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Maas begins Israel visit with tour of Holocaust memorial

March 25, 2018

On a trip to Israel, Germany's foreign minister has called on society to keep fighting against anti-Semitism. Maas' trip will see him meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Heiko Maas at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Yefimovich

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas vowed that Germany would continue to fight against anti-Semitism and racism "everywhere and everyday," as he kicked off his two-day visit to Israel and Palestinian territories on Sunday with a tour of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

"Germany bears the responsibility for the most barbarous crime in the history of humanity," Maas wrote in the visitors' book at the Yad Vashem memorial. "The Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust) remains a warning and duty to us to campaign for human rights and tolerance worldwide. We stand by the country that remembers everyone here in Yad Vashem whose lives and dreams were destroyed."

Read more: Heiko Maas embarks on a tricky trip to Israel

Maas has made improving relations with Israel a focal point of his new role as Germany's new top diplomat. During the handover ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, where he took over the reins from Sigmar Gabriel, Maas stressed that "it's because of Auschwitz that I chose to go into politics."

The Social Democratic lawmaker also said that the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel would mark "the miracle of our friendship." Anniversary celebrations in Israel are set to begin on April 18 and go on into mid-May.

Read more: Opinion: Should school trips to Auschwitz be mandatory in Germany?

The German foreign minister is set to meet with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin later on Sunday, before holding talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday. Maas is also slated to meet with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Heiko Maas in Israel
Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, standing alongside Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, laid a wreath in the Hall of Memory inside the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in JerusalemImage: Imago/photothek/T. Koehler

Israeli-German ties frayed

Maas' state visit to Israel comes at a crucial juncture in Israeli-German relations. Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to cancel annual talks with Israel early last year, ties between the two countries have become increasingly strained.

Read more: German-Israeli relations: What you need to know

Merkel justified calling off the talks by saying she needed to dedicate more time to last year's federal elections, although several reports followed indicating that chancellor's decision was motivated in large part by Israel's ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Shortly afterwards, Netanyahu called off talks with former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, after the latter met with officials from Breaking the Silence, an NGO that tracks violent attacks carried out by Israeli security forces on Palestinians.

The two countries are also at odds over the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel vehemently rejects but Germany staunchly defends.

Read more: Are Germany and Israel in broken-promise runoff for a UN Security Council seat?

Maas condemns anti-Semitism in German schools

Maas also used his trip to Israel to highlight the apparent rise of anti-Semitic incidents at German schools.

"When a child is threatened with anti-Semitism, it is shameful and unbearable. We must stand firm against all forms of anti-Semitism," Maas told German tabloid Bild. Everything must be done worldwide "to protect Jewish life," he added.

It follows reports this weekend of a Jewish girl in Berlin being mobbed by a group of Muslim students for "not believing in Allah." The father of the girl said she even had her life threatened.

The German parliament voted earlier this year to create a designated anti-Semitism commissioner post to handle the increasing number of hate-fueled attacks against Jews.

Living in fear: How anti-Semitic is Germany?

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dm/tj (dpa, KNA, epd)