Young Israelis and Israeli Arabs are becoming increasingly interested in learning German, something that's been taboo since the Holocaust. And they're finding that learning a foreign language can have healing power.
An openness for the German language is bringing reconciliation
While the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis is the reason why relations between Germany and Israel have been delicate, both countries agree that the Holocaust should be neither repressed nor forgotten and that cultural dialogue is essential.
In this spirit, the Goethe Institute, a cultural ambassador organization commissioned by the German government, set up a branch in Tel Aviv in 1979. The Institute organizes German language lessons, puts on cultural events and makes information available on all aspects of cultural, social and political life in Germany -- an offer that attracts not only Jewish Israelis but many Palestinian Arabs as well.
Growing in terest i n the la n guage of Goethe
Rita Landsef has been a German teacher for 15 years at a high school in Haifa, one of only four schools in Israel that offer German as an elective course. She explained that the decision to take German usually isn't a spontaneous one for students.
"Some have grandparents or someone in the family who speak German," she said. "Then there are others who are simply interested in learning another foreign language….I always have very few students in my classes because there is still a problem with German, with Germany and history and so forth. But there is an increasing tendency to learn German."
The Goethe Institute is present in 80 countries
The Goethe Institute is also noticing increased interest in the German language. Every semester, 500 participants sign up for language courses, not to mention their other programs. Eighteen teachers lead everything from beginner classes to intensive courses for all levels.
Tali, an 18-year-old Israeli high school student, has high aspirations.
"I'm taking a final exam in German at the end of June and I go to a German literature class once a week: Goethe, Siegfried Lenz, Lessing, Kafka, Heine, Bertold Brecht," Tali said. "I might move to Europe and then I'll need German. It's definitely an advantage in a German-speaking country."
A world-class library
The library at the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv's is, next to the one in Paris, the second largest of all the libraries in the institute's 141 branches throughout the world. In addition to its 24,000 books, other media like newspapers, magazines, videos and CDs are also available.
Sameh Naschef, from a small Arab town, visited the library with a group of young people. He said he believes there are objective reasons to learn German.
"Just think about globalization," he said."The world has gotten smaller and we need each other. And nowadays it's just as easy to get to Germany as it is to Jerusalem. It's really not so expensive."
And a library card at the Goethe Institute, which goes for 60 shekels a year (about $13, 10 euros) isn't so expensive either. Director Georg Blochmann is pleased that the approximately 1,200 regular users are predominantly young people -- both Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs.
"Jeckes" a n d Germa n y 's legacy i n Tel Aviv
But there is another group of people in Israel are very important to Blochmann, namely former Jewish refugees and immigrants from Germany, who have been nicknamed "Jeckes."
"The 'Jeckes' have constantly helped us over the last 40 years to get a foothold in this country," he said. "They continue to support everything we do here and are incredibly open. We have guests that are all over 80 -- and every one of them is focused on the future."
These Bauhaus-style buildings in Tel Aviv are one example of European influence in the city
While the "Jeckes" tend to come to lectures on German-Israeli relations, the younger people are more interested in up-to-date information from and about Germany. This month at the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv, intercultural understanding is round and made of leather. After all, the World Cup is well underway and a crowd gathers around the two big screens in the foyer of the Institute whenever the whistle blows in Germany.
But Blochmann is already thinking beyond the World Cup.
"In 2009 we'll be celebrating Tel Aviv's 100th birthday, and I think that'll be a very, very good opportunity to think seriously about Germany and Israel," he said. "There is what I'd call a German heritage in Tel Aviv."