Germany and Israel A Relationship Full of Misunderstandings

How critical can one be of Israel? It is a question that Germany has been debating since SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist Jakob Augstein was included on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of the world's worst anti-Semites. Political leaders in Berlin have a different answer than Germans at large.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has charted a firmly pro-Israeli course.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has charted a firmly pro-Israeli course.

By and

Does Angela Merkel mistrust the very people she governs? Is she uncomfortable with the German people?

In October 2011, the German chancellor stood onstage at the academy of the Jewish Museum, in Berlin, next to conductor Daniel Barenboim. The celebratory concert had concluded, and the museum's director had just presented Merkel with its Award for Understanding and Tolerance.

This is one of many awards the chancellor has received from Jewish institutions over the last couple years, including the Heinz Galinski Prize from the Jewish Community of Berlin, the American Jewish Committee's Light Unto the Nations Award and an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University.

At the Jewish Museum, Merkel spoke a few pleasant words, calling the award both an honor and a responsibility. Then she cited a study, according to which 60 percent of Europeans -- including Germans -- consider Israel the most significant threat to world peace.

Following Merkel's logic seems to present a conclusion that two thirds of Germans harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. Is this really what the chancellor believes? Or was her intention simply, as she said in her speech, to warn against allowing anti-Semitism to increase?

Merkel's speech provides a direct path into the minefield that is relations between Jews and Germans, and between Germany and Israel. Of course it is absurd to label Israel the world's worst aggressor. But does simply making such a statement count as anti-Semitism? Where does objective criticism end and defamation begin? The controversy over journalist Jakob Augstein's columns in SPIEGEL ONLINE and elsewhere has re-ignited this debate, a storm triggered when the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles placed Augstein on its list of the world's worst anti-Semites.

Every Society Needs Taboos

Two different arenas of discussion have arisen in Germany in recent years, one for the country's politicians and one for the public. Most politicians cling tightly and fearfully to the safety of the official line when they give speeches. Particularly members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, haven't forgotten the 1988 case of Philipp Jenninger. Then president of the Bundestag, Jenninger expressed himself unclearly in a commemorative speech on the anniversary of the Nazi Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938, leaving his own views too open to interpretation. Within 24 hours of that speech, Jenninger resigned.

The general public, on the other hand, is tired of the strictures that dictate what can and cannot be said for the sake of maintaining good German-Israeli relations.

Every society needs its taboos, of course. In Germany, Holocaust denial is one such taboo, as is casting aspersions on Israel's right to exist. But doesn't each era need to find its own particular language in which to communicate? World War II has been over for more than six decades. The generation that perpetrated the crimes is dying out. Germany has become one of Israel's closest allies, as can be seen from the billions of euros' worth of arms sales from Germany to Israel. Isn't that grounds enough for speaking openly, even expressing severe criticism if necessary?

The chancellor certainly doesn't think so. More than any other head of government, she has aligned Germany with Israel. Some see these efforts toward reconciliation with the Jewish people as the only conviction the chancellor truly holds. "She takes the matter personally," says Deidre Berger, head of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee. Shimon Stein, former Israeli ambassador to Germany, was even a private guest at Merkel's weekend house in the Uckermark region northeast of Berlin.

In a 2008 address to the Knesset, Merkel declared Israel's security "part of my country's raison d'être." Even more spectacular was the statement that followed: "And if that is so, then these cannot be allowed to remain empty words at a critical time." This can only be understood as Merkel assuring Israel that Germany will step in with military aid if necessary.

Unconditional Solidarity

"A German politician must establish a relationship of mutual trust with Israel, so that criticism of Jerusalem is not misunderstood," says Ruprecht Polenz, a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and chair of the Foreign Policy Committee in the Bundestag. Chancellor Merkel has certainly done this. But she has also offered at most quiet protest over Israel's settlement policy, to little effect. Many within the Chancellery are frustrated that these arguments have not moved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the least.

Merkel's unconditional solidarity with Israel has thus failed to pay off, yet at the same time her approach has distanced the chancellor from many Germans, who are unwilling to follow her so unconditionally. Just how wide that rift has grown could be seen in the public debate last spring over a poem by Günter Grass, in which the author portrayed Israel as the aggressor in the Middle East and a threat to world peace. None of the country's top politicians came to Grass' defense. Hermann Gröhe, secretary general of the CDU, said he was "appalled" by the poem and even Sigmar Gabriel, chair of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) stated, "Some of it is excessive, and in many parts hysterical." These reactions only made the public's support for Grass all the more vehement, with letters piling up in the parties' headquarters expressing outrage over the politicians' rebuke of Grass.

What exactly does this response signify? Are the Germans a nation of anti-Semites, with the ugly countenance of hatred toward Jews lurking behind every corner, as author Tuvia Tenenbom recently suggested in his book "I Sleep in Hitler's Room: An American Jew Visits Germany"?

