in the Bible. This parallel matters, whatever one makes of Welby’s Christian faith.

The Hebrew Bible—as scholars call the anthology of texts central to Judaism and Christianity, known most widely as the Old Testament—was written over a period of 500 years or more, but the critical historical period that motivated them lies between about 800 BCE and 500 BCE. In that period, two imperial powers from Mesopotamia (the area we now know as Iraq and Iran) ruled over the whole ancient Near East. Both powers pursued policies of forced displacement that treated those outside of an elitist, learned, narrowly privileged class as human resources who could be moved about like chess pieces on a gameboard. The Assyrian kings of the 9th to 7th centuries BCE routinely ‘resettled’ people, as did their Babylonian successors in the 6th century BCE. Some skilled craftsmen (in the ancient world, they were all men) were brought to Assyria’s burgeoning heartland to assist with its economic development and immense urban building programmes. Many, many others were systematically relocated according to plans crafted by a small group of government officials. Those who were forcibly moved were ‘distributed’ in ways that were economically profitable to the Assyrians, often with populations being swapped in order to achieve this economic goal. All of this had the aim of ‘Assyrianising’ the population and minimising the chance of rebellion against the Empire.

One can be forgiven for thinking this all sounds familiar. Announcing the recent British scheme, Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that it would ‘provide human capital opportunities for migrants and the host community’. Just days after the scheme was announced, it emerged that the UK would ‘resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom,’ a contemporary form of population swapping expressed in politically correct bureaucratic language.

Consider, for contrast, the Hebrew Bible: this anthology is the product of the society most know as ancient Israel. Despite being far more familiar to most than Assyria or Babylonia, ancient Israel was a small, marginal, and colonised society. Its attitude towards migration was shaped by the ever-present threat of being forcibly displaced by the Assyrians or Babylonians—a reality that came to fruition in waves of conquests and displacements in 722, 592, and finally 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, who exiled many of its residents.

The Hebrew Bible speaks about migration from the perspective of those who have experienced it. It may be no surprise then that a frequent refrain in the Hebrew Bible is that one should establish justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger—the final term meaning something very close to what we mean by migrant or think of with regard to a person seeking asylum. In fact, the logic for this behaviour is that the ancestors of Israel were themselves ‘strangers’.

Just a few sentences after the famous command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) that became the touchstone of what Jesus of Nazareth taught (Matthew 22:34-40), one finds the command on how to treat the alien—an archaic translation of a Hebrew term better read as migrant since it connotes a foreigner who wants to settle into their new host society. ‘When an alien resides with you in your land,’ the command goes, one ‘shall not oppress the alien’, but treat them ‘as the citizen’ because one’s ancestors were themselves such migrants. Since the society that produced the Hebrew Bible experienced the world as colonised, and disempowered on the international stage, under threat from larger powers, and as involuntary migrants snatched from their homeland, it spoke with openness, compassion, and an attitude of acceptance about those who wanted to settle in its midst, whatever their background.

One might legitimately differ on the theological point made by Archbishop Welby that Johnson and Patel are acting in an ungodly fashion, but it is impossible to deny that their policy resembles that of the imperial, colonising Assyrians. Indeed, that might be the most important insight ancient history provides for us: whatever one makes of the UK-Rwanda pact, it reveals an imperial mindset that is at ease with treating people on the move as a disembodied ‘human resource’ that can be distributed and redistributed according to the plans of a narrow elite. The present case, like its Assyrian forebearer, seeks to protect national identity (read ‘British values’ for ‘Assyrianisation’) and minimise the chance—however small it be—of any unrest. The entire ‘hostile environment’ policy that the Home Office has pursued for years now has the hallmarks of a modern incarnation of the Assyrian programme for establishing and maintaining power. An imperial mindset is hard to shake it seems.

If one reframes the dispute between the Archbishop and the Prime Minster in historical instead of theological terms, it is clear what perspective the two represent. Johnson and his ministers are thinking and acting like the ancient imperial and colonising elite; the Archbishop has articulated the view of the colonised, those being forced to migrate, whether he knows it or not.

