Posted on February 3, 2022
commissioned by Mozaika Journal
The Berlin in Netflix’s Unorthodox is a multicultural utopia – if only this were the reality. The show’s celebratory depiction of Berlin as a haven for asylum seekers turns the series into uncritical EU propaganda. It is crucial to challenge the series’ two most tantalising myths; that Berlin has entirely reformed from its violent 20th- century nationalism and that the city embraces its many migrants and asylum seekers.
Unorthodox follows the journey of Esty Shapiro as she escapes from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Satmar community of Crown Heights, New York. Etsy finds her way to Berlin, where her estranged mother lives after also escaping from the community. Across the engrossing four episodes, we watch as Etsy finds romance within a clique of musical Berliners, reconnects with her mother, and dodges her Satmar husband, who’s come to Germany to track her down. Beneath the tense plot twists, we watch Etsy’s inward journey as she finds the parts of herself denied in New York. While Etsy’s life in New York and her escape is based on the memoir of Deborah Feldman, the scenes in Germany are fictional. The show has garnered accolades, such as for its use of Yiddish, and criticism for its negative representation of the Satmar community.
It was not difficult for Etsy to find belonging in Berlin, and nor for that matter, the other asylum seekers and migrants who she meets. From the lake scene where Etsy wades into the water with the group of hip music students, to the prestigious conservatory which has scholarships for refugees, Berlin oozes an easy and fun-going tolerance which sets up a stark contrast to the fortress-like isolation of Crown Height’s Satmar community.
While watching the laughing faces of (seemingly every) extra in the background and the carnivalesque imagery, I waited for a scene that would give voice to the obvious difficulties faced by minorities in Berlin. Mine and my family’s experiences in the city clamoured in the background. My Jewish grandmother and her parents fled Nazi Berlin in 1939. When my family and I returned to the city, while the conditions are incomparable, our times there were peppered with painful reminders that vestiges of Europe’s violent nationalist and racist ideologies still exist. Our experiences make it easier to see through the two myths which Unorthodox un-critically supports.
In the series, dwelling on Germany’s past is pointless because apparently, the country has moved on from its former violent ideologies. Get on with your life. This position is crystallised in the series’ lake scene. A few hours before Etsy wades into the waters of Wannsee lake and removes her sheitel (wig), signalling her newly claimed freedom, our protagonist had approached a group of music students on the street in Berlin and boldly asked them if she could accompany them to the lake. As she stands on the shore, Robert (her future lover), points to a villa on the water’s edge and explains how ‘the conference where the Nazis decided to kill the Jews in concentration camps took place in 1942’ there. ‘And you swim in this lake?’ Etsy asks, visibly disturbed. Robert shrugs, ‘Well, the lake is just a lake’. As Robert dives into the crystalline waters, Etsy turns to see a stranger lifting his smiling baby up. ‘Deutschland’ is ominously blazoned in ink across his toned back. This image, the only hint towards any existence of the far-right in Germany, is quickly drowned out in the waters of the lake which Etsy wades into a few moments after. Robert’s attitude to the past is set up as the correct one by the other references to memory scattered through the show. The ‘now it’s just a lake’ position constantly wins, as the main characters demonstrate that dwelling on the past is needless.
Robert, amongst other characters, represents the attitude that Germany, through educational and commemorative efforts, has cut ties with the dominant political ideologies of the 20th century. This attitude reflects broader conceptions, within and outside Germany, that through museums, educational efforts, and reparations, many European nations have been able to reform from their fascistic nationalist pasts. Like Austria, since the 1960s, the German government made many laudable efforts to build a social memory around the Holocaust that accounted for the genocidal violence. Jews were granted reparations through the right of return laws, monuments, and museums to educate Germans about the horrors of the Holocaust and the state’s (still ongoing) persecution of War criminals hammers in the notion that justice lay after 1945.
Yet the past is messy in Germany, as it is anywhere. There is no unified understanding of recent history or how the present is informed by 20th-century events. Neo-Nazis have sprouted up across Germany since the 1950s, many commemorating Hitler through salutes and genocidal slogans. Within the German parliament, far-right parties such as the ADF bear more complex relations to the past, with one of its founders, Björn Höcke, critically calling the Holocaust memorial ‘a monument of shame’. Ideologies that informed Nazi Germany, from ethnic nationalism to Aerian genetic supremacy, will find their way in different forms in groups today and may find new victims, such as asylum seekers from across the Middle East.
