This is a story of political correctness run amok, and possibly also about the volatile friction that exists between the freewheeling Israeli character and tight-ass German culture.
About three years ago, Doron Hamburger and Amir Naaman, two 34-year-old Israelis living in Berlin, decided to open a bookstore in the heart of Neukoelln, a fashionable and politically radical neighborhood in the German capital.
Although “Topics,” as the store was called, was chosen by Luxe City Guides as one of the 12 most beautiful bookshops in the world, it wasn’t a great economic success. When I visited two years ago, to say hello to Naaman, an old friend, I was one of the only customers in the store. Hamburger, a scion of the wealthy family that founded what is now the Harel insurance company, which manages my pension fund, admits that at a certain point, he stopped looking at the shop’s balance sheet. He didn’t want the negative cash flow to spoil his mood.
One of the basic flaws in the store’s concept was that it only sold books in English. Topics offered no books in German, which remains the most popular language in Berlin. You could say that the store itself was more a charming work of literature than a regular business. Socially, it can be seen as part of the choice of many Berlin residents to disengage from their German surroundings, for which our heroes would pay dearly.
A good deal of Topic’s income came from the events held in it. Naaman, a poet and writer with very distinctive cultural tastes – bizarre and dark – curated a series of lectures on esoteric mysticism and magic, which drew surprisingly large crowds. On some evenings a long (and polite) line filled the street, fashionable Weserstrasse. The speakers were not button-down professors who arrived by taxi from a long way off, but the sometimes eccentric intellectuals who lived in the neighborhood and took an interest in these obscure subjects.
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One of the regular speakers was a Jewish-American researcher of mysticism named Daniel Miller, who writes under the pen name of DC Miller. “We collected all kinds of weirdos,” Naaman says. “People who delve into the occult aren’t the most normative types. All the nuts came to sit and talk in the store – nice guys.”
Bibi-loving punk people
In February 2017, after The New York Times reported that Steve Bannon, who at the time was Donald Trump’s ideological guru, mentioned in passing the name of the fascist mystic Julius Evola – that dreadful and fascinating figure seemed to Naaman to be a fitting topic for the lecture series. Evola, an Italian (1898-1974), opposed democracy, American individualism and the Catholic Church, and called for a return to pre-Christian Roman paganism. He tried his hand at sorcery and Buddhism, he disturbed ghosts, was a precursor of the current yoga and tantric culture, espoused rape as a masculine act and wrote an introduction to an Italian edition of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (though he objected to Hitler’s approach to the Jews, whom he claimed could be Aryans).
The Mussolini regime was influenced by the thinking of this delightful fellow, and these days his writings are a beacon for fascist and anti-Semitic movements everywhere, from the Golden Dawn in Greece to Jobbik in Hungary as well as white supremacists in the United States, not to mention Putin’s worrisome adviser Aleksandr Dugin. In a 1951 trial on charges of leading a revival of fascism, Evola declared that he was opposed to Mussolini’s brand of fascism, which he found simplistic and soft, and he categorized himself as a super-fascist and supporter of “spiritual racism.” He was acquitted.
Miller was a natural choice as a speaker on the topic, as he’d written an academic paper about Evola. Naaman and Hamburger admit that they were not familiar with Evola – the man who effectively emerged from his grave to annihilate their store – and that even to this day they haven’t taken the trouble to read any of his works. In any event, the talk seemed as if it would be no different from its predecessors. During the first nine days after the event was mentioned on the store’s Facebook page, no one responded at all; afterward, a handful of people said they were coming. For people who aren’t into Italian fascism or enamored of sorcery, the name Evola isn’t very evocative.
The talk might have come and gone without a furor – or as it was referred to in the German press, a “shit storm” – had it not been for the speaker’s behavior. A few days before he was scheduled to appear at Topics, Miller chose to stage a one-person protest in London against demonstrators from Antifa, the anti-fascist organization. They were up in arms against a gallery called LD50, which was hosting an exhibition of alt-right memes, such as Pepe the Frog, a symbol of the new fascism. (One of the fans of such memes in Israel is the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu.) In a video from his demonstration available on the web, Miller looks quite pathetic as he holds a small cardboard sign asserting, “The right to openly discuss ideas must be defended,” and tries to elude demonstrators who are out to grab the sign and to push him away.
