- Beyond the Border: The German-Jewish Legacy Abroad
Why did German-Jewish intellectuals make such a large impact on Western civilization? Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Steven E. Aschheim’s ambitious aim is to answer this question in his most recent and interesting book, Beyond the Border: The German-Jewish Legacy Abroad. In three short chapters, Aschheim argues persuasively that the German-Jewish legacy has been embedded in Western culture throughout the twentieth century, beyond the Weimar years traditionally recognized as an intense period of German-Jewish intellectual productivity.
Aschheim has written extensively about how German Jews contributed to critical theory and modern history. His books on Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt have helped solidify these intellectuals’ canonical status in Western scholarship. Yet, Beyond the Border analyzes the contributions of these and other German-Jewish thinkers without covering familiar territory. The book began as a series of three lectures delivered at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. The talks work well as book chapters and allow Aschheim to explore the connections between the German-Jewish diaspora and the Western imagination in three areas: politics, intellectual history, and popular culture.
Aschheim adheres strictly to the theme of Jewish identity politics. He moves “beyond the border” by examining the struggle between German-Jewish cultural and religious identities throughout the Jewish diaspora. In the first chapter, for example, Aschheim carefully unpacks the cultural, linguistic, and political obstacles German Jews faced in establishing themselves in Palestine, bringing to life a series of historical figures who are often overshadowed by more familiar literary and political theorists. Jewish intellectuals such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Hans Kohn supported binationalism in Palestine and formed organizations such as Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) to cultivate Arab-Jewish relations.
German-Jewish binationalists, however, were not always well received in Palestine, according to Aschheim. Their ties to the German language fostered skepticism among intellectuals who communicated in Hebrew. These nationalist divisions frustrated German-Jews who were trying to create deeper connections to Palestine while maintaining vital elements of their German heritage. The biographer Emil Ludwig, for instance, perceived the slights by [End Page 97] non-German Jews, specifically Ostjuden, as detrimental to the overall goal of establishing a common Jewish identity in Palestine, asking “…can we exist at all as a Volk [people] and also as a religion, without this chauvinism (15)?”
Chapter two is the book’s most fascinating and nuanced because Aschheim analyzes how the patterns of selection and emphasis of German-Jewish historians born in the 1920s shaped the way German cultural history was written for decades. He argues that Jewish historians, including Peter Gay, Walter Laqueur, George Mosse, and Fritz Stern used their outsider status as exiles to push historical interpretations of Germany’s past to their outer limits by writing critically about German-Jewish history during a time when German historians were hesitant to do so. Even though Aschheim steers away from suggesting that Judaism defined these exiled historians’ work, he does mention that each historian’s internal struggle with Jewish identity informed his approach to historical inquiry. Aschheim notes, for example, that Mosse, who went into exile as a teenager, came from a wealthy, liberal, yet religious family. Mosse’s experiences as a young refugee influenced his later scholarly interests in German class relationships. For other historians, however, Jewish identity was also shaped by the more specific trauma of facing religious persecution when their connections to Judaism were tenuous from the beginning. “Only Hitler made me a Jew, and, it turned out, not a very good one (50),” wrote Peter Gay. Gay went on to write some of the first cultural histories of the Weimar era, and his work emphasized the important contributions that German Jews made to the most prolific period of German cultural activity since the Enlightenment.
Chapter three presents a fresh look at the pantheon of German-Jewish intellectuals who dominate the humanities. Aschheim asks why Jewish writers such as Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Rosenzweig, among others...