1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German Not Wanted in Israel

DW staff (jen)January 18, 2005

Some Israeli politicians are protesting a planned speech in parliament by German President Horst Köhler, arguing that the address, which Köhler will make in German, is an insult to Holocaust survivors.

Köhler's speech in Israel will remind some of the Nazi eraImage: AP

"As long as there are still Holocaust survivors among us, the German language should not be spoken in parliament," Israel's Minister of Health Dani Naveh told the right-wing Israeli daily newspaper Maariv.

Naveh said he plans to boycott the speech, which Köhler will make toward the end of January, to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. His comment echoes the feelings of a number of members of the Israeli parliament or Knesset. Other Jewish public figures have spoken out in favor of Köhler using his native German.

Johannes Rau in Aschdad
Previous German President Johannes Rau visited Israel in 2003Image: AP

The current dispute harkens back to 2000, when Germany's then-President Johannes Rau made the first address of a German president to the Knesset. His speech, also in German, caused a similar uproar.

Reminders of the Nazi era?

Responding to the current round of criticism, the acting president of the Knesset, Hemi Doron, said he would ask his superiors to cancel the event or to ask Köhler to hold his speech in English.

"My feet have never touched German soil, and I buy no German products," said Doron, whose grandfather was killed in the Holocaust. "I cannot allow that language to be spoken in the house of parliament of the Jewish people," he said.

Member of the Knesset (MK) Gila Finkelstein also said Köhler should speak in English, not German.

'Open wound'

"My whole body will tremor if I hear German in the Knesset," said Finkelstein, whose extended family was murdered in the Holocaust. "There is an open wound," she said, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Monday. Finkelstein called on Köhler to "act with sensitivity" and not speak German.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who has rejected as the MKs' requests, was instrumental in the decision to allow Köhler to deliver his speech in German in the first place.

"It is clear that a visiting president speaks in his language," Rivlin told the Jerusalem Post. It would be "better not to extend an invitation than to demand that the guest speak in a different language," he argued.

Regierungskrise in Israel
Some Members of the Knesset at workImage: AP

At the same time, Rivlin said he understands MKs who argue that Israel cannot ignore what happened under the Nazis. But he also said the protest should not be directed toward one person or his spoken language, but a historic occurrence that "we must remember and not forget."

Insulting request?

Opposition leader Yosef Lapid -- himself a Holocaust survivor -- said the situation is different now than it was when Germany and Israel first resumed diplomatic relations. Forty years ago, Lapid would have have opposed a German address in the Knesset. Since then, Israel's relations with Germany have changed. Now, Lapid said, it would be insulting to prevent the German president from speaking in his own language.

In an interview in Germany's Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and a prominent literary critic in Germany, criticized the discussion in Israel. Köhler should address the Knesset in German, he arged, calling the boycott threats "not only deplorable but shameful and, in the end, incomprehensible."

Associating the German language only with the Nazi regime and saying its use in the Knesset would defile Holocaust survivors is "pure nonsense," said Reich-Ranicki. It neglects, for instance, the fact that German-speaking Jews have played an enormous role in the development of modern thought, he told the paper.

German thinkers

"We can no longer imagine physics without Albert Einstein, psychology without Sigmund Freud, sociology without Karl Marx, literature without Franz Kafka, and modern music without Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg -- all German speaking Jews," Reich-Ranicki said.

He also noted that the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzle, published a decisive book on the creation of a Jewish state, Der Judenstaat in German in 1896, and that Herzl had long debated whether German should be that country's lingua franca.

It was only after the founding of the state of Israel that Hebrew became the official language because it was the common denominator among Jews of different nationalities.

Changing concerns

The German culture will soon cease to be a touchy topic in Israel, according to Reich-Ranicki. The current generation has too much else on its mind, said the man known in Germany as a "literature czar."

"In Israel, they won't discuss much longer whether Wagner should be played in concert halls or German should be spoken in parliament," he predicted. "The new generation of Israeli Jews isn't worried at all about such subjects. And that's a good thing."