Miller has taken for his motto the saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” According to Hamburger, “Miller is an eccentric guy, a weird type like me and like Amir. He volunteered for a year in Haiti after the disaster [the 2010 earthquake], and he learned voodoo. To accuse him of racism or even classify him as right wing is pretty ridiculous.”
Antifa believes, however, that in the face of fascism you have to take the gloves off and display aggressiveness. That approach is sometimes right, or at least useful – Antifa has mounted important struggles – but the fusion of aggression and hysteria that characterizes our era can also lead to embarrassing phenomena such as the “Topics incident.”
The members of Antifa in London, who were furious at the wacko who tried to sabotage their protest there, started to keep tabs on Miller, and were vindicated: They discovered that he was going to speak about a fascist thinker in Berlin. Putting two and two together, they assumed that Topics, which was giving Miller a platform, was a fascist bookstore. The store’s owners started to receive threats and demands to cancel the event, otherwise the store’s windows would be smashed. As almost all the opponents came from fictitious profiles and did not provide facial photographs, it’s possible that a slew of militant leftists really did endanger the store, but also that one or two surfers from London created a slew of figures, or even that the threats came from opponents of Antifa who wanted to besmirch the movement. It’s hard to know in these out-of-kilter times.
Even a punctilious observer of the rules of political correctness would acknowledge that it’s permissible for someone to express himself in a way that is in contravention to polite rhetoric when talking with member of his own group. A black person can say use the otherwise verboten term “nigger” to his heart’s content; a Jew who gives a lecture about a 1920s fascist might even be amusing (if we assume that anything in Germany can be amusing). As with pornography, it’s a question of context and effect.
Naaman describe himself as a bourgeois leftist who votes Meretz; Hamburger went on a hunger strike as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces during the second intifada. It should have been clear that it was not their intention to resurrect Mussolini.
But Hamburger and Naaman are also persistent opponents of identity politics. They refused to play the Jewish card until very late in the sequence of events. And if there’s one thing I have learned about the critics’ circle in my life, it’s that it includes a surprising number of people who lack basic critical tools: Left-wingers from the Neukoelln neighborhood did not examine in depth the rumor that they had a radical right-wing bookstore in their midst, nor did they grasp the intent of the event. Some of them even belong to a left-wing movement called Anti-Deutsch, which admires Israel and Zionism to the extent that its members will not abide criticism of either. In the atmosphere of rage that followed President Trump’s swearing-in early last year, many in the neighborhood accepted unquestioningly the report that the innocent-looking bookstore was actually a secret recruiting center for Nazism.
“People started to write abuse and threats,” says Hamburger, the fear still tangible in his voice more than a year after the events. “They wrote, ‘Don’t you dare, we will slash tongues, we will disrupt the event.’ The discourse was extremely violent. They said we were trying to make a thinker with unacceptable views trendy.”
‘It hurt to be called a fascist. In Israel, when I’m called an Arab-loving leftist, I can deal. But a Nazi? Are they out of their minds?’
Still, Hamburger thought the assault would blow over. Instead of canceling the event, he decided to wait, while he tried to rebuff the attacks by engaging the opponents in dialogue and hoped that the objections would fade. As for Miller, Hamburger relates, he enjoyed the whole situation and teased the objectors. Miller himself refused to be interviewed for this article and called me a “jerk” – I didn’t pursue the question of why.
‘Powerful and misunderstood’
The owners of Topics acknowledge that they made mistakes. The initial Facebook invitation described the fascist Evola as a “powerful and misunderstood figure.” Hamburger admits that he didn’t edit Miller’s text, but the flames did not die down even when the post was corrected, so as to make it clear that the lecture would not be admiring, and Hamburger apologized. By then it was war. The protesters demanded the event’s cancellation. “Many people with fictitious names started to share the event,” says Hamburger, “and termed us a fascist bookstore that was disseminating fascist propaganda in the heart of the migrants’ area in Berlin. A rumor spread that we were a recruitment center for Nazism and the alt-right.”
An Englishman who lives in Berlin and was one of the first to object to Miller’s talk sent me a reasoned essay elucidating his position, on condition of anonymity. In his view, the problem lay not with the lecture about Evola as such, but with the choice of Miller to deliver it, considering his previous demonstration in favor of the London gallery, and also with the way Evola was described in the original Facebook post. He himself does not think that either the Topics staff or Miller are fascists, is sorry the store closed and condemns the threats.
