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From the German Yishuv to Berliner Strassen: The Yekke 85 Years Later

Guest Column

Photo for From the German Yishuv to

Star of David with a German flag background painted on the Berlin Wall (Photo courtesy of Sarah Johnson)

In her "Guest Column," History Department doctoral candidate Sarah Johnson compares German immigration to Pre-State Israel with the modern influx of Israelis into Berlin.

Though the Germans were a small portion of the Yishuv's growing population, the predominantly Eastern-European majority of the Yishuv was highly critical of German-Jewish immigrants of the Fifth Aliyah.

The number of Israelis living in Berlin has grown rapidly over the past decade, with around 10-15,000 living in Germany’s capital city as of March 2019.1 With its comparably low cost of living, many are moving to Berlin hoping to make a better living in creative fields such as art and music.2

Many Israelis moving to Germany are related to German immigrants to the Yishuv in the 1930s, whose status as refugees from Nazi Germany allows their descendants to reclaim the German citizenship that was taken away under the Nazis.

German Immigration to the Yishuv

In 1932, there were around 2,000 German Jews living in Palestine, and by 1935 that number had risen to over 25,000.3 Unlike earlier aliyot from Eastern Europe, the majority of these German Jews who came to Palestine after 1933 did so not because of Zionist conviction, but out of necessity.

While earlier waves of immigrants had participated in preparation programs in Germany – a process called Hachsharah – the majority of the middle-class German immigrants to Palestine in the 1930s underwent no such preparation, were largely unfamiliar with the Zionist movement itself, and had no prior knowledge of the Hebrew language.

Though the Germans were a small portion of the Yishuv’s growing population, the predominantly Eastern-European majority of the Yishuv was highly critical of German-Jewish immigrants of the Fifth Aliyah, particularly their lack of Hebrew-language skills. It was out of these critiques that the term Yekke developed during the early 1930s.

Yekkes in the Yishuv

Though the root of the word is unknown, it was primarily used by Jews of Eastern-European origins as a disparaging way to refer to a German Jew in the Yishuv as someone who did not fit in, did not speak Hebrew, acted awkwardly, and yet nevertheless insisted on wearing a shirt and tie.4

Despite these critiques, then-director of the Jerusalem office of the Jewish Agency’s Central Bureau for the Settlement of German Jews Arthur Ruppin was highly complimentary of German Jews’ ability to integrate into the Yishuv.

In the summer of 1935 Ruppin stated in an official report to the Zionist Congress that, due to his involvement with other earlier waves of immigration to Palestine, he could say from experience that no other group was able to integrate as well into the economic life of the Yishuv as the Germans.5

Despite this report however, German-Jewish immigrants rapidly gained a reputation for being ill-equipped for life in the Yishuv, and for being both unable and unwilling to integrate. The creation of separate institutions for German immigrants such as the Hitachdut Olei Germania (the Association for German Immigrants) and the Central Bureau were therefore mixed successes.

On the one hand, they provided valuable financial, social, and legal assistance for German Jews integrating into life in the Yishuv, and yet their programming often created spaces separate from the non- German-speaking Yishuv that encouraged German immigrants to associate primarily amongst themselves.

A Mock Trial

In May 1935, the Bialik Cultural Exhibition in Jerusalem held a mock trial of German Jews in Palestine. While there were many issues underlying the mock-prosecutor’s accusation that German Jews were refusing to put any effort into integrating into life in the Yishuv, the largest and most overt was that of German Jews’ perceived inability or outright refusal to learn Hebrew.

The defense refuted these claims, with the argument that not only had no other wave of immigration done as much to integrate as the Germans had, but that statistically, almost 40% of those living in Tel Aviv were enrolled in nightly Hebrew courses.6

While this mock-trial was significant for its debate over the extent to which German Jews were willing to integrate, what was perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that it also addressed the Yishuv’s own prejudice against the German immigrants.

Though the trial ended up placing blame on the Germans themselves, it also accused the rest of the Yishuv of not being open to and understanding of the difficulties new immigrants faced, and assigned them part of the responsibility for the difficulties Germans encountered.

This point is most clearly articulated in the defense’s argument pertaining to German Jews’ tendency to organize German- language cultural events such as lecture series and theatrical productions. While the mock-defense lawyer acknowledged that this separate programming was not ideal, he also blamed the earlier members of the Yishuv for not establishing those same cultural institutions in Hebrew in the first place.

The German immigrants, he argued, were used to a certain level of cultural engagement, and if Hebrew theater and schools were not available, it could not be surprising if they established their own.7

21st Century Migration

Eighty years after the term Yekke developed in the Yishuv, Israelis are establishing businesses and opening restaurants and bars in Berlin. While not all Israelis choose to become members of the Jewish community, with roughly 90% of Jewish community members in modern Germany coming from the former Soviet Union, the rising number of Israelis in Berlin is contributing to a demographic shift within the Jewish community itself.8

More than eighty years after the Hitachdut Olei Germania organized programming to help German Jews integrate into life in the Yishuv and to fight the stereotype of the Yekke, the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin sends out a bi-monthly German and Hebrew-language newsletter and organizes weekly meetings for Israelis aimed at helping them integrate and acclimate to life in Berlin.

Much like the German immigrants to the Yishuv in the 1930s, Israelis in Berlin are becoming economically and socially integrated while retaining elements of their own language and culture.

Sarah Johnson is a PhD student in Jewish History at UCLA. A recipient of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies' Graduate Student Research Fellowship, Johnson’s research focuses on modern German-Jewish institutional and cultural history. Her dissertation examines the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens’ institutional history from its establishment in 1893 to its forced dissolution in 1938 within the larger context of institutional culture during the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and Nazi Germany.

1 Daniel Estrin, “Thousands Of Israelis Now Call Berlin Home And Make Their Cultural Mark,” NPR March 7, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/03/07/700356426/thousands-of-israelis-now-call-berlin-home-and-make-their- cultural-mark.
2 Adi Hagin, “Why Are Israelis Moving to Germany?” Haaretz September 16, 2011,
https://www.haaretz.com/1.5177308, Orit Arfa, “How Can Israeli Cities Compete with Berlin?” The Jerusalem Post, January 20, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/In-Jerusalem/Learning-from-Berlin-537075, and Raniah Salloum, “Auf ins Pudding-Paradies!” Der Spiegel, October 11, 2014, https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/israel-und-berlin-auf- facebook-starten-pudding-proteste-a-996337.html.
3 Katharina Hoba: Generation im Übergang: Beheimatungsprozesse deutscher Juden in Israel (Cologne/Weimar:
Böhlau Verlag, 2016), 80.
4 Karl-Erich Grözinger: Sprache und Identität im Judentum, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998), 238.
5 Arthur Ruppin, “Einleitung,” in Bericht an den XIX. Zionistenkongress und an den Council der Jewish Agency for Palestine ed. Zentralbureau für die Ansiedlung deutscher Juden in Palästina (London, 1935), 6.
6 CZA: S7/121/“Ein Prozess gegen den deutschen Einwanderer,” Mitteilungsblatt der Hitachduth Olej Germania, May 1935.
7 Ibid.
8 Dmitrij Belkin, “Jüdische Kontingentflüchtlinge und Russlanddeutsche,” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, July 13, 2017, https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/kurzdossiers/252561/juedische-kontingentfluechtlinge- und-russlanddeutsche?p=all