Seen through this less rose-tinted lens, Etsy’s surprise when Robert coolly stated, ‘it’s just a lake’ is not the incorrect position. Lakes, squares and buildings which bore witness to key moments of past political regimes will be reclaimed and interpreted ceaselessly by different groups. To carry with you a weariness of the past can be a form of self-protection. In October of 2020, it was hard not to feel vulnerable when my family and I walked into Tiergarten park in Berlin and realised that we had entered an anti-Covid protest which led to the storming of the Reichstag and included 3,000 members of the far-right. It was surreal to be surrounded by the flags of the pre-1918 German Empire that are often associated with Neo-Nazism. A few years before, my brother was struck in the back of the head in Görlitzer Park in 2015. He had been running through it, and his star of David came out. To stroll around Germany with a sense that the past is over and the nation is a haven of liberal tolerance would make us oblivious to the growth of far-right extremism in the country and the historically loaded spaces where violence may rear its head.
Sometimes feeling haunted by the ghosts of the past is a form of protection in the present. It is not something to be belittled, as often happened in the series. Europe, and its many nations, have not simply ‘moved on’ from the past, and to state so encourages an attitude of complacency that sees the work of social reformation as over.
The second myth within Unorthodox is its celebration of Berlin as a haven for its many asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. The series becomes more than a story about Etsy finding herself within Berlin through telling the tale of multiple minorities finding acceptance in Germany. Within Etsy’s small gaggle of friends, Ahmed had moved from Nigeria, Yael has migrated from Israel and Dasia is of Yemeni heritage. Etsy’s mother kisses her girlfriend on the street, relaxed and un-self-conscious. Ahmed suggests that he came to Berlin’s music school because ‘imagine being a gay kid in Nigeria’. Etsy’s own acceptance is rapid. The things she felt shame for in the Satmar community become instantly cool in Berlin, from her shaved head to her singing loudly in Yiddish in her conservatory audition. A binary is set up in the show: there is bad, here is good. The ‘there’ is often associated with non-Western countries or minority religious groups, while the ‘here’ is associated with a progressive, European culture of multicultural acceptance.
Photography Anika Molnar/NETFLIX
This positive representation of Berlin draws from a range of popularly held narratives about Germany and Europe. Germany is often celebrated for its efforts of reformation following 20th century Nazism, with its status as having accepted the most migrants in the refugee crisis of 2015 further evidence that the nation accommodates ethnic and religious diversity. Yet a more European-wide idea weaves itself through the series. White Europeans have historically defined Europe in civilisational terms, deemed as more progressive and liberal than supposedly less “enlightened” nations. Since the 15th century, this imagined superiority has justified grotesque violence against supposed ‘backwards’, non-white or non-Christian groups through imperialism and colonialism. Today, an un-questioning sense of Euro-American progressiveness, tolerance, and in many cases, racial superiority, still exists in multiple forms that bear both similarities and differences to pre-21st century ideas. It is no surprise that it took so long before contemporary acts of white supremacist violence were perceived as ‘terrorism’ in Europe. Terrorism was something that happened over there, not here.
There is much to celebrate about Germany, and especially Berlin. The active and long-established LGBTQI+ communities in the city makes it a far safer place for many to be openly queer or transgender. However, discrimination against non-white asylum seekers, migrants, and LGBTQI+ persons is an ongoing problem. Germany’s most prominent far-right political group, Alternative for Germany (AfD), helped whip up widespread xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments with a 2017 pre-election advert featuring bikini-clad women and the statement ‘Burkas? We prefer Bikinis’. In 2020, 632 Islamophobic crimes were recorded to the police, including mosque vandalism, harassment of women in headscarves and verbal attacks. And that figure doesn’t account for all the crimes left unreported. Violence frequently affects the LGBTQI+ community, with a 36% rise in hate crimes recorded in 2020. Last October, my sister and her girlfriend were harassed in a restaurant in the far-right frequented area of lake Wandlitz. They didn’t know beforehand this was an unsafe area for those openly queer – it was not ‘just a lake’.
