Are Germany and Israel growing apart? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.02.2012
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Are Germany and Israel growing apart?

What do Germans and Israelis have in common? What sets them apart? Experts from both countries discussed their relationship at a conference at Berlin's Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Nitzan Horowitz likes to remember the summer of 2006, when he covered the Football World Cup from Germany as a reporter for Israeli television.

Every evening, caught up in the elation of the joyful summer event, he tried to communicate this newly self-confident and cheerful Germany to his fellow Israelis.

He beseeched his countrymen not to be afraid of images on television showing Germans waving flags. It was, he said, not proof of German nationalism, but it stood for the light-heartedness of the World Cup and the hospitality of the German people.

German-Israeli friendship

Today, Horowitz is a member of the Israeli parliament for the Meretz party, and German-Israeli relations are a political concern close to his heart.

"I think today, Germany is an anchor of democracy," he told DW. "Not just in Europe, but in the whole world."

Nitzan Horowitz

'Today, Germany is an anchor of democracy,' says Horowitz

Germany, he says, is a strong, democratic and stable state that sets a good example for other countries. Horowitz points out that younger people in both countries look ahead to the future, rather than back at the past.

The new generation has cultivated a lively exchange on the political, economic, scientific and cultural level, he says, in addition to countless private friendships between Israelis and Germans that have led to a stronger understanding between the two nations.

But Michael Wolffsohn, a German-Israeli historian, doesn't share Horowitz's point of view.

Historic connection

"There is no friendship between Germany and Israel," he said in a recent interview.

Wolffsohn says opinion polls show the gap between the countries has increased since 1981, when a fierce controversy between then-leaders Menachem Begin and Helmut Schmidt concerning planned German arms sales to Saudi Arabia led to a profound break in relations. He says Israel had an exceptionally good reputation in Germany following the 1967 Six-Day War, only tarnished slightly by the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Michael Wolffsohn

Wolffsohn says Israel ranks as one of the most unpopular states in the world in the eyes of the German public

Today, Wolffsohn says Israel ranks as one of the most unpopular states in the world in the eyes of the German public.

Wolffsohn and Horowitz presented their differing views at a recent conference at Berlin's Heinrich-Böll Foundation, where Germans and Israelis discussed what the countries have in common and what sets them apart.

"What ties us together is the Shoah," said Shimon Stein, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany. He says the Shoah, the extermination of Europe's Jews by Nazi Germany, will overshadow relations between the two countries for a long time.

Thanks in part to this historic connection, German leaders have time and again reaffirmed their commitment to Israel's security and right to exist.

But what does this mean, exactly? Would Germany, for example, back Israel if the Israeli army attacked Iran in an attempt to stop the country from developing its nuclear program? The former ambassador was never able to get a clear answer to this question.

Shared values

Shimon Stein

'What ties us together is the Shoah,' says ex-ambassador Stein

Gadi Algazi, a historian who lives in Tel Aviv, would rather not see Germany on the side of Israel in any potential attack on Iran. A military strike against Iran's nuclear program would be devastating, he says, adding that Germany should never support such a political solution.

In his opinion, Israel's best friends are those young activists who demonstrate alongside Palestinians and Israelis against the occupation in the West Bank.

"One could sum up what we ask of Israel: an end to its colonization politics," he said. "As long as Israel's settlement policy continues, we will not have peace in the Middle East. This is the heart of our tragedy. For that reason, I would call for economic and political pressure on Israel until it agrees to completely stop its colonization."

Naomi Chazan, a political scientist and a former member of the Knesset, shares his opinion. "What ties us together is not the past, but the future," she said, adding that the Germans have become accustomed to letting history define their relationship with Israel.

But Chazan thinks the common values shared by the two countries are more important than the historical burden, and she thinks friends of Israel should support Israeli society in its struggle for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and social justice.

Chazan says without democracy, Israel has no livelihood and no future. As president of the NGO New Israel Fund, she is committed to a pluralistic and egalitarian society in her country, and as a result has been the target of furious attacks from the political right.

Criticism allowed

Even Carlo Strenger, a Swiss psychoanalyst and author, has come under fire for his criticism of Israeli politics. But, he said in an interview with DW, this has not prevented him from continuing to publish his views.

Strenger expects the same from German supporters of Israel. Criticism of Israeli politics is allowed, he says, and tolerated because of the close relationship between the two countries.

He understands that, due to the shared history, it may be difficult for German politicians to criticize Israel. In this respect, he admires German Chancellor Angela Merkel: while she does not attempt to hide Germany's past, neither does she shrink from legitimate criticism.

Author: Bettina Marx / db/cmk
Editor: Joanna Impey

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