It’s 2 am on Saturday in a basement in Berlin’s central Mitte district. Israeli and German flags hang from a low ceiling above a packed, sweaty dance floor throbbing to Israeli pop music.
Behind the decks, young Israeli Aviv Netter, half his face covered in gold glitter, balances astride a chair and the mixing desk, arms outstretched above the crowd. This is “Berlin Meshugge,” a club night that mixes the Tel Aviv party spirit with Berlin’s celebrated gay scene.
“Berlin is the capital of pluralism and liberalism in the world today,” Netter says later.
The DJ and promoter started “Berlin Meshugge” three years ago, spotting a gap in the wide range of themed parties in the capital city. “Meschugge” is a popular Yiddish word for crazy.
“At Meschugge we are performing a great service – bringing some of the Tel Aviv spirit to Berlin,” he says. “It’s better for the image of Israel than anything the embassy might be putting out.”
Now 26, Netter came to Berlin almost five years ago and has witnessed a wave of young Israelis relocating to the city. Like expats from many other countries, they come to fulfill their creative and hedonistic dreams in the famously debauched capital.
According to census data, around 3,000 Israelis are officially living in Berlin. But because German law grants the right of nationality to the children of Holocaust victims, some estimate the true figure could be as high as 15,000.
“Oi Vey, you’re gay”
“I think the Israelis that are coming to Berlin are very Berlin Israelis,” says Netter while sitting at a trendy cafe in the Prenzlauer Berg district, a popular area among his countrymen.
His friend Ady, a DJ who splits his time between Berlin and Israel, speaks up on why the city’s legendary gay scene appeals even to Israelis from relatively liberal places such as Tel Aviv.
“When you come here no one can comment on your sexuality, you are free to explore new things. When you’re at home, even if you live away from your family in your own place, people talk,” he says.
Still Netter calls Tel Aviv the “little sister of Berlin,” and says he hopes to share Israel’s rich culture with with his receptive Berlin following.
“Maybe 20 percent of the people that come to Berlin Meshugge are Israeli. Eighty percent are Germans, completely German,” he explains.
Past meets present
Although the most recent wave of Israeli immigration to Berlin is mainly young people, they are not the first generation to settle in the city after the Second World War. Ilan Weiss, 60, the self-proclaimed “best teller of Jewish jokes of all the German insurance brokers,” has been a Berlin resident since 1990.
“Many ask me how come I live in the Germany of the Nazis, and I say that there are two nations, who can forgive each other or not, like Israel and Germany,” he says. “But people, they do forgive each other very easily. An individual can find a connection and forgive easier than a nation can.”
Weiss has been running a popular newsletter for Israelis living in Berlin for more than 10 years. With a circulation of over 2,000, many of his readers meet once a month to hear speakers and chat in Hebrew.
He also considers himself a bridge between German and Israeli culture, recently publishing a German-language book of Jewish humour entitled Sex am Sabbat? Moderne jüdische Witze, or “Sex on Shabbat? Modern Jewish Jokes.”
Yet unlike many of the younger Israelis flooding to Berlin, Weiss has not sought German nationality.
“I’m a guest in Germany – even though I’ve been living here for 20 years, and I’m comfortable with that,” he says. “I could get a German passport but I’d have to give up my Israeli one, and that’s part of my identity.”
Leaving the ‘promised land’
While many younger Israelis travel to Berlin in search of a good time outside of their homeland, Weiss says that the heavy nationalist streak in Israeli society can make leaving Israel “an act of cowardice…leaving friends behind to continue their war.”
He also avoids mentioning the difficult past between Germany and the Jews.
“I’m tired of being a representative of the Holocaust survivors or of those that were murdered. I don’t bring up the subject unless there’s a very good reason,” he says.
But many of the fresh young Israeli implants in Berlin insist that they don’t consider the political implications of their decision to move, despite remaining hyper-aware of precisely what these are.
Jonathan Naman, a freelance photographer and Berlin resident of four years, says that young Israelis view Germany as friendly thanks to its unwavering support for their homeland on the international stage.
“When I told people I had a German passport, they’d respond with, ‘What the fuck are you still doing in Israel?!’,” says Naman.
His German passport was considered such an asset that in the months before his departure he received four marriage proposals from Israeli women eager to leave the country themselves.
One reason for Berlin’s growing popularity seems to be increased exposure through a growing tourism industry between the two countries. In August 2010 daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that “Berlin is booming in the Holy Land,” citing a threefold increase in flights between the city and Israel.
“As generations progress, people are more open, even to Germany,” Naman says. “Some people in Israel still don’t ever want to set foot on German soil, even people my age, but this is just ignorance.”
The contrast between affordable, peaceful Berlin and what Naman calls “ugly Israel” – a country with a “market mentality” where people are “loud, crass and always willing to cut corners” – is also appealing to people like him, he says.
While Israelis argue that the daily grind of security checks and a palpable sense of living in a conflict zone becomes normal, it is unsurprising that this kind of stress would motivate so many of Israel’s youth to seek a more uncomplicated life elsewhere.
“One of the great things about Berlin is that it’s filled with foreigners, which is why it’s so easy to settle here – other foreigners are welcoming and the Germans are used to them,” he says.
Creative cooperation continues
Meanwhile new projects mixing the culture of Israel and Berlin are blooming throughout the city.
“I never thought that I would do radio in Hebrew and German in Berlin,” says Aviv Russ, who runs the bilingual language show Kol Berlin, or “voice of Berlin,” which he began in 2006.
He is enthusiastic about what the future holds, predicting that the Israeli-Berlin culture “will continue to grow, but as a different and alternative community.”