Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Book Note: How to Accept German Reparations.
The review below will be published in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 37, February 2015.  I have permission to post it on my blog and one reason I am doing so is because Slyomovics ends her book, as I end this review, by advocating reparations to Palestinians for land and property they have lost to the state of Israel.  As I write this (July 22, 2014), Israel is again attacking Gaza. I have just signed an open letter from Canadian academics to our own government criticizing its one-sided support of Israel.  I wish I had something new and worthwhile to contribute to the on-going debate about Israel/Palestine, but I don’t. I would love to see one federal state in which both parties could live in peace, side by side, but that isn’t going to happen, at least any time soon. 

Susan Slyomovics- Wiki Commons
Susan Slyomovics, How to Accept German Reparations, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), ISBN  978-0-8122-4606-3, 373 pp.
This is an extremely personal book. Susan Slyomovics, an anthropologist of the Middle East, reveals her own Jewish family’s reactions to German reparations in order to analyze the meaning of reparations in the overall context of mourning for the dead.
Full disclosure requires me to say that I may have been more interested in this book than other potential readers because my Jewish family’s story intersected with Slyomovics’. Slyomovics’ father may well have met members of my extended family. He was able to come to Canada with his wife in 1948 because the government agreed to permit 500 furriers to immigrate, and he had trained as a furrier in Leipzig before the war. While in Leipzig, he might have met my great-uncle and my step-grandfather, both of whom were furriers. And he might have eaten in the last restaurant open to Jews, owned by a member of my extended family (later murdered).
But one does not need to have such a personal reaction to profit from reading Slyomovics’ brilliant analysis of the meaning of reparations. This is a book informed by deep thought and theoretical speculation, especially on the meaning of money and its connection to emotional relationships. Slyomovics’ mother and grandmother survived the concentration camps, but they had very different attitudes to reparations. Her grandmother took everything she could get, while her mother refused “blood money” until the twenty-first century, when she decided to accept reparations for slave labor. But she made sure that as soon as reparations funds arrived in her bank account, the money went out again, donated to various Jewish causes. Her own contribution to post-Holocaust reparations consisted of witnessing, as a frequent speaker at Canadian high schools. In particular, she visited the high school in Eckville, Alberta where James Keegstra, a notorious Holocaust denier, had taught history, blaming every great European tragedy on the Jews.
The German term for reparations to Jews and other victims of Nazism is Wiedergutmachung (making good again). A better term would be Wiedereinbischenbessermachung (“making things a bit better,” my own coinage in my high school German). Building on George Simmel’s analysis of money, Slyomovics argues that the “monetization of guilt” (p. 24) buys an element of social peace, in which money is exchanged for forgiveness. Referring to the German philosopher Axel Honneth, Slyomovics also argues that reparations function as a form of recognition, an awareness of the necessity for perpetrators to respond to the pain they caused and commit “acts of collective atonement” (p. 67) yet German reparations policy was fraught with emotional problems. In the early post-war period, many German officials took an adversarial approach to Jewish claimants for reparations. And for the claimants themselves, the necessity to tell their stories to German officials was often a form of re-traumatization.
Reparations money was an inadequate substitute for all the other ways in which Jews created and enacted “rituals of remembrance” (p. 182). Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many surviving Jews and their children and grandchildren have made pilgrimages to their places of origin. There, they have refurbished Jewish cemeteries and installed tombstones in memory of the dead, building “recreated cemeteries minus actual bodies” (p. 192). These rituals constitute what Slyomovics, following the literary critic Marianne Hirsch, calls “post-memory” for the children of survivors (p. 185). Archives are also an important aspect of coming to terms with the Holocaust, as children and grandchildren find small clues about their ancestors’ lives. The “archival sliver” (p. 118) provides a tiny window into the Holocaust as individuals Jews endured it.
How to accept German reparations-Wiki Commons
Slyomovics, originally a scholar of the Arab Middle East and an Arabic speaker, ends her book with two chapters on how reparations play out elsewhere. She first analyses Algerian Jewish claims for reparations from Germany. Algerian Jews were not deported and murdered, but they were interned, separately from interned Algerian Muslims. But the Algerian Jews did not view themselves first and foremost as Jews: they viewed themselves as French citizens who were eventually “repatriated” to France (a country they did not come from, being indigenous to the Middle East). And while they did eventually receive compensation for their internment, their Muslim (then)-compatriots did not, as Germany argued  that the Muslims had not been interned on racial grounds.
Discussion of Algeria leads Slyomovics to a wider analysis of settler colonialism, in which she asks “who counts as human?” (p. 235). She notes how careful Israel has been in the few contexts in which it has paid compensation to individual Palestinians to use the Hebrew word pitsuyyim, which means damages, instead of the word shilumin, meaning reparations (p. 254). She calls for “Jewish Israeli reparations to Palestinian Arabs, underpinned by the Palestinian right of return” (p. 269). I agree with her call for reparations, but I doubt very much that Palestinians will ever enjoy the right of return. This is precisely where the analogy between Jewish victims of the Holocaust and Palestinian victims of Zionism ends. Jewish victims of the Nazis (and their descendants) do not, for the most part, live in Europe; they successfully integrated into Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. Palestinians remain in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in several Middle Eastern countries where they are permanent refugees. As long as they are not full citizens anywhere, reparations will never compensate for their loss of land.
I have one quibble with Slyomovics’ analysis. She discusses the connection between German settler colonialism and the Holocaust, referring especially to the massacre of the Herero in South-West Africa (now Namibia) in 1904-07. Many scholars of genocide now refer to the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe as a form of colonialism. But to subsume the Holocaust under the rubric of colonialism is to ignore the far more complex causes of Nazi policies toward Jews. Nazis exterminated Jews in their Eastern European colonies; they did not treat other ethno-religious groups in the same manner. One cannot ignore two millennia of anti-Semitism as a cause of this extermination, even if the Nazis racialized what had earlier been religious prejudice. Nor should one ignore the economic, cultural and political crises in Germany from 1918 to 1933. There was no straight line from colonialism to the Holocaust: had there been one, Germany’s enemy, Britain, would also have been in the business of slaughtering Jews.
Otherwise, How to Accept German Reparations is a fascinating read, with insights on reparations, mourning and memory that far transcend the particular instance of the Holocaust. Anyone interested in these issues, no matter where they apply, should read this book.  