Belonging does not fall in your lap in Berlin, as suggested by Unorthodox. While the series presents Berlin as a blank slate that invites you to express your true self freely, spoken and unspoken rules exist for those who do not fall within the white German majority, while individuals will be judged based on their skin tone or signalled religious affiliation. Jews have felt pressured to assimilate to dominant German culture since they were granted citizenship in the 19th century. Such pressures to acculturate still exist for the many ethnoreligious minorities who have sought new lives in Germany.
Unorthodox is undoubtedly powerful, and Debbie Feldman’s story needs to be told. Etsy flees from an oppressive community and seeks greater acceptance in Berlin, as many others have done, and this is an important story to represent. Yet in only representing the positives of Berlin, the series becomes a fanciful EU propaganda that will only help divert much needed attention to tackling the ingrained issues of white supremacy, exclusionary nationalism and economic disparity that have plagued the continent for centuries. Beyond Berlin’s streets, Etsy would feel haunted by the past anywhere in Europe. We have not left it behind, and to suggest we have, is a counterproductive distortion of the present day to the millions of viewers who streamed the show.
Posted on March 3, 2021
Through the Jewish-Muslim research Network, I spoke to Associate Professor Charles Hirschkind about his new book, ‘The Feeling of History: Islam, Romanticism and Andalusia’ (see video below).
Read about the book here:
‘In today’s world, the lines between Europe and the Middle East, between Christian Europeans and Muslim immigrants in their midst, seem to be hardening. Alarmist editorials compare the arrival of Muslim refugees with the “Muslim conquest of 711,” warning that Europe will be called on to defend its borders. Violence and paranoia are alive and well in Fortress Europe.
Against this xenophobic tendency, The Feeling of History examines the idea of Andalucismo—a modern tradition founded on the principle that contemporary Andalusia is connected in vitally important ways with medieval Islamic Iberia. Charles Hirschkind explores the works and lives of writers, thinkers, poets, artists, and activists, and he shows how, taken together, they constitute an Andalusian sensorium. Hirschkind also carefully traces the various itineraries of Andalucismo, from colonial and anticolonial efforts to contemporary movements supporting immigrant rights. The Feeling of History offers a nuanced view into the way people experience their own past, while also bearing witness to a philosophy of engaging the Middle East that experiments with alternative futures.’
Charles Hirschkind is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests concern religious practice, media technologies, and emergent forms of political community in the urban Middle East and Europe. His published works include, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia 2006), Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (co-edited with David Scott, Stanford 2005), and The Feeling for History: Islam, Romanticism, and Andalusia (Chicago 2020).
Posted on July 21, 2019
commissioned by Haaretz
At first glance, the 92-year-old man sitting in a Parisian apartment and clutching a book to his chest does not look in the least bit like the hero at the center of a tale of a high-stakes escape.
However, this is exactly who Clement Behar was: The unsung savior of Cairo’s Jews, who risked his own life to rescue members of the community from persecution in the 1940s and 1950s.
Forty-six years later, his story is still emerging from obscurity – Behar, formerly known as Chehata, has published a memoir in which he revealed how he helped release scores of Jews from Cairo’s prisons. The self-published oeuvre, titled “A Story of a Life with a Difference,” came out in 2003.
Born in 1925, Behar grew up in the Egyptian capital at a time when the city was a Jewish, Muslim and Christian cosmopolis. Joining his father’s prospering electrical business at 15, he was propelled to Egypt’s elite social circles. As a teen, he saw anti-colonial movements gain more traction shortly after the British Empire granted nominal independence to his homeland in 1922.
His family, much like many other Egyptian Jews, enjoyed financial and social success. But in 1948 matters took a turn for the worse: Israel was established as an independent state after Jewish militants defeated the British Mandate of Palestine. A day later, on May 15, the War of Independence broke out. The young country survived the invasion of five Arab nations which opposed Jews taking over Arab lands. It even gained control over more territories, sparking a deep anti-Jewish sentiment in the region.
At the time, Egypt was home to 80,000 Jews who resided there for three millennia, with some immigrating from Europe since the late 19th century. Despite their stature, the country’s Jews were put in a precarious position over their alleged loyalty to Israel. Many of them perceived themselves as more Egyptian than Jewish, and rejected calls by Egypt’s growing ethnonationalist circle to leave.
