An Act of Dissimilation: On Max Czollek’s “De-integrate!”

By David N. MyersJuly 10, 2023

An Act of Dissimilation: On Max Czollek’s “De-integrate!”

De-integrate! A Jewish Survival Guide for the 21st Century by Max Czollek

I ONCE HAD an unforgettable conversation with a German colleague and a friend of his at a dinner following a lecture I gave in Leipzig in 2007. My dinner partners were born to Eastern European Jews who escaped the Nazi onslaught by moving to Central Asia during the Second World War. After the war, their parents, along with hundreds of thousands of stateless Jews, made their way to Germany as displaced persons. They lived there in a constant state of temporariness, anxiously awaiting a visa from distant relatives in the United States. It is a similar state of unbelonging that millions of Turkish and Syrian immigrants have experienced in Germany over the past half-century.

For most postwar Jewish displaced persons, the visa never arrived, and they ended up staying in Germany. Their children, including my colleague and his friend, grew up with a perpetual sense of confusion and alienation, never feeling themselves German—always Jews who, by dint of ill-fated circumstance, lived in Germany after the Holocaust.

Following high school, my colleague and his friend went to the University of Frankfurt in the 1960s, one of the key sites of student activism in Europe during that period. The schizophrenia of their existence continued there, in the frenzied days of 1968 and thereafter, as they immersed themselves in radical socialist and Jewish politics. The two realms of activity sometimes but not always overlapped. As radical activists, my dinner partners joined in withering critiques of the forces of capitalist oppression, sometimes directed—discomfitingly—against members of the Frankfurt Jewish community who belonged to their own parents’ circle of friends. As leaders of the Jewish student organization in Germany, they danced a delicate pas de deux, distancing themselves from the older generation of survivors and refugees while standing ever vigilant against a descent into antisemitism by their fellow German students.

Caught in what seemed like an impossible maze of dead ends, the two younger German Jews escaped the trap by moving to Israel, which they felt was the only place they could live openly as Jews. Their decision calls to mind what 16th-century crypto-Jews in Spain and Portugal did by fleeing the perpetual Inquisitorial threat for places as near as Italy, Belgium, or the Netherlands, and as far away as Turkey. But in a final twist, my two friends did not become poster children for the Israeli hasbara (propaganda) project as contented new arrivals, still intoxicated by the post–1967 War euphoria; rather, they immediately made their way to the radical socialist group Matzpen (Compass), founded in 1962, which, by its own self-definition,

viewed Zionism as a colonizing project, and strove for Arab-Jewish coexistence based on full equality; supported implementation of the Palestinians’ human and national rights, and called for solving the region’s national and social problems through revolutionary struggle for a united socialist Arab East.

The two friends’ sense of tension and complexity remained with them after they left the country—testament to the inescapability of the German Problem for its Jews. One might reasonably assume that this complex has mitigated over the past half-century, as the next generation of Jews settles more naturally in Germany—at an increasing remove from the psychic wound of the Shoah. But Max Czollek comes to tell us, in his 2018 book De-Integrate! A Jewish Survival Guide for the 21st Century (newly available from Restless Books in an English translation by Jon Cho-Polizzi), that this is emphatically not the case. A young German author of Jewish origin, Czollek argues that the efforts of the German state to achieve a state of reconciliation with its past impel a certain image of Jews—as one-dimensional cutouts anxious and willing to forgive and forget what their forebears underwent.

Czollek pushes back against this imposition and the accompanying supposition that it is the most pliant Jews playing along with the system who are most valued. This means that they assume their proper places within the sacred triangle that anchors the German Jewish entente: the Holocaust, Israel, and antisemitism. Czollek, for his part, refuses to play along, and his badass attitude has brought down on him the harsh light of critical scrutiny and controversy. Indeed, he has been attacked by German Jewish contemporaries for misstating his own Jewish past—for masquerading as a bold new Jewish voice while claiming that his mother and father are Jewish, when in fact it was his grandfather who qualified as Jewish according to the traditional criterion of being born to a Jewish mother. The nasty intra-Jewish contretemps centered on who is authentically Jewish and thus has legitimacy to speak as a Jewish voice in the public sphere. In many ways, the question of who is a Jew according to halakhah (Jewish law)—as opposed to who is a Vaterjude (by patrilineal descent) or even has a Jewish grandparent (the standard of the Nuremberg Laws)—affirms Czollek’s point about the conformist role that Jews are expected to play in Germany. Although the large majority of German Jews are nonobservant, the definition of Jewishness promoted by the Jewish communal establishment (known as the Zentralrat), which is recognized by the state, holds tremendous sway.

