Germany and France are opening a joint cultural center in the West Bank city of Ramallah this weekend. The countries intend to promote tolerance and mutual understanding in the area of conflict.
Ramallah is at the center of the Middle East conflict
Officials from Germany's cultural institute, the Goethe Institute, which partners in the Ramallah project, believe that because of the last century of German history, the country is particularly well-qualified to be a moderator between European and Palestinian culture.
"This is something that is accepted everywhere, that Germany has come to terms with its past and has acknowledged the mistakes that it made," said Klaus Krischkok, a spokesman for the institute. "A country that has 50 years of democracy, and 50 years of coming to terms with its own history comes across as more credible."
Ramallah is at the center of the Palestinian crisis. Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat has been kept there under virtual house arrest by the Israeli army for two and a half years, and the city has been the scene of major Israeli military operations.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, left, and Jutta Limbach, who serves as the Goethe Institute's president
The Goethe Institute has centers all over the world dedicated to spreading German culture -- most recently it opened up a branch in North Korea, the nation whose borders are most closed to the outside world. Both the West Bank and North Korea are places of poverty and oppression, with more pressing problems than a lack of European culture.
Helping to avoid future conflicts
But Krischkok said that precisely in such regions, it's wise to channel resources into a Goethe Institute.
"Part of German foreign policy is the position of cultural programs," he said. "Simply because culture, education, dialogue have a certain function in promoting tolerance, promoting mutual understanding, which will help to eventually avoid future conflicts and that, I think, is a good investment."
Along with the Goethe Institute, the French cultural organization Centre Culturel Francais is helping to open the center, which is funded by the European Union and the French-German television station Arte. Both sides are making it clear that their function is not only to transmit their national cultures, but also "European culture" -- a problematic task, because Europe is full of various cultures, languages, and political points of view.
Radical differences between Europe and places like North Korea or the West Bank further complicate the exchange.
"In the special case of Germany and Korea, there have been relatively strong links between North Korea and the German Democratic Republic," he said. "These links have been pretty much cut for the last 15 years, since the GDR ceased to exist, but there are people who speak German, read German. In the case of the Palestinian territories, there's a sizeable community of Palestinian immigrants in Germany."
The West Bank facility will be heavily guarded, as are most Western installations in the Middle East. However, Goethe Institute officials stressed that it will be open to the public.