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Doubting Israel

Daniella Cheslow
November 23, 2012

Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's strong, traditional backing for Israel, some Germans are becoming more critical of the country and calling into question Germany's unequivocal support.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Image: dapd

German filmmaker Marcus Vetter began his three-year project in Jenin by happenstance. He was asked to pitch in on a movie about the father of a Palestinian boy killed by the Israeli army in Jenin. The father, Ismail Khatib, donated his son's organs, and the heart went to an Israeli child.

Vetter says that as he worked on the film "Heart of Jenin" (2008) he was inspired to help reopen a long-shuttered cinema in the northern West Bank city. In the process, he recruited 300 mostly German volunteers and donations from the German government.

His project aimed to bring culture and life to a war-battered city in the West Bank. But it was also a sign of more Germans finding common cause with Palestinians despite their government's close relations with Israel. Many say that the Holocaust is no reason to ignore what they see as unjust Israeli policy. And as German leaders pledged their support for Israel this week, they balked at supporting airstrikes over Gaza.

When he began his work, Vetter arrived in a broken, poor and angry city. Jenin had been a hotbed of Palestinian militarism in the second Intifada. In response to waves of Palestinian suicide bombings in Jewish cities, Israel flattened whole parts of the Jenin refugee camp and devastated the local economy. When Vetter landed the city was surrounded by checkpoints that cut off access to the West Bank and to Israel.

"I saw the humiliation, and the destroying of houses and I thought, this is not normal," he said.

Yet the people were friendly and open, and Vetter saw a chance to bring a ray of hope. He teamed up with Ismail Khatib, the bereaved father, and a local Palestinian filmmaker. As Cinema Jenin grew, Vetter says 300 international volunteers, mostly German, flocked to Jenin to strip the floors, reupholster old seats, and paint the walls. The doors opened in August 2010 in a citywide jubilee complete with a red carpet and a visit from Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The opening film was Heart of Jenin.

Marcus Vetter with one of the Palestinian kids who helped on the project
Marcus Vetter with one of the Palestinian kids who helped on the project.Image: Irris Makler

Outside of the West Bank, though, Vetter said his film gathered less than a gala reception.

"People said this was pro-Palestinian, they asked me where the other side is and why aren't you showing an Israeli donating his organs to the Palestinians," he said. Today, however, "nobody says a word against it."

Changing views

This change is a reflection of a wider shift in German views of Palestinians, he said.

"They are more and more questioning if Israel does the right thing when they destroy houses of Palestinians, or when they build checkpoints," Vetter said.

Vetter says public opinion has deteriorated recently over two landmark events: One was the 2006 Lebanon War, when Israel retaliated for a Hezbollah raid with a punishing assault that left 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israeli people dead. The second was the 2008-9 Israeli invasion of Gaza, which resulted in 1,400 Palestinian mostly civilian casualties, sparking an international outcry.

Berlin musician Felix Gebauer, 28, who volunteered in Jenin, said he could not back blanket German support for Israel.

"We have a special obligation toward the Jewish people," he said. "But we are not supporting the Jewish people by sending weapons to the Israeli government. And we don't do a favor to our Israeli friends by supporting the occupation, which is shameful."

Voices of criticism are far from unanimous. This week, as Israel launched 1,500 airstrikes on Gaza in response to months of rocket firing, Merkel declared that Israel has a right to defend itself. Berlin's popular BZ newspaper published a graphic of Berlin as though it were within range of rockets from Gaza. Berlin's Central Council of Jews in Germany published a letter of solidarity condemning the "daily terror" of rockets from Gaza that is "too often ignored by the world and tolerated in silence."

The Council declined to answer DW's questions.

Protests growing

All the same, the critical voices are growing. Recently, about 800 people marched in Berlin against Israeli actions in Gaza. They were countered by a smaller group of 250 Israel supporters. The protesters say Israel is acting with a heavy hand, pointing to 162 Palestinian casualties, nearly half of them civilians.

Israeli soldiers copyright:
Many Germans have become critical of Germany's unequivocal support of Israel.Image: Breaking the Silence

Gaza aside, another flashpoint for critique of Israel came last year from Nobel Laureate Gunther Grass. He published a poem in one of the country's largest newspapers, saying that Israel is a threat to world peace. Israel banned him from entering the country in response.

"Basically he expressed what a majority of German people think," said Professor Michael Wolffsohn, an historian at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich.

Unlike Vetter, Wolffsohn says this gulf between officials and the people on Israel is nothing new in Germany. Rather, the gulf between the two countries is decades old, and public opinion rises and falls in cycles according to violence in the Middle East. But he says German opinion of Israel is steadily and gradually getting worse. Israel consistently ranks among the least-liked countries among Germans.

History divides

"Germans and Israelis and Jews in general have learned different lessons from the same history," he told DW. "Germans have learned never again to use military force as a political instrument, to never again be perpetrators….And Israelis have learned to never again be victims, that sometimes you have to use force to survive."

For Vetter the Israel-Hamas violence caught him with no ready answers.

"This war is just as unjust as the war in 2008," he said. All the same, when it comes to solutions, he said "I don't know what to think. I am more or less desperate."

Vetter left Jenin last year after radical Palestinians murdered Juliano Mer Khamis, a charismatic theater director with Israeli and Palestinian parents. After the murder, Vetter said he no longer felt safe in the West Bank and is now back in Germany. He has followed the work of the International Criminal Court, which could one day hear cases of alleged Israeli and Hamas war crimes.

"After three years of working at Cinema Jenin I have to recover mentally and financially," he said. "Three years I was working pro bono and have to recover financially until I can do something similar again."

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