In 1947, my grandfather Hanns Ludin was executed as a Nazi war criminal in Bratislava. He was Nazi Germany’s envoy to Slovakia from
1941 to 1945 and was instrumental in the deportation of the Slovak Jews, most of whom were murdered in the concentration camps. His participation in the Holocaust is a painful fact which some relatives from my mother’s family will not fully acknowledge or come to terms with until this very day.
Before I was able to confront the full meaning of this legacy, I worked as Middle East advisor in the German parliament. From 1988, I cooperated closely with the Israeli peace camp, with Israeli and Palestinian individuals and NGOs. During the First Intifada, I was appointed as an observer for UNRWA in the West Bank, and in 1990, I was promoted to become UNRWA’s spokesperson in the Gaza Strip. It was there that I experienced the 1991 Gulf War. The Palestinians were under a tight military curfew for six weeks, and when Saddam Hussein was defeated and it was finally lifted, frustrations and tensions were high. Israeli civilians—journalists, lawyers, human rights workers, representatives of NGOs—who had regularly visited the Gaza Strip refrained from doing so, as it seemed unsafe. Then, to my surprise, one day a man whose name I had not heard before came to look me up in my UNRWA office: He was Dan Bar-On, professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University, founder of its Conflict Resolution Program, Holocaust and peace researcher.
It was courageous of Dan to come to Gaza at that time, but he was determined to start dialogues between Palestinians and Israelis based on the approach he had developed in the 1980s between the children of Holocaust survivors and of Nazi perpetrators. He called it “To Reflect and Trust” and, later, “Storytelling in Conflict.”
The Tense Triangle
Presumably Dan was curious to learn who this German woman was, living among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. His instincts were spot-on: It did not take long until I told him how my M.A. in Middle Eastern studies and my work in the German parliament had gotten me here—and about my grandfather, the Nazi. He, in turn, told me all about his family’s origins in Hamburg, coincidentally my place of birth, before his parents moved to Palestine, where he was born in Haifa in 1938. He told me about his work and his new dialogue project. Eventually, I drove him back to the Israeli checkpoint where his car was parked.
Something struck a chord during this unexpected, intense encounter. Back then, I hadn’t yet fully grasped the complexity of it, and I also didn’t anticipate meeting Dan Bar-On again, let alone working with him from 2006-2008 in the training program “Storytelling Conflict” in Hamburg (Koerber Foundation). Eventually it dawned on me what had revealed itself on that specific day in Gaza: “the tense triangle” as Dan termed it—the link between Israelis, Palestinians, and Germans. Historically and currently, their three collective narratives differ from each other, often in a conflicting way, yet at the same time they are deeply entangled.
German-Israeli Relations After World War II
In September 1952, Israelis and Germans signed the “Luxembourg Agreement” on reparations, according to which West Germany would pay Israel for the costs of “resettling so great a number of uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees” and would compensate individual Jews for the persecution they had suffered under the Nazis. Germany pledged to pay 3 billion Deutschmarks within the following 14 years, plus another DM 450 million to the “Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.”
The reparation talks started out with huge tension, animosity, fears, and mistrust, especially, of course, on the part of the Jewish representatives. The atmosphere among the negotiators was icy. Just seven years after World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust were still painfully present. The Israelis, most of whom were “Yekkes”, (Jews of German origin), initially refused to speak the “contaminated language,” which was, after all, their mother tongue. But during the course of the negotiations, “the handed down Jewish rooting in the German language was eventually too deep to resist using it,” says German-Israeli historian Dan Diner.1
The reparation payments were strictly limited to solving material problems—and among Israelis they were hugely controversial. Many
considered this rapprochement as a betrayal of the victims of the Nazis. Some even dubbed the payments “blood money,” fearing that the Germans would want to buy their way out of their past crimes. Israel’s acceptance of the German compensation, however, was based on dire practical needs. The young state was in a most threatening economic crisis and urgently needed funds to avoid further strict austerity measures. The aid coming from the United States was still rather insignificant in those days. “The reparations money from Germany basically saved the economy”, says Benny Bental, professor of economics at the University of Haifa, in the Israeli newspaper
The Negative Power of Silence
The German money was not designed to heal the traumas of the survivors and their families, who until today are confronted with the
transgenerational consequences of the Holocaust. Most survivors maintained their silence, as it was far too painful and thus wise not to revive the traumatic experiences. Money may ease the external circumstances of life, but it cannot repair psychological damage. The reparations were thus just band-aids stuck on festering wounds, and perhaps they also dampened the survivors’ urge to avenge the Nazi crimes.