Rev Dr Casey Strine is Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield. He studies the history, literature, and cultures of the ancient Middle East, with a specialization in ancient Israel and Judah, the two societies that produced the texts known widely as the Old Testament. Strine is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the world’s oldest organisation for the scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Holy Land’.

Cover image: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Minister Biruta sign the migration and economic development partnership between the UK and Rwanda. Credit: UK Home Office

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Will the sale of a rare manuscript rescue Jewish studies in France?

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On 19 October 2021, a medieval Jewish prayer book was auctioned off at Sotheby’s New York for 8,307,000 US dollars. While the buyer wished to remain anonymous, many scholars of Jewish history are familiar with the seller. The Alliance Israélite Universelle had owned this richly illuminated manuscript since 1870. Before that, the prayer book—or ‘mahzor’ in Hebrew—travelled across borders from one home to another for centuries. It was designed for use during the high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The modifications its successive owners made to the text provide a window onto the evolution of the local customs and legal statuses of Jewish communities in medieval and early modern Europe. 

The mahzor’s last owner, the Alliance, was created in Paris in 1860 to promote Jewish rights around the world. It went on to build a vast network of Jewish schools around the Mediterranean. From the outset, it meticulously documented its mission and assembled a scientific library on Jewish topics. Its institutional archive allows researchers to explore modern Jewish politics, philanthropy, and associational culture across Central, Eastern and Western Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa. In addition to these rich sources, the Alliance houses one of the largest Jewish libraries in Europe.

The Alliance was part of the European Jewish philanthropic landscape that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the organisations populating this landscape still exist today, although the Holocaust and the rise of the welfare state compelled them to reinvent themselves. While these charity organisations have always depended on donations and bequests, these have steeply dropped in recent years in the case of the Alliance. The organisation still operates a network of schools. Its library, which hosts the archive, consumes a significant part of the Alliance’s budget. As a result, the organisationhad to sell its invaluable mahzor and raise the alarm about its dire economic situation. From a historian’s perspective, this turn of events underlines the need for more research on the post-war evolution of European Jewish philanthropic patterns.

As staggering as the mahzor’s price is, its sale is only a temporary solution. A former director of the Alliance’s library recommended a longer-term solution. By changing the library’s status, the municipality of Paris and the French state could finance it, as is already the case for the Paris Jewish Museum. The Alliance’s leadership also tried to appeal to a 2003 law designed to promote art and culture patronage. Philanthropists are encouraged through tax incentives to donate the artworks they buy to public institutions. This is a critical aspect in the mahzor’s case: the research community’s biggest concern is that it will now no longer be accessible. While some French Jewish philanthropists expressed interest in the manuscript, the Alliance did not manage to raise all the necessary funds in the end, leading to the recent commercial sale.

The French state played an inglorious role in this story. An object must be classified as national heritage to benefit from the 2003 law. The culture ministry refused to classify the mahzor as national heritage. According to the Alliance’s president, the ministry pointed out that the French state already has two manuscripts of a similar nature and value. Hence, it was unwilling to invest a single extra euro in this type of work—which raises questions about the place the French state envisages for Jewish history and culture.

The future of the Alliance’s library has been an issue for a while. The organisation parted with its Haussmannian building in Paris’s rue la Bruyère in the 2010s to cut costs. Attempts to find institutions that could host the Alliance’s collections did not work out. Charities such as the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and the Shoah Memorial (which hosts the Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation) could not take on the collection. Public institutions such as the French national library were not able to either.

Why is an archive about Jewish life, culture, and politics—as well as research on these topics—struggling to exist in France?  First of all, French political culture looks unfavourably on so-called ‘communautarisme’, i.e. the expression of group identity in the public sphere, especially in politics. France’s self-styling as a staunchly secular state does not encourage the study of religion or of religious communities. This is particularly salient in French academia, where research is mainly publicly funded.

The top-down and hyper-centralised organisation of universities makes it even more difficult for research areas such as gender, race, and ethnic studies to gain visibility and establish themselves, especially if they do not fit the republican universalist-secularist mould. As a result, Jewish studies departments can be counted on one hand, which is striking for the country with the largest Jewish population in Europe. 

