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Germany

Breaking a Taboo

With Germany’s ascending role in the world diplomatic community comes the discarding of certain taboos. In the past week, one of those has been avoiding open criticism of Israel.

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Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

A complete about face it isn’t.

Germany continues to consider itself Israel’s second-most important ally behind the United States, trade between the two nations climbs every year, and the country’s horrible past continues to shape modern German society and its relationship to the Jewish community.

But the weight of the country’s new, more active role on the world stage has forced it to step on toes it wouldn’t have before.

German politicians, both in the opposition and within Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s government, have lashed out this past week at Israel’s West Bank occupation. The comments, coupled with nationwide demonstrations against the Israeli government, display a critical evaluation of the German-Israeli relationship not visible in Germany for at least 20 years.

Indirect support for Palestinians

It began with a published interview with Juergen Moellemann, member of the liberal Free Democratic Party and head of the German-Arab Congress. In the interview with the left-leaning Tageszeitung on Thursday, Moellemann gave indirect approval of Palestinian action against Israelis, saying that if Germany were occupied, he would also respond with violence.

"I would also protect myself," he said in the short interview.

The remark was greeted with outrage in the leadership of Germany’s Jewish community and among some politicians.

Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, spoke of a "moral bankruptcy" and said Moelleman stood "shoulder-to-shoulder with anti-Semites."

The chair of Schröder’s Social Democratic Party, Franz Muentefering, said Moellemann was "pouring oil into the fire."

Moelleman’s party colleagues have rallied to his side.

Avoiding the "anti-Semitic corner"

"It must be possible in Germany to criticize the military politics of the Israeli government without being pushed into the anti-Semitic corner," said FDP chair Guido Westerwelle.

Germany’s former foreign minister, Helmut Schaefer, was more critical. He spoke of the "brazen method used by the Israeli lobby for years to accuse anyone who talks about Israeli human rights abuses of being an anti-Semite."

Politicians in traditionally Israel-supportive Christian Democratic Union have also voiced concern. In a letter to the Israeli Ambassador to Germany, former employment minister and CDU member Norbert Bluem demanded Israel stop the "unscrupulous and destructive war" against the Palestinians.

Historical perspective

Criticism of the Israeli government was last this intense in the 1970s, a decade in which Germany began to critically evaluate its Nazi past. Countless books and studies were commissioned examining the Third Reich and ist persecution of Germany’s jewish population. Children began to drill their parents on their part in the Holocaust and Hitler’s rise to power.

At the same time, an active anti-Zionist movement was growing among the political left in Germany. Among its members, current Foreign Minister and Green Party member Joschka Fischer. Fischer attended anti-Zionist events and gave speeches critical of Israeli action against Palestinians.

In an development typical of Germany’s evolution over the last two decades, Fischer abandoned the radicalism of his youth and became a world-class diplomat and respected Middle East negotiator.

Forcing their hands

He and his boss, Chancellor Schröder, have been careful to criticize both Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the worsening situaiton in the region. The pair have chosen to use broad and vague wording in their pleas, stopping short of demanding anything concrete from both sides other than a return to the negotiating table.

But last week’s occupation, and Washington’s inaction, finally forced the pair’s hand. In a joint statement with Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar, Schröder demanded Israel pull out of the West Bank cities it was occupying and return to the negotiating table.

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