German President Host Köhler on Tuesday began an official four-day state visit to Israel. The highlight of his visit will a be a controversial speech before the Israeli parliament on Wednesday.
Horst Köhler (center, with hat) at Auschwitz death camp on Jan. 27
Köhler, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, has made a name for himself as a man who hates small talk and likes to get down to business right away. His talks with high-ranking Israeli leaders later on Tuesdy will provide him with another opportunity to do just that.
But for several reasons, the visit is anything but a routine job for Germany's president, said Manfred Lahnstein, the head of the Hamburg-based German-Israeli Society.
"We have encouraging developments in the Middle East and that is a good background for the visit," Lahnstein said, adding that it marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. "We have had the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz annihilation camp. So you have our ongoing historic responsibility, the fostering and strengthening of excellent albeit not normal relations between the two countries and some political processes, which look promising."
German speech sparks protests
On Wednesday, Köhler is due to deliver a speech on German-Israeli relations before parliament, the Knesset. His plan to hold his speech in German has already provoked protests among a small number of Israeli deputies who are poised to leave the hall when Köhler starts his speech.
Knesset in Jerusalem
Israel’s Minister of Health Dani Naveh said he plans to boycott President Köhler’s speech. He told the right-wing Israeli daily newspaper Maariv that as long as Holocaust survivors are still alive, German should not be spoken in Israel's parliament.
His comment echoed the feelings of a number of parliamentary deputies. The acting president of the Knesset, Hemi Doron, said he would ask his superiors either to cancel the speech or to ask Köhler to hold it in English. Doron, whose grandfather was killed in the Holocaust, said his feet had never touched German soil and he never bought German products. So he could not allow the German language to be spoken in the Jewish people’s house of parliament.
"A normal procedure"
But Lahnstein said Köhler's decision to speak in German was nothing unusual nor unprecendented.
Former President Johannes Rau (right) and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Katzav (left) in Germany in 2002.
"That is a normal procedure that a president of a country who visits the parliament of another country and delivers a speech does so in his own tongue," he said, adding that former German President Johannes Rau (photo) was the first to do so five years ago. "On the other hand we have to understand that there are some members of the Knesset, which for very personal reasons cannot live with it and they will leave the hall of the Knesset. This happened five years ago as well and we have to understand it, and the rest should be dignity on both sides and it will be dignity on both sides."
Some Jewish public figures have spoken out in favor of Köhler using his native German. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who was instrumental in the decision to allow the visiting president to deliver his speech in German, insisted it would be better not to extend an invitation than to demand that the guest speak in a different language. And Israel’s former ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor (photo below), also said he thinks there is no reason why Köhler should not speak in German.
"First of all, the relations between Israel and Germany are such that this kind of a question shouldn't arise at all," he said. "And secondly, the German language is not only the language of the Nazis, but was a very important language before the Nazis and is a very important language after the Nazis. It was a very important language for the Jewish people."
German far-right overshadows visit
But political observers in Germany are also afraid that Köhler’s trip to Israel may be overshadowed by a recent scandal surrounding the far-right National Party (NPD) in Saxony’s regional assembly. NPD leaders there had likened the end-of-WWII allied bombings on German towns to the Holocaust, giving rise to a fresh debate about anti-Semitism in Germany.
A yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis is on display at Yad Vashem
Manfred Lahnstein said the German president will have no way of dodging the issue, but is confident that the incident will not mar Köhler’s talks with Israeli leaders. During his trip, the German president will also take out time to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial where he’s due to honor the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.