So far, Jewish studies in France have managed to counterbalance the stifling effects of the French academic system thanks to third-party funding. The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, created in 2000 with an endowment taken from the restitution of Jewish property spoliated during the Holocaust, is crucial in this respect. As its name indicates, it mainly funds projects related to the Holocaust and its memory, other genocides, and antisemitism. The Foundation’s ‘Jewish culture’ stream remains limited in comparison, especially regarding research funding. The organisation’s primary goal remains to encourage French society to confront its recent past and promote Holocaust education.

In contrast, the mahzor that was sold at Sotheby’s is about Jewish creativity, religious practice, and the inner life of the community. Research on such topics is particularly fragile in the French academic, institutional, and research funding landscape. Dwindling state support means that culture and research institutions increasingly rely on private donations and compete for resources. In this context, it is not surprising that all the doors the Alliance knocked on remained closed. The sale of the mahzor underscores how neoliberal austerity measures are forcing Jewish philanthropic organisations to rethink their mission once more.

P.S.: Before you go, do have a look at this stunning manuscript!

Noëmie Duhaut is a research associate at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz and currently holds the Karl-David-Brühl guest professorship at the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Graz. Her research focuses on the history of Jews in modern Europe, Jewish politics, and international law. Her work has appeared in Archives juives and French Historical Studies.

Cover image: [מחזור לימים נוראים], Rituel de prières pour les fêtes de Tichri, 13th century-14th century, Bibliothèque de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle, MS24, https://www.bibliotheque-numerique-aiu.org/idurl/1/28713

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Fascist Antisemitism in Italy Eighty Years On

Mussolini and Hitler

Over the past few weeks, Rome has once again become the centre of far-right politics in Italy. For many in Italy and beyond, recent events bear worrying resemblance to things that happened almost a hundred years ago. In October 1922 the National Fascist Party staged a coup d’état in which Mussolini lead the Fascist Blackshirts in the March on Rome. The Fascist takeover was swift and effective, and within a day Mussolini was instated as Prime Minister and the Fascist state in Italy was born. 

On 9 October 2021, protests by neofascist group Forza Nuova descended into violence, and on 12 October the Italian police blocked their website amid fears of further violence. Most recently, candidate in the mayoral election in Rome Enrico Michetti, who is supported by an alliance of far-right parties, was heavily criticised for offensive remarks about the Holocaust. He had suggested that the Shoah is commemorated because Jews continue to control banks and political power, thus referring to a longstanding antisemitic trope which portrays Jews as greedy capitalists who control the world’s wealth and power through banking, politics and the media.

Michetti’s comments have created a feeling of tension and unease for the Jewish communities in Rome, and sparked anti-Fascist protests organised by national trade union the CGIL. These incidents serve to show that the legacy of Fascism in Italy is far from over, and that both the Holocaust and antisemitism continue to be emotionally and politically charged historical topics in the country.

It seems that the time is ripe once again for a reassessment of the history of antisemitism during the Fascist period in Italy. Prior historical research into Fascist ideology and the Jews in Fascist Italy tends to underestimate the significance of antisemitism in the Fascist state. It is therefore relevant to revisit this history in the context of recent right-wing populism and antisemitism in Italy.

The myth of the Italiani brava gente (the good Italians) is the dominant narrative about Italy during the Holocaust. According to this myth, Italians acted as saviours of Jews, mostly because of the Italian people’s naturally humane and benevolent national character.

The myth also states that Italy in the Fascist era was not truly antisemitic. Rather, racial antisemitism was a foreign product imported from abroad due to the alliance with Nazi Germany. Italian antisemitic legislation was itself limited and not approved of by the Italian population. Traditional historiography maintains that antisemitism was in fact incompatible with the ‘real’ Italian character.

However, this myth ignores both the severity of the restrictions on Jews under Fascism and the particularities of the Italian context of racial antisemitism. The Racial Laws, which took effect in September and November 1938, placed harsh and widespread restrictions on the lives of Jews in Italy. They were barred from attending or working in state schools and universities, and Jewish intellectuals were forced out of other academic institutions and societies across the country.

Even though non-Jewish Italians watched their friends and co-workers suffer these persecutions, there was little protest from those within universities against the Racial Laws. Subsequently, even harsher discriminatory laws were passed against Jews, infringing on both public and private life. Marriages between Italian Aryans and Jews were now prohibited and any pre-existing mixed marriages were considered illegitimate.

