The Missing Link: On the Widening Gap in German-Israeli Relations

When I decided to come to Israel for my master studies, my friends demonstrated a mixture of astonishment and consternation. “What do you have to do with this belligerent people?” was just one reaction from this side. A sentence like “wow, that’s amazing to study there!” was an absolute rarity. But how should they possibly know that Israel is the second-most educated nation in the world?

This episode is symptomatic of the German lack of knowledge about Israel, its mixed society, its turbulent history, and its yet buoyant daily life and culture. This lack of knowledge, not to say ignorance, is causal for incrementally deteriorating relations or what former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, called just recently “the gulf between German politics and German public opinion.”

Indeed, Israel really cannot complain about the German politics in the last 60 years. Chancellor Angela Merkel made in her Knesset speech in 2008 clear that Israel’s security is Germany’s reason of state. When Israel had been opposing a German arms deal with Saudi Arabia just few months ago, it eventually did not happen. That it was the same Chancellor who repeatedly criticized Netanyahu’s administration for ongoing settlement constructions? Who cared as long as it were just words. Until two weeks ago – when deeds followed the words, and Germany abstained at the Palestinian UN resolution and Netanyahu expressed his disappointment with Germany.

But it feels as if the German people has sighed with relief: “Finally, our politicians have been enlightened and we will put now some pressure on Israel!” Reading the comments under Israel-related articles in mainstream media is quite shocking. There, ignorance meets prejudice (and no, they are not even necessarily anti-Semitic) meets starry-eyed idealism.

But how come that the German people has become so critical of Israel? It is a sheer clash of generations. The very old generation simply had to remain silent on Israeli issues due to the proximity of time. Many had been born in the 1920s: how on earth should these people defy the Jewish state? The next generation, the one of Chancellor Merkel had to stand with Israel because of the simple worldview in the Cold War era (though Merkel as an Eastern German is a bad example for backing Israel during this period). But my generation is free of all those restraints. We are not personally responsible for the Holocaust and we are mature citizens who are critical of what governments try to sell us as just policies.

As odd as it may sound, the Holocaust has hold the State of Israel, German politics, and German population together for centuries. Today, the Holocaust just unites the political entities of Israel and Germany, but the German people is fading out of this equation with the result that it becomes very critical of Israel, just as the French or British people are. It is important to get both societies, the German and the Israeli, back to the equation. But it is also clear that the four-sided figure will not stick together only on the basis of common memory and historical responsibility. Something that would link the two people and the two states is missing today.

It should be the strategic interest of both states to make the intensification of social relations the fundamental pillar of the regular intergovernmental consultations in Berlin and Jerusalem. Exchange programs, which do already exist (especially in science), need to be further expanded to reach the biggest possible part of the society from an early age. When most German high schools can afford to have annual exchanges with the United States, why not with Israel? When Israeli high schools can afford to tour through Poland and relive history, why not also come to Germany and invest in the future?

About the Author
Robert Friebe is a graduate student in Tel Aviv University's “Security & Diplomacy” Master program. He runs a personal blog about the experiences of a German student in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.