“It is my belief,” he stated, in part, “that public institutions such as schools, universities, clubs and privately owned establishments etc. should be free to host discussions about figures such as Julius Evola, but that it is imperative that these events are guided by an explicitly educative purpose and are untainted by any malign purpose. Unfortunately, the event that was planned at Topics last year did not appear to be of that order.” In addition to the reference to Evola as “powerful and misunderstood,” the Englishman also noted that the invitation featured alt-right iconography.
“Having canceled the event,” he continues, “Topics allowed Miller to publish his speech notes on Facebook, in which, despite prefacing his remarks by expressing his mistrust of Evola’s politics, he concluded that the man who aspired to be Mussolini’s state philosopher was a ‘Platonic anti-racist.’ Berlin has, I observed, two world-class universities, and [the organizers] could have found a better lecturer from one of them. What they [the Topics owners] failed to recognize is that the people criticizing them were not just [outside] protesters but local residents and potential customers.”
It’s worth noting that the Evola furor was preceded by other friction between neighborhood residents and the book shop. Neighbors sometimes emerged tearfully from the intellectual conversations in Topics. Some were outraged that one of the shelves in the store was labeled “fascist literature.” Alongside known fascist writers, the staff placed books by Plato, Robert Heinlein and Gertrude Stein on the shelf. Some customers took pictures of the shelf and railed on Facebook against the sale of fascist propaganda in the heart of Berlin.
“Are you kidding?” Hamburger says. “You know, we didn’t sell any books that you won’t find in other stores; we only labeled them differently. Something basic in the store aroused antagonism in the neighborhood, bothered people. I lost my German best friend because of the section on black literature, which included literature written by blacks, containing black characters and for black readers. People said, ‘How do you dare to label literature “black”?’ Blacks, by the way, had no trouble with that and would immediately head to that section.”
A few months earlier, a similar flare-up had been narrowly avoided. Topics had scheduled a talk about the fascist messages in the “Star Wars” films. The speaker had already been pegged as a fascist because he was an art critic for a right-wing newspaper. “He too was tagged by Antifa,” Hamburger relates. “When he saw that we were getting threats, he told us, ‘Cancel the event, I don’t want to hurt your store.’”
But Hamburger was apparently eager to put his hand close to the flame and test the boundaries. On January 1, 2017, when it became legal to publish “Mein Kampf” in Germany, he scheduled a discussion on copyright in the wake of the book (which the state of Bavaria had kept out of print as long as it owned the copyright) and tried to stock it in the store. “People also asked then why we should have anything to do with this book in an immigrant neighborhood. It’s not my kind of book, but it’s an ironclad icon of German culture. We were slammed for that.” The event was finally canceled for technical reasons.
Fascism and cooking
Two doors down from Topics is the K-Fetisch café, the unofficial activist center of Antifa and Anti-Deutsch in Neukoelln. It’s the neighborhood’s living spirit, if one can use that term for such a gloomy place. Not long before the Topics affair, the café was the target of attempted arson, which Hamburger describes as “someone with a lighter who burned a small part of an outside blind.”
“They made a big deal out of it, but out of solidarity we supported them,” Hamburger recalls. “K-Fetisch is managed by a commune, advocates censorship and is very occupied with which books can or cannot enter. The spirit of the neighborhood is K-Fetisch, it’s the Café Rowal of Neukolln,” he says, referring to an iconic Tel Aviv institution that closed down long ago.
“At the entrance to the café there’s a large sign: ‘If you’re a sexist and a racist – leave.’ They are the antithesis to Topics – with us everything was allowed in: high and low culture, fascist and antifascist culture, Marxism. And cookbooks, too. During the affair we were presented on Facebook as being supporters of the burning of K-Fetisch. Amir hung out in the café every day, and it grated him that no one there came to his defense when people repeatedly connected us to the arson.”
'We didn’t sell any books that you won’t find in other stores; we only labeled them differently. Something basic in the store aroused antagonism.'