Application of the Racial Laws served to distinguish Jews, both Italian and foreign, from the ‘true’ Italian race. Most famously, Italy’s Axis ally Nazi Germany implemented strict racial laws in 1935 which separated the Jews from the ‘Aryan’ German race. The Italian case is often considered as a weakened copy of the German biological racism. However, Italian intellectuals distinguished their own brand of Italianised racism which promoted the concept of a shared blood kinship.

In the application of the laws, people were considered Jewish based on their parentage. This meant that even those who did not observe Judaism suffered the restrictions. In the Fascist state, therefore, Jews, broadly defined, were essentially stripped of their citizenship and could no longer participate freely in large parts of Italian society.

The significance of Fascist racial antisemitism, which designated Italian Jews as no longer being truly Italian, should not be underestimated. As neofascism and antisemitism are once again on the rise in Italian politics, it is helpful to question the dominant narrative concerning Fascism and the Holocaust in Italy. By scrutinising the simplistic Italiani brava gente myth, we can better understand the specificities and severity of Italian antisemitism in the Fascist era. At the same time, revisiting this history helps us gain insights into the historical context for developments in Italian far-right politics today.

Abigail Walker (she/her), graduated in 2021 from the University of Sheffield with a BA in History and Philosophy. Her undergraduate dissertation dealt with the Holocaust in Italy. She is currently pursuing an MA in Modern History at the University of East Anglia.

Cover Image: Hitler and Mussolini meet in Munich. Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/photo/hitler-and-mussolini-meet-in-munich

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Defending democracy? The protests against Werner Krauss in West Berlin, 1950

Proteste gegen Werner Krauss

In December 1950, chaotic scenes at a theatre in West Berlin made headlines in Germany and abroad. While Werner Krauss  an actor who had featured in Jud Süβ, the Third Reich’s most infamous antisemitic film – performed in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, students and Jewish residents demonstrated against his presence. For three days, protesters clashed with police officers outside and repeatedly disrupted the play’s performances inside the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, eventually securing its early cancellation.

The demonstrations against Werner Krauss, which took place seventy years ago this month, have been largely forgotten. Yet they raised central questions for early West German society, which, following the transfer of power from Allied occupation, now had to manage its own affairs. What constituted acceptable protest, and when did acts of dissent undermine the new democratic order? Should those who had been complicit in Nazi propaganda have any place in public life? And what responsibilities did Germans have towards Jews living in the country, after the atrocities of the Holocaust?

Krauss had risen to prominence before the Third Reich, starring notably in the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. While many actors left Germany after the Nazis’ seizure of power, Krauss stayed. He went on to play four different characters in Jud Süβ, a film commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and viewed by 20 million Germans between its release in 1940 and 1943.[1]

Jud Süβ, which depicted the eighteenth-century Jewish court advisor Joseph Süβ Oppenheimer as a corrupt, depraved conspirator, aimed to justify the exclusion of Jews from German society. Although Krauss claimed during his post-war denazification trials that Goebbels had coerced him into taking part in the film, the final verdict in 1948 declared that Krauss had been a ‘follower’ (Mitläufer) of the Nazi regime.[2]

The judgement nevertheless allowed Krauss to resume his acting career, and, after moving to Austria, Krauss returned to German theatre stages in 1950 for the Vienna Burgtheater’s touring production of John Gabriel Borkman.[3]

The play was initially performed in several West German cities without incident. West Berlin, however, was different. The city was still a transit station for large numbers of Eastern European Jewish refugees, most of whom were awaiting emigration to Palestine. These refugees had already taken to the streets in 1949, in response to antisemitic tendencies in the newly-released British film Oliver Twist.[4]

Opposition to Krauss’s arrival also came from German-Jewish community leaders and West Berlin’s two universities, where students planned a demonstration for the play’s evening premiere. On December 8, more than five thousand students, Jewish refugees, and other protesters gathered outside the theatre, with chants and placards demanding that Werner Krauss ‘go home’.[5]