Friday, 18 July 2014

European Court of Human Rights Upholds French Burqa Ban

European Court of Human Rights Upholds French Burqa Ban
(Note: I have not posted any blogs for some time owing to illness. I am back now, and hope to resume posting blogs every week or two.)
Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in questions of multiculturalism, and how far any society should and can go to accommodate customs that seem detrimental to the life of the society as a whole. In general, my argument regarding Canada and some other Western countries is that so-called “multi”-culturalism is actually based on a unifying culture of small-l liberalism that tolerates a variety of customs in the private sphere, including practice of religions that are relatively new to the society concerned, such as Islam. I’m opposed to toleration of customs that undermine this fundamental liberalism.
European Court of Human Rights Building- Wiki Commons
Recently the European Court of Human Rights addressed the question of customs that might undermine not liberalism, but community life. The Court issued a Press Release on July 1, 2014 (ECHR 191, 2014, “French ban on the wearing in public of clothing designed to conceal one’s face does not breach the Convention”  http://www.west-info.eu/france-is-right-on-full-face-veil-says-the-european-court/grand-chamber-judgment-s-a-s-v-france-ban-on-wearing-in-public-clothing-concealing-ones-face/) This Press Release explained that the French government passed a law on 11 October, 2010, “prohibiting the concealment of one’s face in public places.” The applicant to the ECHR, opposing this law, was a French Muslim woman who wore both the burqa and the niqab, both of which covered her face, and wanted to be able to do so in public. She raised a number of human rights issues, which you can read about in the Press Release. 
I’m interested here in the French Government’s argument that the ban was necessary in order to promote “respect for the minimum requirements of life in society (or of ‘living together’),” to quote the Press Release. The Court accepted this argument. It agreed that “the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of ‘living together’.”  To further quote the press release:
[The Court] took into account the [French] state’s submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction. The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life…the Court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent [French] State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier.
I remember some years ago discussing an earlier decision of the European Court of Human Rights with a Dutch colleague. In that case, my colleague told me, the Court upheld a Swiss ban on public servants’ wearing the Muslim hijab, or scarf, which does not cover the face. In this instance, the public servant concerned was a teacher, and the Court, if I remember correctly, thought that she would be engaged in a form of proselytization of children. I thought this decision was ridiculous, and that it was better for children in a multicultural society to get used to meeting people with different customs, religions, and symbolic clothing. I still think that.
The case of a full-face ban, though, is slightly different. I agree with the ECHR’s judgment that it impedes communication in society. People do look at other people’s faces when they talk. Communication is certainly enhanced when you can see each other; there is a whole area of psychology, I believe, that investigates how it is that most of us can identify hundreds of different faces and read the expressions on them. Face-to-face communication (“face time” in contemporary parlance) results in far fewer misunderstandings than telephone conversations or email. But I’m not sure that this is so important that there should be a law forcing people who don’t want to, to reveal their faces.    
There would be a problem with this ruling if it applied to Canada. The French law bans full-face coverings of any kind, including helmets (when not worn on motorcycles), and balaclavas.  Balaclavas are full-face coverings that leave holes for the eyes, nostrils, and mouth.  You see people wearing them in winter in Canada when it is really cold.  People also go around in scarves that cover their nose and mouth, while their hats are pulled down over their foreheads, leaving only the eyes visible. I’m not sure how communication is affected by this practice, since people generally take their balaclavas and scarves off when they are indoors, and don’t stop to chat much on the street when it’s so cold, nor do they spend much time in outdoor caf├ęs!   
On the other hand, I don’t like it much when I see women on the street in summer all bundled up in black garments while their husbands walk freely in pants and short-sleeved shirts. I wish those women did not feel obliged to cover themselves quite so much. And I wish there were no women on the street with their faces covered. This lack of equality in dress offends my feminist sensibilities. But the question regarding “living together” is whether the problem is really with anyone covering their faces, or that it’s Muslim women covering their faces. Muslim women whose faces are covered might still be capable of “open interpersonal relationships.” 
And in any event, community is a loose term. In immigrant societies like Canada, it’s quite common for people from the same part of the world to live in the same neighborhoods. Except for work and official matters, they tend to “live together” with their own kind. Their children may move out of the neighborhood and marry outside the community, and “live together” with a variety of other folk, but this is a process of choice, not one dictated by law.