An unorthodox approach: ‘We disrupt the idea of Jewishness to which Germans are attached’

Since the October 7th attacks in Israel, writer Deborah Feldman’s sinking feeling about her adoptive homeland has been gathering pace

A decade ago US writer Deborah Feldman found a new home in Berlin after departing her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, a journey documented in her memoir – and the subsequent Netflix series – Unorthodox.

Since the October 7th attacks in Israel, however, Feldman’s sinking feeling about her adoptive homeland has been gathering pace.

Weeks earlier, she went public with that feeling in a new book, the provocatively-titled Judenfetisch – Jew Fetish. In it she accuses Germany of struggling to accept the diverse reality of Judaism, in particular left-wing secular Jews such as her, by looking exclusively to Germany’s Israel-aligned conservative community.

Where Judaism as she knows it is messy and contested, she writes, many Germans expect order. Others display philo-Semitic tendencies, she says, or allow Jews “exist purely from a German position ... as a German projection”.


“Jews in Germany are a uniform idea,” she says over lunch in Berlin, “but as soon as we become pluralistic, we disrupt the idea of Jewishness to which Germans are very attached, an idea deeply influenced by anti-Semitic tropes and references.”

Such scepticism of Germans’ opinions are commonplace among many Jews here. Feldman goes further, however, by linking this to postwar German-Israel ties which she views as a transactional, exoneration-loyalty complex.

These ties have coloured Germany’s official post-October 7th position, she thinks, with unqualified support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas horrors, including towards Palestinian civilians. This position is becoming more Israel-critical amid the ongoing Gaza offensive and the growing humanitarian disaster there.

But Germany’s official line is still a long way from last Sunday’s closing ceremony of the Berlin film festival, with repeated, vocal solidarity for Palestinians among prize-winner speeches. The best documentary award went to No Other Land, charting the eradication of Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank.

Accepting their prize, Palestinian co-director Basel Adra urged an end to the “slaughter and massacre” of Palestinians and an end to German arms exports to Israel. Standing beside him, Israeli codirector Yuval Abraham attacked his homeland’s “situation of apartheid”, and demanded a ceasefire in Gaza and a “political solution to end the occupation”.

The Hamas massacre was mentioned only in an opening statement by Berlinale co-director Mariette Rissenbeek, who also called for the release of Israeli hostages.

The next morning, after media blowback, Berlin mayor Kai Wegener criticised the ceremony’s “intolerable relativisation”. Federal culture minister Claudia Roth, filmed applauding the documentary winners, insisted her applause “was directed at the Jewish-Israeli journalist”.

The Israel-Gaza crisis in the Middle East is, Feldman argues, triggering a dam breach in Germany. Exposed now for all to see: the internal contradictions of its political logic on Israel.

“For decades in Germany it has been okay to say you are anti-racist while being loyal to Israel and reluctant to look at discrimination of Palestinians,” she said. “October 7th has forced people to ... admit where they really stand. All these very unfortunate remarks come out here, the rest of the world laughs, and Germany, in response to being laughed at, doubles down.”

On Monday, Berlin’s state culture minister revived plans to introduce an anti-Semitism clause to cultural funding applications, while federal justice minister Marco Buschmann condemned as “intolerable” how “anti-Semitism too often remained unchallenged” at the Berlin film festival closing weekend and called in the public prosecutor.

Asked by The Irish Times which remarks at the closing event were anti-Semitic, a spokeswoman said the minister’s remarks represented his “personal value judgment” and confirmed that anti-Semitism is not per se a prosecutable offence in Germany.

Documentary co-director Yuval Abraham said German political accusations of “anti-Semitism” this week have endangered his family in Israel. Israel critics in Germany, meanwhile, say generalised anti-Semitism claims have a deliberate, chilling effect on those expressing opinions that are mainstream elsewhere.

Feldman’s taboo-breaking book and Israel-critical views have made her a highly controversial public figure here. Some in the country’s Jewish communities suggest she is living her Berlin life as an Unorthodox reboot. The black-and-white thinking of her formative years in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, so the argument goes, has seen her oversimplify, misunderstand and misrepresent the structures, make-up and ruptures of Jewish life in Germany.

Some former friends who assisted Feldman on her arrival in Berlin say they feel personally betrayed. Feldman remains unimpressed by her critics.

“The more aggressive their language gets, the more affirming it is of what I am doing,” she says, “because it shows I’ve really stirred up the hornets’ nest.”

She says her critics are the ones repeating the Unorthodox script: unable to challenge her arguments, they attack her personally with claims she is fouling her own nest, in German a “Nestbeschmutzer”.

Some arguments in Judenfetisch drag into the public previously internal Jewish community arguments, in particular liberal-orthodox tensions and the rising influence of German converts to Judaism – both in their communities and interactions with politics.

But many feel Feldman has crossed a line with a recent campaign on X, calling out some prominent Jewish critics for not being raised as Jews. Feldman says she is merely mirroring the mechanisms being used against her using black-and-white social media norms.

“It is not something I really believe in,” she says. “I am performing it to show people, in this exaggerated way, that this is actually insane. Their logic is that only they have the legitimate right to Jewishness.”

Even as she alienates potential allies, Feldman says her aim is to “smash” conservative, right-wing dominance in Germany’s Jewish community. Its Israel-aligned narratives are, she fears, forcing a dangerous right-wing political drift and growing disconnect with voters.

A January survey showed just 25 per cent of Germans agree that Israel’s military response in Gaza is justified, down from 50 per cent in the autumn.

Many of the 25,000 people who have bought her book and attended 25 sold-out readings so far, Feldman says, are deeply engaged with their country’s history and ongoing responsibility. The writer says she respects their emotional investment in Israel.

“They learned the right lessons but are now being gaslit by a political and media culture that tells them ‘you need to relearn them now and recalibrate your moral compass 180 degrees’,” argues Feldman.

The new rules in Germany, as she sees them, are to support an extreme-right Israeli government’s war in Gaza unconditionally, with no room for dissent or reference to postwar universal human rights norms arising from Nazi war crimes.

“Germans that are deeply and emotionally moved by the legacy of the Holocaust,” argues Feldman, “are in a uniquely vulnerable emotional position to be manipulated.”

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