The more Naaman was accused of Nazism, the sharper his Holocaust anxieties became. “They placed a swastika with an X on our Facebook wall, but you can’t really see the X,” he told me nervously in a Tel Aviv café. “It hurt me to be called a fascist; it reduced the chance that I would find a boyfriend. In Israel, when I’m called an Arab-loving leftist, I can deal with it. But a Nazi? Are they out of their minds? The truth is that I didn’t understand what they wanted. Was the lecture really such a terrible thing, that would have such a negative impact on the community? I felt dizzy. They wrote, ‘Don’t buy from them, we’ll bring the dogs, fascists can talk only if their tongues are cut out.’ I was afraid for my place of work.”
Indeed, even if all the trollish names on Facebook were made up, the clients who stopped coming were flesh and blood, and the business suffered. “That week, the store started to empty out,” Hamburger recalls. “I was also afraid that in the wake of the Antifa persecution, people of the alt-right and the neo-Nazis would suddenly think they had a new home. After all, they just wait for all these fights.”
When you staged a hunger strike in the army, you were assailed from the right wing, and now it was from the left. Is there a difference in the feelings?
Hamburger: “I went on a hunger strike as a soldier in the second intifada because of feelings of injustice and exploitation, and I was attacked by my [army] company and by the political center. I came out of the army a post-Zionist. But I had the right, as a soldier, to say what I felt and saw. The case here is different. We weren’t attacked because of our opinions, people just took things out of context. You know, if Daniel had taken advantage of the stage to say things that exceeded the dialogue we’d set, I would have intervened to say what I thought. What I mostly saw was a herd instinct, and it’s no different on the left than on the right. Freedom of expression is not strong in German culture.”
At one point, the store also lost patience with Miller. “While I was trying to calm things down,” Hamburger relates, “Daniel became very enthused by the whole story. He had just finished writing a novel about Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance person who was burned at the stake for speaking out against the Church. My feeling was that, for him, the scandal was a tool to leverage his literary ambitions. He wrote abusive messages to the opponents of the event. I am for dialogue, not for erasing the other side, and there’s something trollish about Daniel. He says that the greatest danger to society is that the left is suppressing the voices of the right. Is that really society’s biggest problem? I felt he was riding our coattails. In the end, I told him, ‘Let’s drop the event.’” The lecture was canceled.
The plot thickens
The assault stopped. The fictitious profiles vanished into virtual air. But something in the bookstore had changed. The managers had lost their joie de vivre. “I started to be afraid,” Naaman says. “I told a lesbian intellectual who suggested that we do an event about women in the AfD [the far-right Alternative for Germany party], that Antifa had marked us, and the event never happened. We felt alienated from the store’s community.”
Hamburger: “But even after we canceled the event [with Miller] there were people who went on writing on Facebook, ‘Why does the store stink? Because it’s a store of stinking fascists.’” Last June, he announced that Topics was shutting down. The decision, he says, was made four months after the aborted event and did not stem from it. It might have happened in any event. But the affair certainly played a part in his decision.
Naaman took it hard. For one thing, he’d lost his livelihood. “I was emotionally drained. I wrote a sentimental post ahead of the closure,” he recalls.
That Facebook post was written with Naaman’s heart’s blood. In it, he said that he’s third-generation [to the Holocaust], and that now he had had a bookstore close on him in Berlin, something, he said, that resonates with Heine’s comment that, “Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned.”
That led to unanticipated consequences.
A restaurant blog reported the course of events, and the story thus became known to the German media. Hamburger and Naaman think the coverage that ensued was vulgar. If they’d felt that Antifa and Miller were using them for their own purposes, now they felt that the German press and the political arena were also on their case – this time in order to attack the activist left.
“My post wasn’t exactly, amazingly well written,” Naaman admits. “But there were tons of Likes and shares. Even a female politician I’d never heard of. Right-wingers in Germany said [about our critics], ‘Here’s the anti-Semitic left,’ even though we had at no stage brought in the Jewish issue. In the end I deleted the post. If politicians I’m not familiar with are making use of it, then no, thanks.”
Maybe you should have declared at the outset that you were Jews, and then no one would have suspected you of being a Nazi recruiting station.
Naaman: “Jews can be fascists, too. I don’t like identity politics. But in the end, we were forced to resort to it, though even that didn’t help.”
The story spread as fast as a fire in a bookcase. It was covered by most German newspapers, by the American alt-right site Breitbart and even in Newsweek, even though the store’s owners generally declined to give interviews. In Israel the story was completely unreported, other than in a lone radio report.
'Freedom of expression is not strong in German culture.'
