House of the Wannsee Conference
House of the Wannsee Conference iStock

Recently, as a participant in a teacher training program in Berlin I visited the Wannsee Conference villa. There, a senior guide explained to 20 or so aspiring high school teachers in the German public school system the history of the villa and the events that preceded and followed the infamous conference that took place on January 20th, 1942.

During the Q&A session, the guide intelligently answered the historical and sociological questions posed by students, including how to make the visit meaningful to students with a Middle Eastern background who might otherwise be susceptible to anti-Jewish tropes. When it was my turn, I asked the guide – given that I also teach English – whether it might also be possible to arrange a meeting with Israeli high school student groups.

The guide replied that many German schools have partnerships with schools in Israel and arrange for student exchanges through which Israeli students also visit Berlin and the Wannsee Conference villa. She then paused and added “fortunately, since the COVID pandemic these groups no longer come.” Surprised about the remark, I asked her to elaborate and found out that Israeli visitors at the villa are notorious for being loud, rude, disrespectful of the house rules and adamant that they are entitled to remain in the villa after closing hours.

Awkward moments ensued since my German peers had a hard time digesting the idea that Jews might not be a model of good behavior. I was tempted to say, “why don’t you just yell at them just like Israeli custodians would do?”. I refrained from saying so since I can imagine that the news headline “German custodians shout at Jewish students at the Wannsee Conference villa” would not look good.

Given that my German peers were saddened by the thought that Israelis might deliberately misbehave to make their German hosts feel bad, I remarked “Don’t worry. I lived four years in Israel and I assure you these students don’t behave rudely to make you feel guilty, but because they behave like that everywhere – including in Israel.” I would have wanted to add that shouting and shoving is no evidence of bad morals and lack of scruples, but doing so would not have been understandable for my audience.

The reason resides in the different histories of Jews and Christians and Muslims. In Christendom and Islam, the traditional role model for society were kings, princes and aristocrats. Thus, the lower classes absorbed during centuries the paradigm that good manners are the hallmark of good character. It is for this reason that most Europeans and Arabs attach disproportionate importance to good table manners and courteous etiquette.

The Jewish world had different role models. Throughout Jewish history, learned rabbis symbolized the paramount values of intelligence, wisdom and industry that are characteristic of the Jewish culture. Whereas in Europe and the Arab world exquisitely polite individuals are revered and admired, among Jews – and especially among Israelis – such behavior is sometimes mocked as artificial and hypocritical. Israelis value directness - even when it involves shouting at people that other cultures would address softly.

This culture clash plays out not just in Berlin, but throughout the world, where the behavior of Israeli tourists often harms the reputation of the Jewish state. In a country like Germany, where most educated people have a hard time coping with the historical culpability of their grandparents and great-grandparents, decent behavior is especially important: It is not just important in order not to unnecessarily hurt local feelings, but also to honor the memory of Holocaust victims.

Israelis abroad should remember that as citizens of the Jewish state they are not just ambassadors of Zionism, but also of a nation that is entrusted with the mission of being a light unto the nations. This mission is more easily accomplished if more Israeli tourists remember the Rabbinic dictum “good manners precede the Torah”.