Aug 2004 Journal

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A far from negligible one per cent (editorial)

Contemporary Israel has a Jewish population of five million. In the 1930s 50,000 peace-time refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria (that is, one per cent of today's total) came to Palestine.

They encountered two very disparate groups of Jews already domiciled in the country. The first comprised ultra-orthodox paupers awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. The second were the founding generations of Zionist pioneers from Eastern Europe, who had made the desert bloom and established Tel Aviv in the sand dunes.

However, in the Thirties the incoming Jeckes brought a sizable increase in the half-a-million strong Yishuv, and their know-how and educational attainments injected new impetus into an economy stagnating in the aftermath of the worldwide Depression.

Even so, surveying the short, but uniquely dramatic, history of the Jewish State from the vantage point of today, the influence of the Jeckes appears to have been small.

This is probably due to the fact that, although Zionism - both as an idea and as an organised movement - owes everything to the German-speaking Austro-Hungarians Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, the actual architects of Israel were Russo-Polish Jews like David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir. The Jewish State's equivalent to America's Pilgrim Fathers, likewise, hailed from the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Zionism, though incubated in Mitteleuropa, had no real mass following in Germany, Austria or Hungary. The reluctance of German Jews to emigrate to Palestine after the Nazi takeover is illustrated by Chaim Weizmann's failure to recruit renowned German-Jewish scientists of the calibre of the Chemistry Nobel laureates Fritz Haber and Richard Willstätter for the Hebrew University. (Not that the Humanities Faculty on Mount Scopus didn't receive fruitful stimuli from such new German-speaking scholars as Martin Buber and Gershon Scholem.)

But it was in other spheres, for instance technology and architecture, that the German olim made their distinctive contribution. The famous Technion at Haifa was largely shaped by Jeckes - and so, to some extent, was the ambience of Haifa itself. In Tel Aviv too there are many listed buildings that bear the hallmarks of Bauhaus architecture.

In the industrial sphere where, 70 years ago, the post-1933 influx resulted in diversification and many new start-ups, German-born olim like Stef Wertheimer, founder of the Tefen Industry Park, still play a key role. (Legend has it that at the time of the First Partition Plan, Naharia, Wertheimer's original domicile in Palestine, displayed a banner inscribed 'Nahariah bleibt Deutsch!')

Less happy was the encounter of émigré German writers with the reality of the embryonic Jewish State, which looked upon Hebrew as an indispensable means of national self-renewal. Lack of familiarity with the language and alienation from a rough-and-ready pioneering society drove Arnold Zweig (of Sergeant Grisha fame) back to Germany soon after the war. The poet Else Lasker-Schüler died poor and neglected in 1945. Not even the committed Zionist (and Kafka promoter) Max Brod managed to transplant himself happily.

Things worked out much better for the Kindertransport generation. Würzburg-born Yehuda Amichai became a celebrated Israeli poet, and novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who had grown up in a German-speaking Romanian household, achieved fame beyond the borders of Israel. (Contrary-wise, several young postwar talents, like the songwriter Gerhart Bronner and the artist/novelists Wolfgang Hildesheimer and Yakov Lind, opted for a return to the Diaspora.)

It is a truism that life in Israel is more intensely saturated with politics than in any other country on earth. Within the Israeli pressure cooker politicians are virtually arbiters of the national destiny - and it is in this crucial sphere that Jeckes barely rate a mention. The only names that spring to mind are those of Josef Burg and Teddy Kollek. However, the latter, though a charismatic mayor of Jerusalem, played no role in national politics - and Burg, leader of the National Religious Party, occupied ministerial posts more for reasons of parliamentary arithmetic than political acumen. (Israel could have done with a Machiavellian Jecke like Dr Kissinger, but he, alas, emigrated to the land of the founding fathers rather than that of his forefathers.)

All the same, even though none of Israel's men of destiny hailed from the
Rhine or Danube, some of its leading commentators on politics and history, for instance the Rhinelander Uri Avinery and the Vienna-born Amos Elon, do. In other words, while the Jeckes did not produce great actors on the national stage, they produced great drama critics.

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