It is this conformism that so triggers Czollek. Society imposes the demand that Jews “fulfill a function as ‘the Jews for the German’” (my emphasis). This means that they should serve as “pure and goodly victims,” willing to accept that Nazis were Nazis and today’s Germans are a different and better breed. It also means participating in the intricate “Theater of Memory” that was set in place in Germany after the war. Czollek borrows this term from the German Jewish sociologist Y. Michal Bodemann, who introduced it in a 1996 book of that name. Accordingly, there is a prescribed “Jewish role in a script titled The Good Germans.” Jews affirm that Germans have moved past the heinous criminal past of their parents and grandparents to a state of redemption; in return, Germany makes support for the state of Israel, as former chancellor Angela Merkel declared, its Staatsräson, the very reason for its existence. Czollek fastens onto the slippage in logic in this postwar social compact by noting that Germany compensates its Jews by lavishing affection on a political entity several thousand miles away. Israel’s well-being is proof of the ongoing beneficence of Germany. But true to form, only one view of Israel and its government is permitted; criticism of its policies is not acceptable political discourse. As an example, the Bundestag, the German parliament, passed a resolution in 2019 that condemned BDS, the movement that calls for a strategy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions directed at Israel. The resolution raised the gravest of alarms by asserting that “[t]he pattern of argument and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic.”

This, according to Czollek, is the work of the Good Germany. Its support of Israel is a legacy of its postwar responsibility, as well as of its commitment to stand firm against antisemitism. But who benefits? Czollek suggests that the beneficiary is the idealized Good Jew who conforms to expectations generated by the state and the Jewish community establishment. It is not Jews such as himself who defy these expectations—who refuse to submit to the legal definition of Jewishness, to the role of grateful victims, to the political taboo on criticizing Israel, or even to the belief that Israel is a central part of their identity.

There is clearly a powerful generational dimension to this line of argument. Czollek, whose parents were from East Germany, was raised in the world that followed unification in 1990. That world has brought a unified Germany enormous power, prosperity, and prestige—and even, in 2006, a World Cup in soccer that allowed Germans, for the first time in decades, to take pride in national symbols such as the flag.

But unification also brought disruption and alienation, especially from Germans from the East who felt left behind by their richer neighbors in the West. Moreover, many immigrants to Germany and their children—more than 17 percent of the population—have not felt fully welcome in the country, at once being deemed less-desirable residents and failures in integrating properly into German society. Indeed, while previous generations of Germans encouraged and even demanded their integration, immigrants and their children in Germany now confront a frightful mix of far-right, fascist, and neo-Nazi forces that have made their way into the heart of Germany’s political and military systems and who call for the immigrants’ exclusion.

Czollek offers the latter a recommendation: de-integrate! Germans from immigrant backgrounds, especially from Muslim countries, should reject the demand to integrate. So too Jews, who number about 200,000 residents today, should cease performing their part in the kitsch-filled Theater of Memory that Germany has imposed on them. They should recognize that they are not pliable objects nor culturally uniform but a diverse group that includes immigrants from Russia, Israel, Iraq, Ethiopia, and the United States, among other places. The goal need not be messianic, Czollek suggests: “The promise of de-integration is not redemption, but a greater degree of self-determination.”

There is an interesting history to the idea of de-integration in Germany that extends back well before the Holocaust. A little over 100 years ago, a young Jewish scholar from Kassel who had earlier considered converting to Christianity met up with vibrant Eastern European Jewish communities while serving as a soldier on the Eastern Front in the First World War. The scholar, Franz Rosenzweig, was so moved by his encounter with decidedly different Jews that he decided to dedicate his life in 1917 to the cultural revival of German Jews. Scholars have referred to Rosenzweig’s reversal of course as an act of “dissimilation,” as he escaped the powerful vortex pulling him into the German cultural mainstream.

This quest recurs throughout German Jewish history. In a different time and place, the friends I met in Leipzig in 2007 also sought to de-integrate—and to resolve their perpetually ambivalent status in Germany—by emigrating to Israel. But what does de-integration look like today? Czollek’s book is far more a critique of the status quo than a detailed program for de-integration. To the extent that there is a vision, it rests on upending the current hierarchy of affects. Instead of a deferential and respectful attitude toward the state, Czollek favors a stance of resistance, nurtured by a healthy dose of revenge toward Germans—past as well as present. In this project, he seeks to impart agency not only to Jews but also to Muslims in opting out of the suffocating German cultural consensus.

Jews and Muslims are natural allies in fighting against the hegemony of the conformist German state and the romantic Judeo-Christian agenda it seeks to promote—in which, of course, there is no room for Muslims. But neither is there room, Czollek concludes, for Jews to express their cultural difference. His De-integrate! offers an interesting, polemical update on an older story—that of the quest for a harmonious German Jewish equilibrium that has so repeatedly failed to be realized. Aiming his sharply critical eye at its most recent manifestation, Czollek argues that it should be abandoned once and for all.


David N. Myers is a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, where he holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History. He is the author, with Nomi Stolzenberg, of American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York (2022).

LARB Contributor

David N. Myers teaches history at UCLA, where he holds the Kahn Chair in Jewish History. He is the author and editor of numerous books including American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York (with Nomi M. Stolzenberg). 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!