Numerous protesters attempted to penetrate the police line guarding the theatre. The police used batons and water cannons to push back the crowd, while some demonstrators hurled stones. A handful of officers and civilians were taken to hospital, and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that ‘dozens more were mauled and bruised’.[6]

Inside the theatre, demonstrators who held tickets for the play disrupted the first act. As they were ejected from the building, the performance was initially called off. The support for Werner Krauss among other theatregoers, however, was evident when the play eventually resumed. As Krauss appeared for the second act, he was greeted with loud applause.[7]  

Disturbances continued for the next two days, however, with Jewish leaders and Berlin’s students insisting that protests would not stop until the run was cancelled. After Krauss expressed his aversion to the thought that he would be the cause of further violence, the Burgtheater called off its remaining performances.[8]

The protests provoked outraged reactions among West Berliners. Letters to Ernst Reuter, the city’s mayor, expressed various anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Reuter had declared that the time had come to forgive Krauss, several of the letters condemned Jews’ alleged inherent vengefulness – a long-standing antisemitic conception – with one citizen claiming that ‘Jews cannot forgive’.[9]

Not only did these letters make little or no mention of the Holocaust: their sweeping assertions also ignored other viewpoints among Berlin’s protesting Jews. Some demonstrators, who saw Krauss’s apparent lack of contrition as the main problem, outlined circumstances under which they would accept his return to public life. Gerhard Löwenthal, a Jewish student, later recalled telling mayor Reuter that the demonstrations would stop at once if Krauss apologised on stage for his involvement in Jud Süβ.[10]

A poster for Jud Süß, 1940. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The question of what constituted ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ action was another recurring theme in the debates, with individuals on both sides claiming to defend the new political order. For Löwenthal, a departure from the Nazi past was a precondition for the success of West German democracy. Yet, as one newspaper acknowledged, theatregoers considered that they had ‘democratically’ expressed their wish to forgive Krauss.[11]

The protesters’ disruptive actions were labelled by opponents as a recourse to Nazi-era ‘SA methods’ which undermined the rule of law.[12] Sympathisers, however, contended that the real threat to democracy lay in police violence and the re-emergence of overt antisemitism. The Volksblatt remarked that, while officers’ batons struck Jewish victims of the Nazis, those at the theatre who shouted ‘Jews out!’ had gone unpunished.[13]

Werner Krauss did not perform again in Berlin until 1953: when he returned, the protests were not renewed. The following year, he was awarded West Germany’s Order of Merit. Krauss’ return to respectability before his death in 1959 could be taken as an example of what some historians have described as a ‘failure to address the issues raised by the Nazi period’. Such scholars argue that a continuation of authoritarian values and a desire for political and economic stability resulted in an indifference among most West Germans, lasting until the 1960s, to questions of ‘democratisation’.[14]

The backlash against Krauss in 1950, however, reveals fierce debates at an early stage about the requirements for democratic renewal. While some Germans considered it necessary to draw a line under the past, others demanded that those who had worked with the Nazis apologise for their actions, or be barred from public life. Attitudes to protest also diverged: whereas demonstrators considered themselves to be carrying out a democratic duty, opponents saw them as violent troublemakers infringing other citizens’ freedoms. 

Such discussions continued into 1951 and 1952, as further demonstrations accompanied the screening of new films by Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süβ. As these events, too, approach their seventieth anniversaries, it is time to reconsider the supposedly sleepy, ‘consensus-based’ early years of West Germany’s existence.

Rory Hanna is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research project focuses on student protest and activism in West Germany between 1949 and 1967.

Cover image: protesters against Werner Krauss, demonstrating with placards and torches in front of the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, 10 December 1950. Photographer: Associated Press. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Preview/353430.jpg


[1] Susan Tegel, ‘Review Essay: Jud Süss’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 25:1 (2005), p. 156; Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Mass.: 2007), p. 154.

[2] Wolff A. Greinert, Werner Krauss. Schauspieler in seiner Zeit, 1884 bis 1959 (Vienna, 2009), pp. 273, 303.

[3] Ibid., p. 313.

[4] ‘Tumulte gegen den Film “Oliver Twist”’, Der Sozialdemokrat, 21 February 1949, p. 3.

