Special relationship – Special responsibility?

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50 years after Germany and Israel officially established diplomatic ties in May 1965, it is time to critically assess this relationship and look to the future. First, the good news: the cooperative network between the two countries has become increasingly dense over the years. There is a solid foundation for German-Israel cooperation that includes numerous networks in the realms of politics, economics and civil society, as well as medicine, culture and science, sports and, last but not least, youth exchange. Germany is Israel's third largest trading partner after the US and China. In this respect, German-Israeli relations seem stable. But a closer look reveals cracks in the foundation.

An incident that occurred some weeks ago speaks volumes: during a second division football match between FC Union Berlin and FC Ingolstadt, the responsible Berlin police officers ordered the removal of an Israeli flag that was waved by visiting fans to show their support for an Israeli player in the team. The reason given by the police officer in charge was founded on “risk prevention”. The guardians of public law and order claimed to be afraid of violent reactions. The same police officer [according to the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper] did however not forget to mention the large number of Palestinians living in Berlin, who supposedly cannot be expected to look at the Israeli flag. In a similar case, during the first Gaza War in 2009, the Duisburg police raided the apartment of a student who had hung an Israeli flag from his window to protest the Hamas missile attacks.

Two seemingly marginal examples, but they highlight the clear fractures in German-Israeli ties. Several striking developments in mutual perceptions are evidence that we have reached a turning point:

  • Germany and Israel are and will remain bound to one another as a result of the Shoah. We cannot rid ourselves of this legacy, even if we wanted to. Studies show however, that in Germany in particular, a growing number of young people (58% according to a Bertelsmann study) do not want to accept responsibility for this chapter in our history. Mind you: we're not talking about guilt here but a specific moral-political obligation towards survivors of the Shoah and towards the Jewish state. Many immigrants from the Middle East and predominantly Muslim countries don't feel compelled to assume our historical obligations simply because they have immigrated to Germany. "Jew" has apparently once again become an everyday insult in some schools. Many teachers have stories to tell on that account.

The discourse about Germany's special responsibility is almost exclusively taking place among the political and cultural elite and is no longer shared by a growing section of society.

  • We are seeing an asymmetry in mutual appreciation and perception.
    Israel's standing in Germany is falling drastically: 62 per cent said that they have a poor opinion of Israel (Bertelsmann).

On the other hand Germany's standing in Israel is gaining on support: 68 per cent of Israelis generally have a favourable view of Germany (Bertelsmann). On this basis one could assume that the Holocaust is no longer the only factor affecting sentiments about Germany in Israel.

It seems to me that one of the main reasons that a general attitude towards Israel in Germany has cooled off is due to the fact that Israel is seen almost exclusively through the prism of the Middle East conflict and its policy of occupation. Responsibility for this epic conflict is unilaterally dumped at Israel's door. The roles of the perpetrator and victim are hereby clearly defined. Every Israeli air attack on targets in the Gaza Strip and every young Palestinian who is shot and killed appear to corroborate this picture, while Hamas' missile attacks are portrayed as a kind of self-defence that cannot possibly pose a serious threat to Israel.  

The predominant perception of Israel as an aggressive troublemaker that needs to be shown the correct path to peace by the reformed Germans is taken out of political-historical context in two ways: It is removed from the context of the Shoah which prevents us from arguing against Israel from a position of moral superiority. It also neglects the political context of the wars and conflicts in the Middle East as well as the growing strength of radical anti-Israeli forces in the region (Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS & Co). If these contexts are ignored the need of many Israelis for security seems to be a mere historical trauma and not a real concern in the face of a growing threat.

There are good reasons to argue that a historic compromise with the Palestinians (i.e. a two-state solution) would also improve Israel's security situation – we do this at every opportunity. In the long run there can be no peace without justice. However, it is an oversimplification to act as if Israel's good will alone could put an end to a complex conflict that has become deeply entrenched in both societies and is to a certain degree intertwined with the current upheavals in the Middle East.