Among Germans, too, silence regarding the Nazi era generally prevailed after the war and up to the student revolts of 1968. The silence
about individual guilt and crimes committed by one’s own relatives actually prevails in most German families until today. In the aftermath of World War II, Germans perhaps hoped that the reparations would lead to reconciliation. They were covering up their guilt and trying to do away with their feelings of guilt and shame. With the Luxemburg Agreement, German politicians clearly wanted to demonstrate that the country had left its Nazi past behind and had become “a different Germany,” as Ben-Gurion called it. Many Nazis, however, among them war criminals, quickly (re-) established their careers in West Germany without ever being held accountable for their deeds.
Since 1949, Germany has certainly become a different place and a state with a stable democracy—but many Germans have not really broken with their past.
In 1956 and 1957, the German parliament passed two indemnification laws which ensured that Jewish survivors would be paid lifetime pensions. In May 1965, bilateral diplomatic ties were established between Israel and Germany—just four years after the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Germany became Israel’s “locomotive for European relations,”3 says former Israeli Ambassador to Germany Avi Primor.
The German-Israeli relationship gradually adopted reliable structures. It wasn’t only financial aid coming from Germany, but there were also continuous arms sales of considerable size, which both sides profited from enormously. The transactions started in the 1950s and recently involved several Dolphin submarine deals with the German shipbuilder Thyssen- Krupp. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been accused of having benefitted illegally from these deals.
More financial compensation programs administered by the German Government were created to respond to the claims of Jews from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and to compensate forced laborers. According to the German Foreign Ministry, 74 billion euros have been paid in compensation for the Nazi injustice until today, of which 29 billion euros went to survivors living in Israel. Some 300 million euros add to their pensions annually. Within the EU, Germany remains Israel’s most important economic partner and the third biggest worldwide after the United States and China.
Israeli-German relations, however, go far beyond economic considerations. Over the past 54 years, they have extended into intense
political and cultural ties and joint projects in education, science, and research. There are intense school, youth, and sport exchanges, interreligious dialogues, and commemorative programs. Many Germans love Israeli literature, films, art, and theatre—and also Jewish names. They are avid visitors to Israel, and some have even converted to Judaism and moved there.
While some Israelis still refuse to buy German products or visit the country of the perpetrators, surveys have shown that the mood toward Germans is generally very favorable. Today, some 20.000 young Israelis live in the city of Berlin alone. There are many friendships and love relationships between Israelis and Germans which have been built on trust and understanding. These relationships often fail, however, if they are based on unprocessed feelings, traumas, and desires for relief relating to the Nazi era.
Israel’s Security—Germany’s Raison d’Ètat
In 2008, Angela Merkel, the first German chancellor ever to speak in the Knesset, clearly stated that Israel’s security was “part of the German state’s raison d’ètat” and that Israel’s security was not negotiable.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. On April 15, 2019, Merkel congratulated Benjamin Netanyahu on winning the elections, underscoring the special relationship between the two countries. Yet she also stressed the importance of the two-state solution, relating to the fact that Netanyahu had pledged to annex parts of the West Bank—a claim he repeated in the wake of the second general Israeli election on September 17. In recent years, there has been growing annoyance regarding the Israeli Government’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Wars, violence, and the politics of division dominate the political scene. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement
(BDS) and the anti-boycott campaign launched by the Israeli Government and its allies have widened the rift. Furthermore, Benjamin Netanyahu’s battle against Israeli civil society and against NGOs that are still fostering visions of peace between Israelis and Palestinians has divided not only his own society but German society as well. In Germany, there is an ideological, often emotionally highly charged dispute over Israel which is cutting through all social and political strata, be it in party politics, extra-parliamentary movements, or cultural, religious, or private circles. It often lacks nuance and information—or it is intentionally distorted as a political tool.