The calls quickly escalated into violence. One infamous incident is the Balfour Day riots, which took place in November 1945. They began as anti-Jewish demonstrations on the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but quickly turned into altercations in which five Egyptian Jews were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1948, the riots worsened. Hundreds were murdered, Jewish synagogues were burned down and Jewish areas in the country were bombed. Many Jews were jailed, often on suspicion that they had spied for Israel.
This is when Behar’s operation was set in motion. “Every day, officers arrested young Jewish people, and their families came to see me and enlist my help,” he wrote in his memoir.
‘Obliged to help the Jews’
In 1953 the Egpytian Republic was born, and gave rise to a national socialist president – Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt was finally freed from the British occupation, but the Jewish community only suffered from these developments. The Pan-Arabist movement continued to grow under Nasser, and Jews were seen as an obstacle to its goal: Uniting all Arab nations into a single state. By 1950, 40 percent of Egyptian Jews fled. “I felt morally obliged to help the Jews,” Behar told Haaretz.
He began to do so, using his close friendship with a high-ranking police officer named El Hamichari. Behar negotiated the release of imprisoned Jews through “gifts and bribes.” Dressed neatly and wearing a traditional fez, the young Behar easily entered and left Cairo’s police stations, where he was often mistaken for an officer thanks to his command of Egyptian Arabic.
The Jewish community continued to shrink. 14,000 Jews had escaped to Israel, while others sought refuge in different countries. Egypt’s chief rabbi also became a target. In his memoir, Behar wrote that in 1954 President Nasser sent Rabbi Nahoum Effendi a “poisoned invitation.”
To mobilize anti-Israel sentiment, Effendi was called on to give a speech publicly denouncing the Jewish state. The rabbi “prayed that he would be spared the ordeal,” Behar wrote, but was powerless to decline the invitation.
Behar decided to save the rabbi. He enlisted the help of a daring Jewish hospital manager, Dr. Bensimmon, who prescribed medication for the rabbi as well as “a very strict diet which made him actually unwell.” The national papers reported that Effendi was very ill and could not attend the event. Behar wrote about the chief rabbi’s gratitude. “May God keep you near me to have you by my side in difficult times,” he told Behar.
The prison escape
Behar continued his operations to aid the Jewish community in its plight, but eventually his luck ran out. Egyptian police caught him smuggling money out of the country for the chief rabbi’s son. As he waited for his trial, Behar wrote a letter to his wife Dorette and their four children. He begged them to flee Egypt immediately. After he was sentenced to six years of hard labor behind bars, Behar “decided to escape there and then.”
In his memoir, Behar wrote that he wore civilian clothing prior to his trial. Exploiting his attire and the prison’s shortage of guards, he made his big escape. “I went downstairs, I walked to the prison gates and just walked out of prison,” he recollected.
From there, Behar bolted to a Christian monastery where he sought cover with the help of a monk he befriended when the latter paid visits to the prison. Behar wrote that for 18 months he was on the run. “I shaved my moustache. I work dark glasses and started running in all directions, incognito, to find a way of escape. I would return to the monastery at night,” he wrote.
After close to two years at large, Behar acquired a false Lebanese identity card under the name Sami Refaat Abdul Hadi. His cover story was that he was Muslim businessman. “I knew Arabic perfectly well. No one would have suspected that I was Jewish,” Behar wrote. Later, he was aided by a high-ranking police officer named Captain Said Nached, who sheltered him in his home until he was finally able to board a flight to Damascus.
Longing for Egypt
In 1956, Behar moved on from Syria to Lebanon. He was able to seek shelter there because Beirut and Cairo were political enemies at the time – then-Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, a Christian Maronite, was seriously opposed to Nasser’s Pan Arabism.
As a political refugee, Behar resided in the magisterial mansion of the president’s secretary for several months. He also managed to obtain a Lebanese passport. “After being sheltered in a monastery, I was familiar with all the prayers and Christian traditions. I was very much in need of that in the circle I was mixing in at that time,” he related in the memoir.
Later, Baher was able to secure a visa from Switzerland and made his way to France, where his wife and sons were living. In 1958 he arrived in a northern suburb of Paris as an illegal refugee, where at long last he reunited with his family. “‘They are all here! In the twinkling of an eye, I had forgotten everything: Jail, my walkabout, my nightmares.”
Speaking to Haaretz decades after his fugitive journey ended, Behar teared up when he talked about Egypt. Asked how he felt about his exile from his native land, Behar responded: “I spent at least 25 years locked up inside myself because of leaving Egypt, my roots and identity. It took me that long to accept that I live in Europe.” Despite the many years he spent in France, Behar said that he still felt more “Egyptian and Arab than Jewish.”
