Even before it was officially announced that Russian-born Kirill Petrenko was appointed to take over in 2018 from Sir Simon Rattle as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s Jewishness became a hot issue in Germany.
His very candidacy sufficed to bring to the fore supposedly extinct Judeophobic maliciousness. It most likely lurked all along behind the veneered semblance of impeccable decorum.
In her commentary for Northern German Radio [NDR], Sabine Lange described Petrenko in the Wagnerian idiom as “the tiny gnome, the Jewish caricature.”
She contrasted Jewish grotesqueness with “the world-renowned German-sound expertise” of Petrenko’s rival, Christian Thielemann. Echoing yesteryear’s Der Stürmer themes, it was Jewish freakiness versus German worthiness.
Eventually this comment disappeared from the web. NDR later came out with contentions that nothing anti-Semitic could possibly have been read into Lange’s copy. Ultimately though, NDR’s cultural programming director did admit that Lange’s comment should never have passed under the editorial radar.
Apparently harking back to stereotypes of exploitative and lecherous Jews, Die Welt Online resorted to sexual innuendo when it broadly hinted at what “at least one of the female opera singers at this year’s Bayreuth Festival can attest.”
Petrenko has meanwhile announced that he will not grant interviews to the German media in the wake of these anti-Semitic slurs.
The fact remains that no one saw it amiss to write such texts or to feature them. Tentative embarrassment came only in retrospect and that too after a stirring defense of the comments. If anything, this points to an altered reality – what was once taboo in Germany, no longer is.
Already years ago, Shimon Stein, Israel’s former ambassador to Berlin, discerned “consistent erosion” in how Israel is perceived among the progeny of the Holocaust’s perpetrators. Increasingly, he stressed, “Israel is depicted as diabolically evil,” while German governments increasingly acquiesce to EU censure of Israel.
Memories of made-in-Germany genocide no longer suffice to underwrite a “special relationship” with the state the Jewish remnant established. Stein noted that for some elements in German society “Israel’s existence is hardly self-evident.”
Today’s Germans openly carp about “Jewish extortion” and couple that with what they define as the Jewish state’s imperialistic sins. In numerous public opinion surveys the majority of Germans reject any obligation to Jews – either individually or collectively.
This is so throughout Europe where the vogue, nevertheless, is to deny even latent anti-Jewish sentiments. These denials are made with as much fervor as is spent on pillorying Israel for the villainy that Europe avidly ascribes to the Jewish state.
The notion that Europe hasn’t rid itself of its pernicious ancient hate generates reactions of indignant scorn. The corollary suggestion that European anti-Semitism isn’t only rearing its ugly head again but actually grows by leaps and bounds is altogether met with near-hysterical righteous resentment.
This is nowhere more so than in Germany – smug and intolerant of reminders of its past. Apart from scant obligatory lip-service from its leaders, the German mainstream is “fed up” with Jewish annoyances. From its point of view, the slate is wiped clean and Germans have no cause to be apologetic in any sense.
No one in the German political hierarchy much bothers anymore to remonstrate against pro-Arab demonstrators who shout “Jews to the gas” (as in an Essen rally last summer, replete with Nazi salutes). This is either blamed on Muslims (who presumably are not bound by the same codes as the rest of society) or on ruffians who are painted as the unrepresentative dregs of society.
But those who chose to target Petrenko’s Jewishness come from the urbane cultural elite, from the refined ranks of those who presumably know better. The Petrenko case exposed the nasty dark underside which belies the spic-and-span German façade.
That is particular cause for concern, unsurprising though it is to anyone who follows the changes in German attitudes both to Jews in general and to the Jewish state in particular. The two go together and are indeed inseparable. The perception of Israel is tinged with precisely the same bigotry as evinced toward individual Jews like Petrenko.