In April 2017, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) clashed with Netanyahu in the
run-up to his official visit to Israel. Netanyahu had given him an ultimatum, demanding that he cancel his meetings with representatives of “B’Tselem” and “Breaking the Silence.” Talking with both these Israeli NGOs had been customary previously and politically inoffensive; in fact it was natural to speak with all actors at the heart of the conflict, irrespective of their points of views, as long as they operated within a democratic context. “It is neither unseemly nor surprising to speak to critics of the Israeli Government,” responded Gabriel and insisted on carrying out his planned schedule. Netanyahu promptly canceled the meeting with him.
Meanwhile, German institutions such as Protestant academies, municipal facilities, and universities have increasingly been closing their
doors to outspoken Israelis and other critics of the occupation, accusing them of supporting BDS. Entire conferences with renowned speakers who had hitherto been welcome guests have been cancelled. Cities like Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt no longer rent halls to specific groups planning to host events on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a mere association with BDS often suffices to justify the ban.
In May 2018, the Berlin House of Representatives passed a resolution embracing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “working definition of anti-Semitism.” It defines any criticism of Israel as a threat to Jewish life everywhere, labelling supporters of BDS indiscriminately as anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, some anti-Semites can also be found within the BDS movement, because anti-Semites will happily seize any opportunity to play out their anti-Jewish resentments. They must be identified, confronted, and excluded, as would be mandatory in any other context as well. Racists must be shown the red card, everywhere and at any time. But there is no justification for branding an entire, very diverse movement as anti-Semitic, thereby avoiding the confrontation with its message and political discourse.
The German Bank for Social Economy (Bank für Sozialwirtschaft) closed the bank account of the German organization “Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East” because of the group’s support for BDS. The bank said it would “scientifically” determine whether the group is anti-Semitic according to the IHRA definition. The group also faced a smear campaign following its nomination for the 2019 Goettingen Peace Prize. In reaction to this campaign, in March 2019, numerous intellectuals called for putting “an end to the manipulative and dangerous conflation between criticism of the State of Israel and Anti-Semitism… The conflation of hostility against
Jews with legitimate critique of Israeli policies and non-violent opposition to the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people ignores the serious problems that face us today… In practice, this conflation leads to the targeting of civil society organizations and smears against Jews for their political beliefs, instead of allocating resources for anti-racism education and applying effective measures against anti-Semitic offenders.”
To no avail: On May 17, 2019 the German parliament became the first European parliament to pass a resolution, supported by a cross-alliance of parties, declaring BDS anti-Semitic and cutting off funding to any organization associated with BDS. A month later, Peter Schaefer, the director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was dismissed because the museum’s spokesperson had tweeted the call of the intellectuals. She had never consulted with Schaefer, but the internationally renowned scholar of Jewish studies was forced to leave anyway in order to protect the museum from further harm.
The politics of exclusion based on rampant assumptions and accusations of anti-Semitism linked to BDS has begun to dominate many
discourses in Germany relating to the situation of domestic Israeli politics, to the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and its people, or to the lockdown of the Gaza Strip, which is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. The blunt equation of BDS with anti-Semitism is making an informed and rational debate nearly impossible.
The terminology relating to Israel, Jews, anti-Semitism, and Zionism in Germany is generally foggy. The disputants often assume in a most superficial way that all Jews are Israelis and all Israelis Jews. It is assumed that all Jews are Zionists or vice versa. Few of those engaged in the discourse really know that even among Zionists there is a broad spectrum from those who are willing to compromise to those who are racist advocates of a Greater Israel. Everything is thrown into one pot and stirred together, resulting in nothing but a confusion of terms, concepts and politics.
German society is increasingly divided into either avid supporters of Palestinians with a deep resentment towards anything Israeli, or those who empathize with Jews and Israelis only. Racist convictions, ideology and religious beliefs are often mixed into the respective opinions. This dynamic is further heated up by the presence of refugees who are often of Muslim origin. They are frequently seen as the dangerous “Other,” the supposed invader, the potential terrorist, as the ones who are importing an archaic set of values into Germany in order to throw it back into the dark ages. Since 9/11, there is a rampant racism against Muslims, and this encourages the resurgence of other forms of racism. Anti-Semitism never disappeared; it was merely suppressed.
People who are affected by the Holocaust and the transgenerationally transmitted psychological effects are especially sensitive to anything that is or looks like anti-Semitism, even more so in times of a shift to the right. They need to be protected, instead of exploiting their fears and traumatization politically. It is important to analyze what is really at stake, however, because anti-Semitism can only be fought with success if it is precisely identified.