[5] Landesarchiv Berlin (hereafter LAB) B Rep. 020, Nr. 7861, ‘Polizei-Inspektion Charlottenburg, den 9.12.1950, Betr.: Demonstrationen anlässlich des Gastspiels des Burgtheater-Ensemble mit Werner Krauss im „Theater am Kurfuerstendamm“, p. 1; ‘Tumulte am Kurfürstendamm‘, Telegraf, 9 December 1950, p. 1.

[6] ‘Das Schuldkonto des Herrn Krauss’, Volksblatt, 9 December 1950, p. 1; ‘Jews in Berlin Fight Police in Row Over Actor’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 December 1950, p. 7. 

[7] ‘Berliners Storm a Theatre’, Manchester Guardian, 9 December 1950, p. 5.

[8] ‘Ein Erfolg der Jüdischen Gemeinde’, Kurier, 12 December 1950, p. 2; ‘Das Ende des Krauss-Gastspiels’, Telegraf, 13 December 1950, p. 1.

[9] ‘Vergeben können’, Der Abend, 8 December 1950, p. 2; LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, anonymous letter from ‘ein Lichterfelder Einwohner’, 13 December 1950. On the history of antisemitic conceptions of Jewish ‘retributive justice’, see Trond Berg Eriksen et al, Judenhass: Die Geschichte des Antisemitismus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen, 2019), p. 117.

[10] Gerhard Löwenthal, Ich bin geblieben. Erinnerungen (Munich, 1987), pp. 202-203.

[11] Ibid., p. 203; ‘Die Unruhen am Kurfürstendamm’, Tagesspiegel, 9 December 1950, p. 2.

[12] LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, letter from Adolf Vollmer to Friedrich Luft (editor of Die Neue Zeitung‘s Feuilleton section), 12 December 1950.

[13] ‘Problematisches Gastrecht’, Volksblatt, 11 December 1950, p. 2.

[14] Nick Thomas, Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany. A Social History of Dissent and Democracy (Oxford, 2003), p. 13; Moritz Scheibe, ‘Auf der Suche nach der demokratischen Gesellschaft’, in Ulrich Herbert (ed.), Wandlungsprozesse in Westdeutschland. Belastung, Integration, Liberalisierung, 1945-1980 (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 245-247.

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Donald Trump and Masculinity as Motivator

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In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke.  For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.

As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.

Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century.  One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967.  Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples. 

By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days.[1]  He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression.  Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal.  He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood.  And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be.  According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”  Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme.  His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.

Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully.  He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker.  The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews.  These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men.  It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering.  In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”

Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.

Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora

Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(30354612000).jpg


[1] For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4

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It Happened Here: The Annihilation of the Jews of the Amsterdam Rivierenbuurt, 1940-1945

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To this day, the Dutch have been unable to achieve closure concerning how the Germans were able to kill, with such relative ease, between seventy and eighty per cent of the country’s 140,500 Jews during their Second World War Occupation of the Netherlands. This proportion was by far the highest in western Europe. Many varied and complex subsidiary questions involving perpetrators, victims, bystanders and survivors still remain unexplored. Moreover, very little published research, if any, in the historiography of the persecution, has so far investigated how the urban design of a particular local neighbourhood might perhaps have contributed to theannihilation of its Jews.  

Much attention has rightly focussed on the more than sixty per cent of the country’s Jews who lived in Amsterdam, However, inherent elements of the built environment, capable of analysis by the application of interdisciplinary approaches, have been largely disregarded as potentially significant factors in this field that might otherwise contribute to the wider debate. 

A pertinent example of such an area is the Rivierenbuurt (Rivers District), a tranquil suburb a few kilometres to the south of the historic centre of Amsterdam, erected in the 1920s and 1930s and occupying only 140 hectares, a negligible 0.003 per cent of the landmass of the entire Netherlands. 

A walk through the Rivierenbuurt in 2020 barely discloses connections with its tragic past. This is unexpected, when it is understood that 13,000 individuals, out of its Jewish population of 17,000, were removed by the Germans and murdered in the death camps of eastern Europe. While Jews from many other parts of Amsterdam, and elsewhere in the country, also lost their lives in this way, the Rivierenbuurt stands out because its Jewish population represented one in nine (19.5 per cent) of the Dutch Jews. 

