Ultimately, Germans and Jews are Both Obedient Sheep

March 18, 2021
The author in Berlin in its better days

When I left Berlin to Israel right before Christmas, I felt my four-year long relationship with Germany already changed. It was three days after the start of the new, never-ending lockdown. I took my last walk through the chilling city, mourning the Berlin vibrancy that once was. I should’ve instead been walking through the charming Christmas markets, glühwein in hand, remembering that Germany is a country that actually values joy.

I was disappointed that the German government which, up until then, seemed more reasonable than Israel in its approach to lockdowns, finally caved and installed a hard lockdown, Israel style. At least Germany kept the airport open and didn’t require masks in open air, but I was mistaken in thinking that Germans, after all they’ve been through, have learned and internalized the essential value of individual rights.

But the German government was simply waiting for legal permission to take them away. In November 2020, the parliament voted to give the government more expansive powers in curtailing our civil liberties during a pandemic. Not long after, Germany became as crazy, unpredictable, and arbitrary as Israel in imposing lockdowns, causing Germans to live in extreme uncertainty, dependent on the whim of bureaucrats.

Germans may wonder how and why Israel has become the world leader in imposing lockdowns. A country known to defy globalist trends should be the one leading the fight against lockdowns, right? Finally, the German government looked to the Netanyahu government as an example—but for the wrong reason. Politicians cited Israel’s airport closure as a Coronavirus measure to emulate.

Sadly, as someone who has lived in Israel for a dozen years, I’m not surprised Israel has taken this undemocratic course. Israel was not founded upon individual rights, let alone Jewish individual rights. The sanctity of individual rights was not the main lesson most Jews learned from the Holocaust. It was, instead, the importance of sticking together as a tribe, preferably in their own land, able to defend themselves. These days, it means defending themselves, together, from the Coronavirus, even at the expense of Jewish individual rights, including the celebration of Jewish holidays, such as Passover, the holiday of freedom.

While I’m loath to make superficial Holocaust comparisons, I think the Coronavirus has given us insight into national mindsets of both Israel and Germany, and why we still have so much in common.

“Germans are so obedient,” a friend recently wrote to me, complaining about sheepish German compliance of the lockdown. I answered that Israelis are obedient, too.

While some Israelis were a bit more rebellious in keeping the third lockdown restrictions (most Israelis ventured past 1000 meters from their home), most still wear masks in open air, even though close to half of the country is fully vaccinated. Hardly any Israelis protested when the national “Secret Service” started tracking individual phones to know the whereabouts of virus-carriers. Now, unvaccinated returnees from abroad will have to wear electronic bracelets to track their whereabouts while in quarantine.

While Jews like to blame Germans for “following orders,” Jews also have it in them to “follow orders” – not necessarily to commit crimes, but to be victims to them. The Holocaust could not have happened without so many Jews trusting their rabbis and leaders who told them not to leave to the Holy Land, or that Hitler would not reach their shtetls, or that, if they cooperate, they could be saved. The majority of European Jewry rejected the Zionists who sought to chart their own path, in “Palestine.”

Take, as a lesser known example, the Jews of Thessaloniki. The German-trained Rabbi Zvi Koretz is infamous for gathering the Greek Jews in the main synagogue and telling them to cooperate with the occupying Nazis who would simply resettle them in Poland. The Jews in the pews who told the congregants not to listen to him were reportedly heckled by the crowd. Only 5 percent of Thessaloniki’s 50,000 Jews survived.

Orthodox Judaism, as well, is a religion of many “dos” and “don’ts,” such that keeping rules is almost natural to the Jewish people. While the majority of Israelis are secular, the idea of restrictions is built into our tradition. Ironically, it’s the ultra-Orthodox Jews who fought the lockdown tyranny—opening their schools and holding funerals against government orders and fighting the police who came to stop them. I’d admire their civil disobedience if they weren’t screwing it up for everyone else trying to keep infection rates down. The ultra-Orthodox have the highest infection rates per capita.

Jews might think I’m self-hating for often saying that we also have to take responsibility for becoming such pathetic, easy victims of the Nazis, instead of only harping on Germany–of today and yesteryear. How could we let ourselves be so bloodily stepped on? What could we have done differently? Many Jews believe we were too deceived to have seen such mass murder coming. But there was a minority who predicted a murderous future. As the frightful saying goes, “sheep to the slaughter…”

Corona lockdowns and restrictions, of course, are not slaughter. But they have revealed to us the mindset that has, and which, perhaps, always gripped Germans and Jews: individuals must sacrifice basic civil rights for the good of the tribe and nation. The common good is holier than the individual good. It is this principle that is also guiding Israel’s nationwide vaccination project, for better or worse.

And so Germans and Jews have not learned the right lessons from World War Two and instead have given into our more primitive, basic nature to follow, trust, and believe those leaders who would crush our spirits, for the sake of “national health.”

Orit Arfa is an American-Israeli journalist and author based in Berlin. A version of this article appeared in German in www.achgut.com. www.oritarfa.com

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