Salman Schocken was born in what is now Poland. He was only able to attend 4 years of school but became a voracious reader. When he was 30 he opened a department store with his brother and many more followed. The Schocken stores were renowned for the Bauhaus-inspired buildings, the fair wages and working conditions and the fringe benefits for workers such as houses to live in and holiday homes.
Is it just me, or does this description sound a bit like the ones that the liberal press used to churn out about Richard Branson before he conspicuously spent most of his money on decadent vanity projects? Because he had a beard and wore jeans, his various Virgin enterprizes got a favourable reputation that just wouldn’t hold if the press actually spoke to anyone who worked there. I’m not saying that Schocken was as bad as Branson, but the hagiography is sometimes a little thick.
Whatever the realities for the workers in his shops, Schocken was apparently a well read and cultured man and undeniably a victim of massive prejudice and injustice. As a prominent Jew, he was one of the first people targetted when the Nazis came to power. Cue pictures of “Jüden Raus” on the shop windows and books burning in Bebelplatz. In 1934, Schocken fled to Palestine.
The next period of his life is particularly interesting. Schocken understood himself as a cultural Zionist – under Nazi rule he set up a publishing company which specialized in Jewish authors like Heine, Kafka and Büber. But his Jewish nationalism feels a little like more modern Black nationalism – having pride for a minority which felt like it would be permanently persecuted.
And when he got to Palestine, he hated what he saw. This was less about discrimination against Palestinians which was much less widespread before the birth of Israel, and more about personal disenchantment. He felt like an outsider – and not for the first time. As a Polish Jew in Germany, he felt excluded from the minority community. In Palestine he suddenly became a German (or at the very least a European) Jew, but now he was among Middle Eastern Jews.
Schocken’s social conscience, publishing skills and sheer bloody mindedness came together as he took over the Ha’aretz newspaper. A film of the current Ha’aretz editorial board shows that it is currently more a paper that progressives write for than a progressive paper. But, the film argues, Schocken’s true heir at the paper is Gideon Levy, a columnist who has been much more critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians than many of his more liberal Ha’aretz colleagues.
It would have been interesting to hear Schocken’s reaction to the creation of the State of Israel, when ethnic cleansing was employed in the name of protecting the victims of the worst atrocity the world has ever seen. But although Schocken continued to live until 1959, his story in this film effectively ends in the mid 1940s when he leaves Palestine. We are told that he continued to move between the USA, Switzerland and Israel, but also that he was happy in none of these countries.
There is a coda to the film when we return to Zwickau where Schocken opened his first shop. Ten years ago, almost to the day, the so-called National Socialist Underground was responsible for a series of racist murders, including in Zwickau in one of the homes previously built for Schocken workers. The implication is that the terror that was inflicted on Schocken and others in the 1930s is not something we can just consign to the past.
Some of Schocken – Ein Deutsches Leben is remarkable in what it does not say. This is a German-Israeli co-production which talks about Nazism, antisemitism and the Middle East, but there is not even a hint of a mention of “Arab antisemitism”,which media and politicians alike increasingly insist is the main cause of rising antisemitism in Europe. It is clear in this film that a much more significant threat – then and now – comes from Bio-German white supremacists.
And yet this is not the only thing that is not mentioned. Schocken’s unhappiness with first Palestine, then Israel, is described only in terms of abstract personal disappointment. It is almost as if articulating his real opinion (and I have honestly no idea what his real opinion was) would somehow tarnish the reputation of the superhero who has been presented to him. It is one thing to build someone up as irascible and opinionated, but naming his opinions may put people off him.
Schocken – Ein Deutsches Leben tells the fascinating story of a remarkable life. Ultimately, though, I feel that it tries too hard to avoid saying anything too controversial. Given the subject, this feels like a strange move, but we see enough anyway to hold our attention throughout.