Six months after our interview, Behar passed away in October 2017. He did not hear of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s surprising recent overture in which he offered to build synagogues in Egypt should members of the Jewish community choose to return. Behar himself only went back to Egypt once in 1980. In his memoir he wrote of a walk along Cairo’s Jewish quarter, where he found “the synagogue which had fallen to pieces… All I had was a blow to the heart.” He told Haaretz that his feeling was that he “returned as a tourist.”
Writing the memoir helped Behar accept his journey, but he remained ambivalent about his homeland until his death. His is a tale of triumph; it is also a story of bitterness and longing, which linger with may other Jews who were forced to flee their Middle Eastern homes a century ago.
Posted on January 11, 2018
Published for Jewish Renaissance Journal
After a 400-year vacuum, Judaism has reappeared on the Iberian Peninsula in unexpected ways. Spanish institutions have proudly united medieval Sephardi identity with a modern Spanish identity. Meanwhile, Catalan institutions recently asserted that their medieval Jewish communities had a separate Catalan identity.
In the 1990s the Spanish government revived an interest in Sephardi history and formed La Red de Juderias, a multi-million-euro Jewish tourism network. Spain’s Jewish archaeological sites were renovated and archives digitised to rediscover this unknown legacy. ‘Spanish’ and ‘Sephardi’ became interchangeable terms in the Red’s publications.
The pluralism of the medieval La Convivencia – an era of intellectual symbiosis between Muslims, Jews and Christians – was reimagined as being the foundation of Spain’s current progressive identity. The act of connecting modern Spain with the past was a precursor to the 2015 Law of Return for Sephardi Jews. The introduction of the law can be seen as an attempt to diversify Spain’s national image.
But which Spain? Medieval Spain was built by Jews, Muslims and Christians who coexisted under La Convivencia. The Catholic, Castilian Spain that followed, whose foundations support today’s nation, has little to do with this history. The Law of Return requires proof of the applicant’s ‘special connection’ to Spain through a Spanish language and culture test. Most Right of Return laws, such as those of Germany or Poland, do not require this.
Alfons Aragoneses, head of law at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, questions the historical accuracy of Spain’s identification with Sephardi Jews: “Spain did not exist before 1492, but the law supposes that the Sephardim were conscious of belonging to Spain and that they were always nostalgic for Spain. Spain did not exist until the 19th century!” At least, the Spain that formed after the 1492 union of the Castilian and Aragonese Crown did not exist when the Sephardim lived on the Peninsula.
Catalonia too has been weaving nationalistic threads into its Jewish past. Tessa Calders, the daughter of the renowned Republican exile Pere Calders, has been calling for the current interpretation of Jewish medieval history to be revised and the adapted version to be recognised in any representation of Jewish history. “The Jews were kicked out of Spain and lost memory of their Catalan identity. Now Spain has reinvented their past,” says Calders, who is a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of Barcelona. She believes the Jews living in northern Spain before the expulsion were not Sephardi but were Catalonian.
This pro-Catalan understanding of history has been embraced by Catalonia’s regional governments: in 2016, five municipalities split from the Red de Juderias to create a new tourism network, the Xarxa de Calls. Jusep Boya is the head of Museums for Catalonia and the manager of this new organisation. In his office off Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, he envisaged the new network as a vehicle for Catalonia’s reconnection with its Jewish history. “We cannot comprehend Catalonia without the Jewish culture which is attached to the very soul of Catalonia,” he said.
Pancracio Celdrán, a former professor of medieval history at Haifa University, disputes that there was a conscious 15th-century Catalan identity. “These medieval ‘Catalan Jewries’ were really the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon, not of Catalonia.” Others say that Catalonian nationhood only developed in the 19th century.
With only 40,000 Jews in Spain today, the groups who should have a platform to challenge these revisions of history have no representational power. Most of those involved in the departments for Jewish tourism in both governments are not Jewish and have little specialisation in the history of Jews living in Spain. The situation needs addressing: Spain was ranked the third most antisemitic country in Europe in a 2014 survey. Instead of politicising Sephardi identity for their own narratives, isn’t it time for both sides to let the Sephardim delineate their own ancestral past?