Israeli-German Relations: Polemics Have No Place in True Friendships
With dubious Holocaust comparisons, the German Israel lobby is making life difficult for supporters of the Jewish state in Germany. Polemics should have no place in the relationship.
Friendships between nations are similar to those between two people. The first rule is that they have to be tended to. The second is that the affection must be mutual. The third: A true friendship thrives on the courage to give criticism -- and on the ability to accept it.
On the surface, it appears that relations between these two nations are better than they have ever been. This year, Germany and Israel celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations. Young Israelis are fond of traveling to Berlin or living in the German capital. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel is more popular in Israel than United States President Barack Obama.
Germans, though, have a much tougher time defining their friendship with Israel. Two factors play a decisive role in this: the history of the Holocaust and the serious sense of guilt that Germans still carry with them today; and the current conflict in the Middle East, which has intensified as a result of Israel's dubious occupation policies. It creates a tense relationship that no small number of Germans would rather not have to put up with. Instead they seek simplistic answers.
A large share of Germans -- perhaps even the majority -- offer their one-sided support to the Palestinians, not seldom as a way of trying to relativize Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust. "At some point we need to get over it," is one popular refrain. Others, with clear anti-Semitic undertones, say: "The Israelis have learned nothing from history and are doing the same thing to the Palestinians that was done back then by the Nazis to the Jews."
But there's also the other extreme: those who get caught in the fog of absolute loyalty to Israel and defend the country despite all the nonsense coming out of the current government in Jerusalem. The notion of identification plays a major role in psychoanalysis. When it comes to the overly devoted friends of Israel, one could speak of a process of over-identification. Others might call it "philo-Semitism."
My understanding of what it means to be friends with Israel is a different one. I've known the country for 27 years. As an exchange student to Israel at the age of 16, I went to a high school in Tel Aviv and learned Hebrew. Confronting German guilt partly motivated me at the time. Being the only German and the sole non-Jew in a cinema with 300 Israeli students watching the horrific images of emaciated corpses being pushed around by bulldozers in the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp will inoculate you from any form of anti-Semitism for the rest of your life.
In the years since, I have visited the country so often that it has become a second home to me. I have organized student exchanges for young Germans and I lived in the country together with my family in Jerusalem from 2005 to 2010 as a foreign correspondent. I experienced several wars and two intifadas. My host brother was killed in a suicide attack in 2004. I know what Israeli suffering feels like.
The true value of friendships proves itself especially in existential moments. With regard to Israel, this means that we, as Germans, must defend Israel both politically and materially when its existence is threatened. The establishment of Israel as a Jewish state was a direct consequence of the National Socialist era with the goal of providing a safe homeland to the Jews after centuries of discrimination and persecution. That is also why Israel's security, as Angela Merkel stated in her now famous speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 2008, is also cemented as a fundamental principal of the German state.
I can understand why Israelis, almost universally, are extremely skeptical of the nuclear deal with Iran. I can't understand how German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could have celebrated the deal as "historic" without knowing whether Iran would ever actually comply with it.
Still, empathy for a country also doesn't mean one has to shy away from criticism. The Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank do not contribute in any way to Israeli security. On the contrary: In the long run, they jeopardize Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state. The greater the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, the more unlikely it becomes that a two-state solution can be achieved. And the problem with a one-state solution is that, eventually, the Palestinians will represent the majority of the population and the Jewish minority would only be able to maintain control of the country with an apartheid-like regime. That is why it is correct to periodically criticize Israel's settlement policies.
There's one thing, however, that we can never allow: The conflation of the Holocaust with the Middle East conflict. And yet the Israel lobby in Germany is shameless about doing so. The most recent example came in mid-November, after Berlin's upscale KaDeWe department store temporarily removed products from Israeli settlements from the shelves because they had not been labeled correctly under European Union regulations.
Because the occupation and settlement of the Golan Heights and West Bank since 1967 is not recognized internationally, products from the Jewish colonies are not permitted to be sold under the "Product of Israel" label. Allowing such a label is not only misleading consumers according to EU law -- it also amounts to tacit approval for Israel's settlement policies.
Frustrated by the faltering peace process, EU foreign ministers agreed three years ago that a special label should be applied to products originating from the Palestinian territories. That's all KaDeWe was really doing when it announced it would temporarily pull all products from the settlements from its product range in order to exchange the labels.
A Prime Minister Goes Too Far
The news had barely even been made public before the Israel lobby was already pouncing on KaDeWe. "Tell us, is it true that you are boycotting products from Israel?" Volker Beck, a prominent member of the federal parliament with the Green Party who is also chair of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, asked in a tweet. A photo was then spread in social networks showing Nazi SA paramilitaries in 1933 standing in front of a Jewish business and holding up a "boycott" sign. Next to it is a current image of KaDeWe, with the words, "Boycott? Again?" Just before the image began circulating, Kai Diekmann, editor in chief of the tabloid Bild, had compared the EU labeling policy with the Nazis' racial fanaticism: "Do not buy from Jews. Poor Europe."
At the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting on Nov. 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also didn't mince words. "This department store had been owned by Jews; the Nazis took it," he said. "We strongly protest this step, which is unacceptable morally, practically and on its merits. We expect the German government to act on this grave matter."
Later the same day, KaDeWe officials announced the products from the settlements had been placed back on shelves. The company's management apologized, saying its decision had been "too hasty and insensitive." Of course, any business-savvy Berlin department store knows that you're better off thumbing your nose at EU regulations than at the infamous Axel Springer-owned Bild tabloid. Pleased at the decision, parliamentarian Beck tweeted, "@KaDeWeBerlin has ended its boycott of Israeli products!"
A Threat of Alienating Israel's True Friends
With such polemics, though, the Israel lobby threatens to alienate the few who still hold a favorable view of Israel. I know diplomats, pastors and politicians who have traveled to Israel with tremendous empathy, only to return to Germany disillusioned.
Even worse is the fact that the Israeli prime minister is using the same kind of rhetoric. Netanyahu has accused German Foreign Minister Steinmeier of seeking to pursue a two-state solution that would make the West Bank "Judenrein." Recently, after a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, Netanyahu claimed Palestinians were to blame for the Holocaust. The grand mufti of Jerusalem at the time, he said, had suggested the idea of the genocide to Hitler.
The Palestinians do, of course, carry a considerable share of the responsibility for the failed peace process. Their political leaders have thus far refused to recognize the Jewish character of Israel, terrorists are still venerated by Palestinian society as martyrs and streets are named after them. Still, none of this excuses the transgressions on the Israeli side.
Yet instead of recognizing that he is losing good friends, Netanyahu is demanding that people divide the world between good and evil. In his eyes, friends can only be real friends if they support his policies 100 percent. He views all others as adversaries of Israel whom he needs to fight. And when he does, he has no qualms about exploiting the Holocaust.
There's a danger that critical friends of Israel will eventually fall silent. We don't want to be lumped together with the anti-Semites and Israel haters -- particularly when our transgression is our concern for the country's future.
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