One generation after unification, too many Germans feel disillusioned

Middle Israel: The limits of redemption

SOLDIERS STAND at ease on top of the Berlin Wall, in front of Brandenburg Gate, on November 10, 1989 (photo credit: ANDREW STAWICKI/TORONTO STAR/ZUMA PRESS/TNS)
SOLDIERS STAND at ease on top of the Berlin Wall, in front of Brandenburg Gate, on November 10, 1989
‘Open the gate! Open the gate!” resounded the shouting as East German youths climbed the notorious Berlin Wall while their Western brethren stormed it with hammers, axes and spades.
“All along the wall,” reported The Guardian’s Anna Tomforde, “West Berliners trampled over the white demarcation line dividing the city, in effect crossing into the East,” while atop the wall strangers from east and west began dancing hand in hand.
“We should now be thinking big, electric thoughts about a future where so much, as yet barely definable, is possible,” waxed prophetic her newspaper’s editorial the following day, echoing the sense of euphoria, epiphany and vindication that flooded the West.
Now, with the first 30 years of that future gone, it is clear that panacea never arrived, whether from a global, German or Jewish point of view.
THE GLOBAL balance is the harshest. What initially seemed like a democratic stampede, predestined to engulf mankind, has since been blocked, and then reversed.
The blocking was signaled half a year before the wall’s collapse, with the massacre at Tiananmen Square which nipped in the bud China’s freedom movement. Hardly a decade later Russia began reversing its democratic experiment, not long before Turkey undid much of its own democracy.
Most sadly, from democracy’s viewpoint, the authoritarian reaction then traveled to the European heartland, first to Hungary, then to Poland, where judicial independence and academic freedom were being hammered, that close to the epicenter of 1989’s momentous events.
The German balance is more ambiguous.
The unification process itself has come and gone peacefully, clearly an achievement for Germany’s leaders. Not only did it involve no violence at home, it was also fully backed, from beginning to end, by the entire world, whose sympathy was not a foregone conclusion.
Then again, the process has been no idyll, and in fact may still be closer to its beginning than to its end. As analyzed in The Economist’s last issue, what began with the western takeover of 8,500 East German companies, most of which were either sold or dissolved, was followed by a westbound exodus that sucked more than a quarter of easterners aged 18-30.
The demographic depletion, accelerated by fallen birthrates, has been such that the east’s pre-1990 population of 16.1 million is now 13.9 million, resulting in closures of schools, churches and stores.
The number of easterners aged 60 and older rose at the same time by more than 1 million, which makes demographers predict that over the next 15 years more than 20 eastern districts’ population will be hardly 80% of their current size.
Economically, the west’s overshadowing size, productivity and wealth were such that the east was not integrated, but overwhelmed so much so that fewer than 5% of senior management jobs in the east are held by native easterners; only 7% of Germany’s 500 leading firms are based in the east, and almost any meaningful employer in the east is owned by someone in the west.
This is not to say that the east is done for. The average eastern income, now only 15% lower than its level in the German west, has more than doubled since unification, and highways, railways and communications have been reinvented thanks to more than $2 trillion poured into eastern infrastructure since the fall of the wall.
Still, most easterners say they feel domineered; a critical mass feels disenfranchised, and the young vote in droves for the xenophobic Alternative for Germany. The party’s slogans, from “The East Arises” to “Islam is not part of Germany,” resonate with eastern twentysomethings who ask their politicians how come they are importing Arab refugees when millions of Germans still feel left behind.
In short, one generation after unification, too many Germans feel disillusioned, marginalized and angry, which is where this situation’s Jewish part comes in.
MOST ISRAELIS, like most other Westerners, followed unification with more amusement than alarm. Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s opposition to Germany’s unification was anecdotal, in line with the tone set by French president François Mitterrand’s decision to back his formidable neighbor’s restoration.
That is how Berlin’s subsequent emergence as Europe’s cultural capital began to enamor Israelis, raising much talk about what some decried as a new rush to an old golden calf. Well, 30 years on, that outcry has proven overblown.
The numbers, some 20,000 Israelis in all of Germany, are low. Considering Germany’s proximity; the administrative ease with which Israelis can move there; the political quest for any kind of Jewish restoration; and Israel’s own demographic growth – this figure is almost minimal.
In Israel’s first three decades hundreds of thousands emigrated, mostly to North America. Overall, the number of Israelis who since 1949 have moved abroad and remained there permanently is estimated at 700,000, most of whom left when Israel’s population was hardly half of what it was when 20,000 Israelis landed in reunited Germany.
This is besides the fact that most of the 20,000 say they will not stay in Germany for good. Such, for instance, was the case of social activist Naor Narkis, a former IDF intelligence officer who relocated to Berlin, and from there stirred a social media campaign focused on the gap between the German and Israeli prices (€0.19 there, NIS 3 here) of a cup of Milky, the popular chocolate pudding. Narkis made his point, but later returned home.
Thirty years on, Germany’s roughly 200,000 Jews are predominantly emigrants from the former East Bloc, while its Israeli fraction is mostly transient. The phenomenon of entire families picking up and moving from Israel to Germany is negligible, unlike the movement to America in Israel’s first decades.
Evidently, even outbound Israelis feel that with Germany’s social volcano once again gathering lava, this is no time for the Wandering Jew, of all people, to camp in Germany, of all lands.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist reading of the Jewish people’s political history.