Israel and Germany

On a recent official visit to Israel, European Parliament President Martin Schultz spoke at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. This is an honor usually reserved to heads of state and visiting dignitaries. Mr. Schultz, a German national, had just visited the Palestinian Authority. In his speech, delivered in German, he said that Palestinians had asked him how come Israelis are given a bigger water quota than Palestinians. He professed not to know the details of this issue and to be merely transmitting a Palestinian concern.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is nothing wrong with transmitting one side's concern to the other. But doing so from the podium of the Israeli Knesset, on a festive occasion and in the thinly-veiled form of "just quoting a Palestinian" without bothering to check the facts, was widely seen as an affront to Israel. Since that criticism clothed in a question was raised in the German language, it caused an even greater uproar, with members of the "Bayit Yehudi" party abandoning the plenary in mid-speech. It seems that the combination of European criticism (on false grounds) and the German language still awakens deep emotions among many Israelis.

Israelis have had what may be termed a bi-polar relationship with Germany, beginning as early as seven years after the end of World War II. It is a relationship fraught with seeming contradictions. As early as 1948, when Israel was established, the first government was debating whether to call for an international boycott of Germany or go the contrary route and seek a relationship with post-war, post-Nazi Germany in order to expand Israel's nascent network of relations.

In 1952, Israel and Germany came to an agreement on the payment of reparations to victims of the Holocaust (my paternal grandfather was on the Israeli delegation to these talks). The reparations agreement was accompanied by a huge public debate in Israeli society as thousands took to the streets protesting against the Israeli government for accepting "blood money." It would take another thirteen years for Germany and Israel to finally sign a diplomatic relations treaty in 1965 - amid widespread demonstrations in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Beginning in the 1970's, Germany asserted itself as Israel's staunchest ally in Europe and to this day continues to be our steadfast ally, along with the USA. As part of Germany's recognition of its national responsibility for the Holocaust, It has made a moral commitment to defend Israel and to stand by us in international fora, a commitment that Germany continues to honor. All German governments have stood by Israel militarily too, supplying it with defense systems since 1959 and building Israel's strategic submarine fleet  

On the one hand, we readily accept that Germany has a moral obligation to stand by us and supply us with the most advanced submarines, as a kind of insurance against a new Holocaust ever happening to the Jewish people. Very few Israelis today would refuse to take possession of those submarines. At the same time, we refuse to consider German support and military supply as payback for the Holocaust - something no Israeli would be willing to forget in exchange for any amount of assistance.

Israel is home to the greatest number of Holocaust survivors in the world. Most of them receive monthly payments from the German government (as did my maternal grandmother for forty years). And yet most of those survivors, recipients of monthly German payments, refuse to even think about visiting Germany, where they have not set foot for over sixty years. We are willing to receive Germany's help, without in any way accepting that it can ever repay our people's loss, but to generations of Israelis, the past is neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Israelis recognize Germany as our staunch ally. It is most certainly an unconditional supporter of Israel's right to exist and to defend itself. That support is for the Zionist ideal of a homeland for the Jewish people, but we understand that it is not an open-ended endorsement for every action and policy conducted by Israel's government. And yet, a German politician who criticizes us, albeit diplomatically and indirectly, in German, in Jerusalem, in the hall that more than anything else symbolizes the sovereignty of the democratic State of Israel, still creates a wave of anger and indignation among our people.

Fifty years after they began, relations between Israel and Germany are as normal as they can be under what are very special historical circumstances. Perhaps our relations will never be "normal." Perhaps they never should be.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

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