This past fall I was the graduate assistant for a women’s studies program in Europe. Of the twenty students on the program, seven of us were Jewish. Odd as it now seems to me, it actually had not crossed my mind that my Judaism — or that different sensitivities around the issue of anti-Semitism — might become a source of tension for the group.
In my naivete, I was simply enthralled by the prospect of spending three full months solely in the company of other feminists; it would be, I imagined, Utopia. And though I had thought a lot about the issues that might be confronting the one Black woman and the lesbians in our group, the truth is I hadn’t thought much about what might segregate us out as Jews. So it was almost entirely without warning that issues of Judaism and anti-Semitism irreconcilably split us apart. And for the first time in my life, I felt a real and painful conflict between my Judaism and my feminism.
It was during our three weeks in Germany, of course, that all of this came to a head. Now that I think of it, actually we got a foreshadowing of our “otherness” during our orientation in a convent in the Netherlands. There were crucifixes over our beds, but none of us Jewish women discussed our discomfort with this — even though one of us surreptitiously removed her crucifix and stuck it in a bottom drawer.
In a sense then, the trip started off with unexamined issues and biases. As opposed to the other countries we visited — the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and Great Britain — Germany was a place that those of us who were Jewish had been taught to fear on some level from a very young age. I remember, for example, as a ten-year-old traveling through Germany — not to visit it, God forbid, just to get to the other side — that my father refused to stop and buy gas; he didn’t want to put money into the German economy.
Another Jewish woman on the program told us how her father balked when she had to fill out a passport form for Germany that asked her religion. “Put non-denominational,” he counselled. He also told her not to wear her Jewish star necklace while in Germany. But not until I actually set foot in Germany as an adult did I realize that I’d internalized these concerns. I felt an odd, irrational kind of fear . . . as if I myself were in danger German passport police on the trains made me jump. On the other hand, my feminist activism had taught me not to give in to these feelings: Ask questions! Speak out! By refusing to be silent we conquer oppression. Of this I felt assured.
At our first stop at a feminist therapy center in Munich, I found myself asking German feminists about their outreach to Jewish women. I was utterly surprised by my own question and by how much my heart was pounding as I asked it. As the German therapists uncomfortably mumbled something about how there aren’t many Jews left in Germany many of the Christian women in our program looked around, ill-at-ease.
At a group meeting the next day, some of the Christian women felt strongly that our questions had been unacceptable. “We’re their guests” one woman said. “Be polite. Don’t put the Germans in an uncomfortable position.” We were distressed by this advice. I flashed to scenes of the Holocaust, as if it were visibly still going on, being told by other women “don’t ask questions.” Here we were in Germany, twenty feminists, and believe me we were asking a lot of questions: What about Black women? What about lesbian women? What about poor women? What about foreign women . . . ? Hey why weren’t Jewish women on the agenda?
There was a sense that with the Holocaust over, so too was anti-Semitism. This was the first time I began to sense that the Jewish women on the program had come to Germany with something of a distinct set of issues. We had to ask German women these questions. It was not a matter of making the Germans uncomfortable, but of challenging our own invisibility and the silences surrounding our history in this country.
By the time it came round to visiting Dachau concentration camp, I approached the other Jewish women on the program about our going separately from the Christians in the group. I felt that being with other Jews would allow me to be myself emotionally without inhibition. Three other Jewish women chose to go with me, three did not. We pinned yellow Jewish stars to our sweaters, but they were very small stars — such was our discomfort and confusion! I felt very strange wearing a Jewish star — I had never worn one at home. I felt suddenly for the first time reactively as opposed to actively Jewish.
That evening, after everybody had visited Dachau, we had a group meeting which was explosive. It was as if the Jewish women and the Christian women had spent the day at two entirely different sites: What the Jews saw was this huge, horribly incongruous crucifix in the middle of the camp. We saw a church to the left of the crucifix and a convent of nuns living on the grounds of the camp. We angrily held up the Dachau tourist brochure given out at the front gates, quoting from it: “Whether you seek relaxation in art or prefer active recreation in the magnificent outdoor swimming pool, Dachau will always suit you.”
We felt betrayed. We had expected it to be a sharp reminder of what had happened to our ancestors, but it had an almost complete lack of Jewish symbols. The monuments read blandly “to those who were executed here.” But our indignation was met with silence and puzzlement. What the non-Jews had experienced was catharsis, a chance to understand and sympathize with our persecution. Besides, they pointed out to us Jews, many other people besides Jews were killed at the camp, “Why do you insist so much on recognition of your loss?”
By the next day it was clear that many of the non-Jewish women felt that we Jews had overreacted, that our anger had made us “unapproachable.” They felt unfairly criticized; unsure of how to support us; that we were asking too much of them. We, in turn, felt distinctly “other.” We began to function as an out group. And suddenly I felt scared. Were they right? Was I oversensitive? I felt afraid of people being angry at me. If I estrange myself from a feminist group, who else is there to turn to? Where does it leave me?
I felt frightened, also, by my own anger It was as if I left on the program wearing a woman’s symbol and returned with it broken — and in its place a Jewish star But there is a difference, for me, between the women’s symbol and the star The women’s symbol had been an affirmation: “I love women! I want to celebrate women!” But the Jewish star… I’m not sure. I came into my Judaism in a different way, and I’m still not sure what it means to me to wear it.
I would like to end this article by saying that we worked everything out, that at the end of the program we resolved our differences and shared that feminist solidarity I was so looking forward to. But I cannot write this because it isn’t true. We left each other with scars. Really big ones.
Alice Ginsberg is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn who specializes in feminist topics.