Certainly, the Germans were well aware of the Rivierenbuurt’s disproportionately large Jewish population from the outset of the Occupation. This awareness took on a greater relevance after February 1941, when a ghettowas imposed in the Jodenhoek (‘Jewish Corner’), the traditional centre of Jewish settlement of Amsterdam. While this ghetto had been based on the principles of eastern European paradigms, it proved to be untenable because the Germans could not seal in its Jewish population, due to the high proportion of non-Jews living there who needed to continue to interact with the rest of the city.

Thus, by the middle of 1941, the Germans alighted upon an alternative approach that could help achieve their aim by harnessing existing local conditions as they pertained specifically to Amsterdam. Henceforth, three discrete Jodenwijken (‘Jewish Districts’), took the place of the ghetto, of which the Rivierenbuurt was by far the largest.

The Germans called this model of containment a ‘lockeres Ghetto’ (slack ghetto), an unenclosed district that allowed resident non-Jews, and Jews, to continue to live alongside each other. In consequence, the physical barriers of the ghetto were rendered superfluous, thereby allowing the Rivierenbuurt to remain open and accessible. Instead, the activities and movements of Jews were controlled by means of an extraordinarily wide range of persecutory measures, of which personal registration, restricted employment, travel permits and the wearing of the ‘Jewish Star’ for identification purposes were but a few.

If the Germans did not explicitly recognize the advantages of the spatial conditions that already existed in the Rivierenbuurt before the mass deportations of the Jews began in July 1942, they soon exploited their benefits. Able to round up their Jewish victims in efficient operations with minimal resources, they could send them rapidly to local assembly points and for onward transportation to almost certain death in the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibór. This was achieved, in the first instance, by being able to deploy police during razzias (raids for rounding up Jews) along the grand avenues of the Rivierenbuurt, the design of which was clearly derived from authoritarian precedents, as seen in Paris, St. Petersburg or Imperial Rome (see photo below). Secondly, the boundaries of the Rivierenbuurt delineated by the River Amstel and canals were capable of being cut off from the surrounding city by raising the bridges, as occurred, for example, without warning, in a major dawn razzia on 20 June 1943. Thirdly, the regimented grid-like planning of the secondary side streets created a net during razzias, the mesh of which could be enlarged or reduced in size as required to isolate specific localities where Jews lived. 

Rooseveltlaan [south end], Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 16 September 2016

In other circumstances, inherent flaws in the progressive architectural design would also have been taken for granted by their designers and residents, yet were capable of disclosing further opportunities for the Germans. This came about because four and five storey residential blocks with long frontages, designed for sustaining intensive housing densities, extended from one street corner to another. Each of these contained tightly packed clusters of spacious apartments in which large numbers of people were billeted when the Germans forced Jews from all parts of the country to move to the Rivierenbuurt, which, in effect, rendered it a large detention camp in all but name, pending their future deportation to the camps. Furthermore, awkward and narrow, steep staircases, accessed by open, communal entrance archways, led from the street to upper floors without alternative escape routes. Panicked Jews were trapped and could not escape being caught (see photo below).

Access staircase at Roerstraat 15 and 17, Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 26 October 2007

The buildings, streets and waterways of the Rivierenbuurt might have appeared well-ordered and beneficial for the well-being of their residents in peacetime. However, despite the local death rate being similar to the rest of the country, it is evident that the existing built environment of the district could be readily subverted by the Germans for more efficient means of conducting their persecution of its Jews. In the end, when theRivierenbuurt was finally liberated on the last day of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945, almost no Jews survived, apart from the very few that had managed to hide.

David Kann is a PhD researcher in the History Department at the University of Sheffield, focussing on Het Joodsche Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly) as an instrument of persecution in the Nazi Occupied Netherlands. David is a retired architect by profession and in 2017 completed a Master’s by Research thesis at Royal Holloway College, University of London 

Cover Image: Anne Frank memorial at Merwedeplein: the Rivierenbuurt’s most famous resident lived at no. 37 (on right) until she and her family went into hiding in the centre of the city.  Source: David Kann, 15 September 2016

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