The rise of anti-Semitism has led to displacement activities. There are many actors who detect anti-Semitism in any critical remark about Israeli politics, irrespective of the facts. A journalist in a German newspaper, for example, considers the European Court of Justice’s ruling that products imported from the Occupied Territories must be labeled as such to be anti- Semitic. He bases his judgment on the false claim that this decision singles out Israel. In reality, other products, such as those originating in Crimea or Northern Cyprus, are actually banned from import into the EU.
In fact, the inflated charge of anti-Semitism hides the actual anti-Semites, the racists, and the real enemies of Israel. This distorted dispute serves the anti-democratic forces most of all. The German far-right, the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) —which won 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 general elections—profits from this trend. This party aims to dismantle all the human rights achievements since World War II. It scorns modern democracy, idealizes a nationalistic past, and targets German commemorative culture, stirring up resentment against the most vulnerable: refugees. It ruthlessly pushes Muslim stereotypes, while at the same time aligning itself hypocritically with European Jews and Israel to exploit them for its own devious ends.
Its success partially builds on Nazi era thinking and feelings that have persisted in Germany as a result of the postwar silence that covered up perpetrator guilt. There are even Germans who dress up their inherited guilt feelings by comparing: They claim that what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians is just as bad as what the Nazis did to the Jews. That’s a horrific way of equating and exploiting the fate of the victims. These people are usually over-identified with the Palestinians, while denying their own family biography and ignoring the Israeli narrative.
Many Germans oscillate between idealization and demonization of Israel. As we know from psychology, both are based on repression. An exaggeration of everything Jewish or Israeli, which is misunderstood as a synonym for Judaism per se, is the other side of the coin of anti-Semitism: philo-Semitism, an inflated love of Jews and Jewishness which, in its idealization, hides deep resentments. Positive or negative stereotypes, prejudices, and all kinds of fears instead of sober information and reflection over such complex issues quickly
lead to emotionally charged opinions. Even worse, they usually completely ignore the reality on the ground and the persons affected. The Middle East has always been a perfect projection surface for crude attempts at driving wedges and for unresolved problems from the past.
Dan Bar-On worked with representatives of all three groups— Palestinian, Israeli, and German—and observed diverse asymmetries in the way these groups interact. The Nazi era and the Holocaust are clearly in the past, and there can be no doubt about who was the victim and who the perpetrator. On that basis, Israelis, Jews, and Germans developed a shared narrative over the years. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on the other hand, is topical and explosive on a daily basis. Shaming and blaming, the question of who has suffered more, who is the victim or the perpetrator as well as delegitimizing the narrative of the other is still obstructing any dialogue that might lead to peace.
We Must Counter the Toxic Legacy
It is important that we all understand the biographical and historical roots of our patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting. It is only by reflection and scrutinizing the assumptions of earlier generations that we can break away from these patterns which have the potential for renewed destructiveness. The Nazis took inhumanity to such an extreme that it left marks on all of us. Everybody, but Germans in particular, has a responsibility to support both Israelis and Palestinians to the same extent. Whoever adopts a one-sided position and only campaigns for one side of the conflict contributes to the propagation of the concept of the enemy and to continued hatred. Peace can only be achieved by supporting all those who are struggling for peace and by protecting human rights as spelled out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights which was created as the main lesson of World War II.
Israeli-German relations have been stable and generally unshakable on the official level. But underneath the surface, irrespective of diplomatic and economic interests, it remains a highly ambivalent, failure-prone friendship. A mature friendship means finding a balance between empathy and criticism—on both sides. The Palestinians must be released from their situation as hostages of the common Jewish-Israeli and German past. This can only be done by stopping the blockade of Gaza and by ending the occupation through a joint effort and agreement. In this, Germany’s role as a friendly partner remains a difficult one—but the triangle should no longer be tragic; it must become constructive.
1 Dan Diner: Rituelle Distanz. Israels deutsche Frage, Munich 2015, p. 17.
2 Alona Ferber, Judy Maltz, in: “The Surprising Story Behind Israel’s Complicated Love Affair with Germany”, Haaretz English, May 12, 2015.
3 See footnote 1.