Migration stories in the German-Israeli Youth Exchange – an interview with Aysel Bozkurt, participant in the exchange program “Your Story Moves!” from Germany, teacher and Master graduate in Education of Life Planning, Ethics and Religion.
How did you decide to take part in the project “Your Story Moves!”?
I learned about it through the partner organisation “Dialog at School” and I have always wanted to go to Israel for various reasons. I wanted to get a better understanding of the country, to interact more deeply and to take from it something more than a vacation. I am especially interested in the religious aspects of it. I always wanted to experience Jerusalem first hand. My heart was beating fast at the thought of going there. I knew this is something I have to do in my life.
Were you interested in how the three religions live together?
First of all the religious aspect and then the question, how can this work culturally? This is relevant for many places in Israel. It is fascinating how this has been working out since the foundation of the state. The country is very well developed and everyone who has been there can confirm that. How do they make this diversity work? People are always excited about Israel. Of course, there are also dark sides. There are also people who say that they would never go to Israel because they oppose the government, the country’s politics and they want to manifest this in a way. That’s not my way of dealing with topics like this. I reject Israel boycott. What I wanted is to get in touch with people and get to know them. Also we had something in common with all the participants. They were all students and even if our backgrounds are different, we all have a migration history.
How did you deal with your own migration story in Israel?
I have always had the role of an outsider in Germany, even if I did not feel that way. I live in Germany, but my roots are in Turkey and this “but” is always present. It was strange to realize that in Israel everyone came from somewhere else and I did not stick out. Experiencing this feeling in Israel was funny, interesting and totally irritating. How come a Turkish woman who lives in Germany for 20 years has this kind of feeling after one week in Israel? In Israel everyone is the same and everyone is so different. What also fascinated me there is the fact that people don’t put each other in the “you are a foreigner” box just because of their appearance, because this is not possible to do. You cannot tell who is what because the differences become invisible. I enjoyed having this feeling there. If not for a kippah on the head, the question was simply “who knows?“. You could not really say who belongs to which group. Some of us had more in common with the Israelis than with our own group. I knew that there were several ethnic groups living in Israel, but there I discovered that this diversity is a lot broader.
Did you have the feeling that Israel has similarities to your own cultural context?
Yes, definitely! Be it because of religion or because of the cuisine. I love the Turkish cuisine and the Israeli one is just as good. The temperament is also very similar. In Berlin I also have a multicultural environment. Also, when the topic of oppression came up in the different discussions, I saw myself there with my Alevi role. You cannot compare this directly with the Jewish history, but the feelings of being excluded or being different are sometimes the same.
You are a person with migration story in Germany. Yet, in Israel you were one of the participants from the German group. Did this affect you in any way?
I perceived it differently. We had this discussion before going to Israel: what does it mean when we talk about German-Israeli youth exchange? Do people expect blonde and blue-eyed participants without a migration background? Will they want to deal with “their history”? Some of the Israeli participants had grandparents who survived the Holocaust. I thought they would definitely want to tackle the question of guilt. I would definitely be interested in this if I would be an Israeli. I thought they expected to meet Germans who will want to discuss about the responsibility of their ancestors. And there comes us and we bring our own stories with us! People who barely have any biographical connection with the Shoah. I was afraid that they would be irritated by this. But this was not the case at all! They were so positive, so much more open than I thought. They were not shocked at all, that WE are the Germans in this group. They did not have that need to deal with it. At some point I could not take it anymore, I asked them directly, how do you deal with it when you hear “Germans”? However, they do not have these negative feelings. Maybe they have learned to cope differently with this. For me it was very emotional to see that they simply accepted us like that! This is not a topic you can ever fully close, but it really moved me that they were so open with us and embraced us.
I often heard the German group talk about “the German responsibility”, “our responsibility”, “our history” in Israel. What I saw was a group that comes out of the German school system and identifies somehow with the national narrative in terms of history and responsibility about the past and future. How did you experience that?
We certainly deal with this differently than the Israelis and this is also because of the socialization with the German school system and society as a whole. But I personally did not sense this kind of “we” that you are describing. I believe that if I had lived in Germany at the time, I would definitely belong to the victims and not to the perpetrators. Of course we cannot generalize about these things but this is the role I saw myself in. On the other side we do identify with the national narrative in the sense that we somehow take this guilt and ask ourselves how we should deal with the topic of National Socialism as a society today. It is something which matters to us. The Israelis saw this somehow differently. I found them calmer and more reserved. This was an interesting observation. The question of guilt was never phrased towards us. We discussed about everything, spoke about our family stories openly but with zero blame.
Do you think that’s because of the particularity of the group, or would it have been the same with a German group coming from the majority society?
