I’ve been following the story of this Berlin museum exhibit that puts various Jews into a box so visitors can ask them questions. And, unsurprisingly, I don’t like the concept.
The short version is that it seems on the one hand zoological and on the other hand reductionist. In other words, it seems to suggest that Jewish people can be put on display like chimpanzees so we can learn about them in a more comfortable environment for us and also that we can reduce what being Jewish means down to whatever these people’s idiosyncratic answers might be to the questions of curious museum patrons.
I find both of these notions obviously wrong-headed.
I don’t, however, think it’s wrong-headed that Germans should learn more about Jews or that they might benefit from interacting with a people that their forebears attempted to obliterate. I just think the mechanism is radically flawed … unless it’s meant ironically, to hold a mirror up to Germans and say something to them about the lack of Jews with whom they might interact. But isn’t that point already so obvious?
I should also say that I was a Jew (with a very Jewish name) who lived in Berlin for three months on a research fellowship in 2006, and who visited Berlin for at least another few months (to attend conferences and workshops for a week at a time, broken up over the course of about three years). Virtually no one with whom I interacted was Jewish and at no time did I feel like some sort of curiosity or that my (obvious, I think) Judaism was something about which Germans felt uncomfortable. Admittedly, the people with whom I regularly interacted were academics and, most of them, specifically were interested in the academic study of human rights. So there’s surely some self-selection going on with that group. But, still, walking around in Berlin, traveling in Germany, and speaking with Germans throughout the course of my day (at coffee shops, restaurants, and the like) never felt awkward in the way that this exhibit suggests it ought to have felt (and as some of the Jews who have written about sitting in the box claim to feel).