“I was consumed by shame,” Naaman says. “In the wake of the coverage, acquaintances from the extreme left said to me, ‘How could you dare to give power to the bad guys?’ I asked myself where my morality was at. You know, all I’d wanted to do was to talk about interesting things, and look what happened. And then I remembered that when [the French writer and anti-fascist] Andre Breton castigated [Salvador] Dali for his attraction to fascist aesthetics, Dali said that it wasn’t his fault that he dreamed about Hitler.”
I ask Amir Naaman whether he really doesn’t understand why the Germans are uptight about fascism, given that Hitler took power in their country just 85 years ago and they’re still in a post-traumatic state. “They’re post-traumatic? I’m post-traumatic, too,” he replies. “They’re the ones who killed me. They shut down a store of Jews, accused us of conspiring to burn down the café.”
They had no idea that you were Jews.
“I didn’t say it was out of anti-Semitism. But the whole thing was an eye-opener. Today I am more tolerant of opinions that differ from mine. Someone who was in the store years ago and took a picture of the fascist bookshelf uploaded the photo to Facebook when the crisis blew up. What kind of Stasi is that? They have no sense of humor. I may be left-wing, but I’m certainly not European left-wing.”
Don’t you think that clinging to PC is perhaps preferable to the in-your-face racism one encounters here in Israel?
“I am against racism, of course, and I don’t call for racist actions, but it’s possible to talk about racism, because it exists. The situation in Israel is different. Here there is no political correctness at all. I heard someone in the supermarket shouting about, ‘Obama the Jew-hating Muslim nigger.’ Compared to the left in Europe, which is occupied with micro-aggression, here the left has genuine problems
“If there’s one thing I’m sorry about, it’s that I don’t have an acceptable ideological constellation,” he continues. “My ideology is connected only to the books I’ve read. I believe that if it’s in a book, it’s alright. I always liked the baddies – Baudelaire, Pasolini – and they did things that aren’t done. But fine, that’s literature, you can release the demon in books, and in life be polite and love mankind.”
Naaman is currently studying at Wingate sports college, north of Netanya, with the aim of becoming a physical fitness instructor, in the hope that muscular Judaism will afford him a more stable income than book selling. He doesn’t know whether he will return to Berlin.
As for Hamburger, he remains in Berlin, where he is collaborating with a German on translating the works of renowned Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin into German. He’s also busy with his children and with his Facebook page – literary, but not politically correct – which has won him fans, and is pondering a return to Israel. “The racist dialogue in Israel is repellent and appalling, but at least it’s out in the open. That attracts me more than the PC here. Of course, it’s preferable to be in the middle.”
But don’t you understand why Germany doesn’t treat fascism with a sense of humor?
“I understand the fear, but to threaten and silence others is not the way. The approach in Germany is: I don’t like your opinion, so get ready to have your windows smashed. A society that has an underlying ideal of a call to freedom needs to understand that freedom of speech means that you’re going to have pedophiles, neo-Nazis and the mentally ill.”
Together with all the verbal violence by the opponents of the event, don’t you think that there was arrogance in your comportment, too? That maybe it would have been better to try to understand the sensitivities of the local community first?
“It is my right as a German citizen to hold events; I did not break the law.”
It’s your right to hold events and their right not to come to the store.
“In the store we had talks by Muslims, trans people and people from the whole spectrum of the population. They can boycott me, as far as I’m concerned, but not over lies. Would you suggest to a bookstore manager in Marzahn, a neighborhood where many neo-Nazis live, not to hold a discussion about trans people, out of sensitivity for the residents? We held an exhibition in the store with multiple [images of] androgynes, cocks and pussy – violent, harsh things. In most cases it didn’t bother any of the store’s visitors. And then a 14-year-old girl wearing a head covering came in, walked around, positioned herself in front of me, put her hand on my arm, and said, ‘What you are doing is an ugly act. I come from a traditional Muslim home, my parents go to some lengths so I will not be exposed to things like this, you should be ashamed.’ And she turned around and left. I said to myself, ‘That’s how it’s done. I hurt her feelings and she told me so; she didn’t threaten.’”
Did you take down the exhibition?
“Obviously, I left it in place. People are hurt. That’s fine. It’s a free society. Not everything is hunky-dory. There will be always be those who will like something and those who won’t. What can you do?”