Aside from current political conflicts a deep divergence and historical asynchronicities exist between Israel and Germany:

  • Diametrically opposed lessons from the past collide: Israelis, understandably , vow to never be victims again, which however clashes with the German vow to prevent war at all costs. ForIsrael self-defence is seen as an indispensable guarantee for the survival of the Jewish state. In  Germany on the other hand,the current predominant attitude  is that all conflicts can be resolved through negotiation and good will.
  • The role of religion is emerging in two different directions: In Germany the Christian tradition of the mainstream population is fading as society becomes largely secular. In Israel the importance of religion, as an integral part of its identity, is on the rise. Israel's increasingly religious self-definition, however, threatens its dual character as a Jewish AND democratic state. The special historic fusion of Israel as the Jewish nation state and a multi-ethnic democracy is increasingly being called into question, both in Israel as well as in Europe.
  • The importance of the nation state in Europe – at least in Germany's self-perception - appears to be on the decline. In Israel the nation state is still a key point of reference. Israel, by its own definition, is the only country where Jews do not have to fear discrimination and persecution.

What are the consequences for the present and future of the German-Israeli relations?

A ritualised invocation of German-Israeli friendship is not enough. We need a discourse about our differences and we need mutual recognition of these differences.

At the same time, despite of all our differences, we are still bound by shared values which include democracy and civil society as fundamental elements. The idea is precisely to defend these values on both sides. We are united in solidarity with Israel in our shared values and with an awareness of the past. Solidarity means a deep sense of connection from which criticism is both possible and necessary.

If we want the discourse about Germany's special responsibility to  remain meaningful, it must take place within the context of Israel's security. This was and is not undisputed. To what extent are we prepared to guarantee security if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, with Ben Gurion airport and the city of Tel Aviv located only a few kilometres away from the new border? Despite its military strength, geographically speaking, the narrowly shaped Israel is a vulnerable country, especially in times of asymmetrical wars. It doesn't take much to shut down air traffic and tourism, to force hundreds of thousands of people into bunkers and create a climate of fear.
In recent years Iran and its allies have built up an enormous arsenal of missiles. The state order in the Middle East is wavering and radical Islamic forces, whose greatest aim is to annihilate the "Zionist enemy", are advancing. Bearing this in mind, what is our stance on weapons supplies to Israel? Let me just remind you of the fierce conflict about supplying Patriot defence missiles during the first Gulf War and the current debate about submarines for Israel. Criticisms arebased on the principle that weapons may not be supplied to conflict zones – which would mean that we need to treat Israel the same as other countries and we should distance ourselves at all costs from such deals.

In some parts of Europe the movement in support of boycotting Israel is meeting  large support. In Germany too, there are many initiatives that support the boycott movement. I think that this is not only the wrong approach, it is also dangerous. A collective boycott indiscriminately directed against Israeli artists, scientists, civil society, businesses and democratic parties, neither reflects the complexity of the situation nor does it help resolve the conflict. On the contrary, it will only strengthen the siege mentality in Israel and play into the hands of right-wing Israelis.

Beyond this functional argument, it would be wrong for anyone who still retains a modicum of historical awareness to participate in a campaign to boycott, isolate and stigmatise the Jewish state.

There are unfortunately good reasons to worry about Israel. The Israeli government is becoming increasingly isolated internationally and is putting the greatest political-moral capital of the country at risk: its democratic character. What can we, as political and civil society actors, do to make the German-Israeli relationship viable for the future? We should:

  • Actively work toward mutual understanding – also as a basis for critical discussion
  • Bring together disseminators and young leaders on a regular basis
  • Create networks for civil society actors who work in both countries to foster shared values
  • Broaden the narrow view of Israel that goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make Israeli society visible with all of its diversity, dynamic creativity and notorious culture of debate
  • Lastly to mention another practical political aspect: We need to expand our energy partnership, which will help stimulate the enormous potential for renewable energy in Israel and thereby improve the country's energy security.

Finally, Germany together with the EU can and must play a more active intermediary role in the Middle East. In the end peace can however only be reached between the two parties themselves, the Israelis and Palestinians. They have to be willing to end their struggle for the same territory with a historic compromise: land for peace. As all of the experiences over the last few years have nevertheless shown, bilateral negotiations only have a chance at success when intermediaries are involved in the process. There must be countries willing to act as trustees and guarantors for a 2-state solution.

If this option is rejected by the new government of Israel completely different models for the equal treatment of Palestinians will come into play and fundamentally change the character of Israel.

No matter what, we will do everything to ensure that Germany remains aware of its special responsibility to Israel by expanding dialogue and cooperation between our societies, regardless of who is governing in Jerusalem or Berlin.