On October 4th, the second day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot, a 26-year-old Jewish student was attacked and injured in front of the synagogue in the Hohen Weide in Hamburg with a folding spade. Once again there is an anti-Semitic attack, once again a person is attacked in public just because he wears a kippah, a Jew is despised and hurt just because he is a Jew. Once again in a country that wanted to agree on a “never again”. Once again in a country that promises in all state acts to want to protect Jewish life from anti-Semitism, but at the same time pretends that anti-Semitism is something that can only be found elsewhere, in some yesterday or with any other. Everywhere, just not where anti-Semitism exists: in our midst, in the here and now. As if there wasn’t a party in the Bundestag that propagated revisionist, völkisch, anti-Semitic convictions, as if the right-wing terror of the NSU hadn’t existed, not the right-wing attack on the synagogue in Halle, in which two people were killed, as if there weren’t any again and again reason for Jews to mourn.
On October 4th, after the attack on the student in Hamburg, the Jewish pianist Igor Levit wrote on Twitter: “So tired. So, so tired and angry.” On October 5th Levit wrote: “Yesterday: Hamburg. Today: phrases. Never again hashtags. As always. Simply tiring. Fatiguing.” On October 9th he wrote again: “How very, very tired this time makes you.” In German there are etymological connections between the words “mourn” and “slowly”, “sluggish”, but also “sink”, “transpire”. So in the words “I’m tired, so tired”, which appear again and again, as if they were slowly seeping through him, there was also a deep sadness. So Levite now writes about his tiredness – only to find out about it in a text in the Süddeutsche Zeitung to be mocked a few days later.
What is not mentioned in it, but has to be mentioned: Igor Levit himself is covered by right-wing extremist death threats, not only in general, but very specific, with precise information at which concert he should be killed. To repeat it once again: A Jewish German writes of his exhaustion, of being exposed to anti-Semitic contempt and violence again and again as a Jew, of having to react again and again to the news of anti-Semitic attacks – and these sentences serve as defamatory in the SZ Final punch of a text that polemically tears Levite to pieces as a musician, as a political citizen and as a human being. Is it really possible for Jews to be ridiculed in German newspapers for expressing their fear, their despondency, their anger? That they are advised to complain in other words, more politely, less angry, or even better: they would keep quiet and concentrate on other things? At least that is what the text insinuates through the reference to a professional, informative tweet by the pianist Daniil Trifonov, which is contrasted with that of Levit.
Our utterances, terms and images have a resonance space
In a letter to Sebastian Haffner dated July 31, 1978, the essayist and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry wrote: “My injury does not cover any new, firmly adhered skin, and where one wants to close, I tear it open because I know that it is underneath her the suppuration process continues (…) I think you come too early with your objectivity. ” It is the same with Levit: his injury does not cover any new, firmly attached skin, and where one tries to close, he tears it open again. This is how he speaks and writes, this is how he reacts to the social and political world around him, in which right-wing, racist, inhuman movements are becoming more and more unrestrained, more expansive, more and more violent. Levit’s answer is as subjective as it is sore. This may sound sometimes short of breath, sometimes angry, sometimes tired. But whoever demands sober objectivity has probably never experienced what it is like: to be constantly attacked for a certain belief, a certain body, a certain skin color. Those who criticize that should ask themselves what it is like to always be treated as an outsider, what it is like to receive these letters or comments on the Internet that want to see you deported, raped or gassed.
In a statement by the editors, which responded to the readers’ criticism, it is said: The “denigration of Judaism” was not the aim of the author. That may be true. It is not about a person either, just a text. And this explanation is not enough. Even unsuspectingly conveyed resentments are resentments. Even ignorantly expressed prejudices reproduce prejudices with their own history of exclusion and injury. We, who speak or write in public, have to consider this: Our utterances, terms and images have a resonance space, they are understood and interpreted in historical and intertextual references, they repeat or deny what others, in front of us or at the same time, articulate to have. Nobody speaks or writes in a space devoid of experience. We have to ask, with every sentence we write, every image we evoke, what we quote in it, which memories are linked to it for whom, which voices are so legitimized or de-legitimized.
If one reads the rowdy polemic against Levite in these historical references, one notices formulations that invoke classic anti-Semitic attributions and clichés. It doesn’t have to happen right away. It is enough to trigger associations by suggesting, which then completes the reading audience. It’s like anti-Semitic painting by numbers: All you need is a few dots that are connected to one another, and the finished picture is created imaginary by itself. The vague insinuation, the vague suggestion also has the tactical advantage of always being able to subsequently deny having said something anti-Semitic – after all, it was the audience’s practiced resentment that fulfills what itself is not explicitly stated.
What caused their pain, anger, fear, and melancholy?
It does not matter whether it is about the musician or the citizen Levit – one as well as the other is accused of manipulative untruthfulness. The text criticizes “playfully noncommittal”, then “theatrically presented pathos”, from the praise given to the counter figure, Daniil Trifonov, it can be inferred that Levit is denied “real” emotion and “real” art. This topos of the “improper”, “inauthentic” is familiar in the history of anti-Semitic resentment (also and especially through Richard Wagner). The murmuring way in which Levit’s friendship is described “with the right journalists and multipliers” in Berlin also subliminally cites the old motif of the “powerful, Jewish lobby”.
Certainly, it is not always hermeneutically undisputed whether a linguistic image or a formulation must be interpreted as anti-Semitic or not. That sometimes remains controversial. But unfortunately this text is full of it. Critical voices on social media are accused of an “victim claim ideology”, an obvious twin to the vocabulary of the right-wing radical discourse that denounces the alleged “guilt cult” of non-Jewish Germans. Here: the German society, which allegedly dealt too much with the crimes of National Socialism, which should be proud of its history again, and there: the victims who do not want to be quiet, who complained unduly and supposedly in “emotional excesses” went out. It is questioned whether Levit deserved the Federal Cross of Merit, a doubt that Alice Weidel stirred up in a public campaign that is normalized and ennobled in this way in the SZ.
It’s not about making any criticism of the musician Igor Levit impossible. Of course, his concerts or recordings can be taken apart for musical reasons. At any time. Aesthetic criticism can be sharp as long as it argues precisely and respectfully. Nor is it about preventing any reflection on the question of how humanism can be humanly defended. I think it is ethically and politically vital to consider how racist, anti-Semitic movements can be countered without being infected and deformed by their hatred. But that only works if you don’t leave the people who are subject to this hatred alone. This only works if you understand emphatically what caused their pain and melancholy, their fear and their anger. This only works if you are aware of the history (s) of violence in which your own speaking and acting belong. Anti-Semitism and racism cannot be fought if one does not see how they are shown and what they do to those who are at their mercy. Racism and anti-Semitism are not only felt emotionally, they are structural discrimination and real dangers. It is not least the SZ, with its excellent reporting on the NSU, that has shown this. Dealing with Auschwitz is not a single act or a repetitive ritual, but an unfinished task, for us individually, but also as a democratic community.
I am self-conscious. I know Igor Levit and have performed with him. But I hope and suspect that I would have written the same text if I didn’t know it. I am tired, too.
The author is the recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She writes a regular column for the SZ .