There have been a number of studies on anti-Semitism in Germany, and few topics have been examined as extensively as Germans' sentiments toward Jews. The most recent major study, conducted on behalf of the Federal Interior Ministry, clocks in at 204 pages.

A Degree of Skepticism

Still, the question remains: How can one measure an attitude, a feeling? In what units is hate calculated? Is someone an anti-Semite if they say Jews have too much influence in Germany? Or if they express agreement with the opinion that Jews never look after anyone but themselves and their own?

One thing can be said for certain, and that is that Germany falls more to the middle of the spectrum on such questions. In Poland and Hungary, for example, anti-Jewish sentiment is far more widespread than in Germany. All told, according to the Interior Ministry study, 20 percent of Germans harbor latent anti-Semitism.

Certainly these numbers should be taken with a degree of skepticism. The researchers themselves admit it's impossible to produce clearly measured results in this field. But one thing is clear: Germans' anti-Semitism acts as a great temptation in politics -- any politician looking to garner votes for his or her party quickly can play on anti-Jewish sentiment.

That, though, is a dangerous game, as politician Martin Hohmann found out when he used the term "a nation of perpetrators" in connection with Jews. Merkel excluded him from the CDU's parliamentary group as a result.

The story of Jürgen W. Möllemann ended badly as well. Möllemann, a top politician in the Free Democratic Party (FDP), played a game that held not only many voters in thrall, but his own party as well, stating in an interview that he could sympathize with Palestinian suicide attackers, and accusing then-Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Michel Friedman of being "intolerant and spiteful."

FDP party head Guido Westerwelle was slow to take any action on Möllemann. Not until Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the party's higher-ups intervened did Westerwelle break with Möllemann. Israel hasn't forgotten the incident and keeps Westerwelle, now Germany's foreign minister, under close observation to this day because of the Möllemann affair.


Israel feels under threat more than ever before, both from Iran and through the developments throughout the Arab world, and that sensitivity is only growing. At the same time, from Germany's perspective there are many reasons to view Israeli policies critically. The country has changed, with demographic changes due to immigration from Eastern Europe and Africa causing a political shift to the right. Hardliners will have the say here for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Israel's settlement policy will soon render the idea of a Palestinian state impossible. When Hans-Ulrich Klose, the SPD's top politician on foreign policy issues, recently attended a political congress in Israel, he met hardly any politicians still working for a two-state solution -- the solution Germany considers the only viable path to peace in the Middle East. "It was sobering," Klose stated.

What, then, should Germany do? Klose says he still believes the German government should refrain from publicly reprimanding Israel. "Why should Germany of all countries make itself Israel's critic?" he asks.

But some younger politicians take a different view, and are increasingly unwilling to stick to the old approach. "Germany has a historical responsibility," agrees Julia Klöckner, 40, head of the CDU in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate. "But that's not a blank check to be uncritical in foreign policy."

Germany needs to find a way to be less inhibited in its dealings with Israel, Klöckner suggests. She adds, "Those who throw around accusations of anti-Semitism at every turn lose credibility."

"Less inhibited in dealings with Israel"? "Throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism"? Are these acceptable things to say? Klöckner may find herself taking considerable heat for her statements -- or meeting with considerable approval.

Translated by Ella Ornstein

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venze 01/15/2013
1. venze
It is not a question of can or cannot. Of course, Germany can voice its opinion. After all, it was German's antisemitism that prompted the creation of Israel, and the long deep mistrust between the two nations still runs deep and strong. (vzc1943, mtd1943)
clockwatchr 01/16/2013
Israel doesn't care whether Germany endorses the policy of building settlements in what would become Palestine or not. If it doesn't care what the USA thinks, then sadly it certainly won't care what Germany thinks. Germany's role, for many years to come, will be to support Israel when it can, and to keep quiet when it can't. This may not be fair, or rational, but it is a consequence of history, and it is the only honourable course of action that remains for Germany at this time. It is to the great credit of Germany that most its people recognize this reality and are prepared to abide by it. Despite all of the sophistication of international relations, relationships between countries are not so different from relationships between individuals. Wrongs must be righted, and the duration of righting far outlasts the duration of the wronging, and most Germans, even young Germans, know this and accept this, and it honourable and commendable that they do so.
scott784 07/30/2013
I could not agree more with clockwatchr. Germany's role, for many years to come, will be (or at least should be) to support Israel when it can.....and to remain quiet when it cannot. As this poster stated, it is a consequence of history! I am a supporter of Germany and its people. But, c'mon, if there is ever to be any criticism of the policies of the Israel govt, it should be left up to other European governments. Some people may think 6 decades (since the Holocaust) is a long time. But in the course of history, it really is not! Yes, indeed, there have been many other atrocities throughout history. But what happened in WWII can NEVER be forgotten. And it is beyond despicable. Sadly, history shows us that it is a consequence of what can happen when a society does not make themselves aware of what is going on around them.
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