Yes, I think this also had to do with the group. I imagine that it would have been completely different in another group. In our group everybody came with a strong feeling to make the most out of it and nothing could escalate in a negative way. The interactions were always full of sensitivity. We tried to understand how far we can go, how much is it ok to ask. The methodological workshops allowed us to reveal things about ourselves without having to constantly ask questions and being pushy.
What did you tell your friends and family about your experience in this program?
I thought that people would be afraid that I am going to Israel but this was not the case. Most of them asked rather when I am going and if they can come as well. Myself I was not scared at all and the trip just convinced me even more that there is zero reason to be afraid to go to Israel. When I got back, I just realized that it was hard to talk about it to people who were not there. Because what we experienced in the group, you can hardly share it with someone else. We also stayed a few days longer and we visited Yad Vashem. I did not expect this to hit me so hard emotionally. When you are there you think of situations where you aren’t certain anymore about how you would handle them. I remembered that I had a discussion at the university 5 years ago. A fellow student said: “You can talk as much as you want, in the end everybody chickens out and runs away.” But I’ve learned that you can be preventive. Many things happen because we do not take them seriously or we intervene too late. At the memorial, I thought that can never happen again. I learned that you have to do more. Be it in personal discussions, getting involved or doing more educational work about it. This is not relevant only for the Jewish history, but for the whole humanity. Everyone can contribute their own way. Not everyone has to go to a demonstration. But one should show interest and be aware of certain realities.
Many of you work as teachers in schools that struggle with specific challenges. Can people with your experience from the youth exchange multiply the effect of this experience to tackle certain stereotypes against Jews or Israel?
We should definitely make use of that and actually I asked at the school if we could arrange a class exchange with Israel. If the exchange is not there, you cannot fight against prejudices. I also had the idea to invite guests to school. Lots of kids with Palestinian background go to school which are involved with “Dialogue at School”. It would be great if participants in exchange programs would share what they have experienced and how they see the country through their eyes. Many of my students say that Germany is always on Israel’s side and is generally very biased on the subject. If Germans with a Palestinian background would participate in this discussion then this would have a different effect. The discussion would be much more authentic. I do not mean that one should not represent the German opinion, but a further voice would definitely add more perspectives.
How do you experience this German narrative in the context of dealing with the past, as a teacher, but also as a young woman with a migration story in Germany?
The topic is treated intensively. The history lesson throughout the whole middle school is dedicated to the topic of National Socialism. The German side is described negatively and everybody is being blamed. But it is presented in such a factual way that it felt like it had happened somewhere else. I wonder, how can one stay so distanced towards this? This totally irritated me as a student, the fact that the emotional part is out of the discussion. At the same time, we face today plenty cases where racism is again a serious issue.
So, are the emotions missing in the discourse?
Absolutely. And not only on the German side. On the Jewish side I missed this as well when I was still at school, although the reasons are different. I had a German-Israeli student in my class and she was blamed for Israeli politics because of her background. At that time I had to prepare a presentation on Judaism and I asked her a few questions. She asked me not to tell the others that she was Jewish. She was really scared. Many classmates with Palestinian backgrounds were openly saying that they hate Jews. At the time there was tension and attacks were happening in Israel. People were very emotional about it. My classmate did not want to be identified with it. This closed the door for me for a very long time. Maybe I met Jewish people later and I did not know because they did not say something about their origin. So this is what I have been missing in this conversation. The emotions connected to this part of history. I only got to know this from films and reportages. In the classroom everything was being taught factually and without including any emotions. But many of the people who survived the Holocaust are still alive. Where is their voice? Right now we learn history and we write exams about it. If you do not write the exam the way you are expected to then you will get a bad grade. You memorize the facts without having internalized it. And then one day it hit me! “Wait a minute; you are not learning in order to get a good grade. This thing actually happened and now we need to question ourselves, how do we deal with it?”
Were there any highlights in the experience with the Israeli group?
There were many highlights. Maybe way too many. It was a very emotional ride for me. The program fascinated me again and again, be it politically or because of the group dynamics. What really hit me were the one to one conversations where we really opened up. I did not expect so much openness. The participants revealed so much about themselves but also in a way that it felt comfortable for both sides. This was totally enriching. You carry this further on in your life. You compare, you find differences or similarities. You are devoted in this encounter at the moment. You hang on these peoples lips because everything is so interesting. And then our common history and the shadow of National Socialism is still so present in Germany. And it’s a good thing that it is so present. Only the way of learning about it has to be improved. Talking about it with the Israelis was something totally different. This is where I finally felt all the emotions that were missing before. That was definitely a highlight! One would think you would talk to the Israelis and they would burst into tears. But actually, the German side was much more likely to burst into tears than the Israeli. It was good that we could talk about it and be part of this encounter. Such a program makes it possible. Where else do you find the luxury to be able to learn in such a way?