Notes from a talk at NNLS
Germany and Israel: a Historical Asymmetry
Prof. Moshe Zimmerman
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
[Before the talk started, the German ambassador gave a little talk in which she pointed out a few interesting things, including that Israel is one of the few countries with which the German government holds regular cabinet meetings, and that Germany provides consular services for Israel in countries where Israel is not represented.]
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the official establishment of relations between Israel and Germany. People talk about this as a miracle, and are surprised by the fact that the representatives of the victims and the representatives of the perpetrators could have such good relations. But there was a lot of practical thinking behind such relations. Think about whether the relations are symmetrical or asymmetrical. The speaker thinks they are asymmetrical—though of course comparing a large European nation and a small Middle-Eastern nation the foundation for the relation will always be asymmetrical.
But let's consider the symmetrical parts.
The two states, of Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany, were created more-or-less at the same time, in the years 1948/9. (Of course, there was also at the time the German Democratic Republic, which was not included in those relations.) Why were relations not established when the two states were created?
Of course, one would not expect the state that represents the victims of the Holocaust to rush into diplomatic relations with the state that is the heir of the perpetrators. But it was not so much Israel that was hesitant to establish relations as the Federal Republic of Germany.
In 1951/2, Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of West Germany, decided to start negotiations concerning compensation (Wiedergutmachung) for the Jewish people, and not just Jews in general, but in their own state in Israel. (This was initiated by both sides, even before both states were created. Yoseftal talked about getting compensation for what was done; Adenauer knew if he did it it would give him legitimacy from the Americans.) This was the point of no return, because after that when the agreement was achieved, there were already formal relations between the two states. But this agreement was only about compensation, not normal diplomatic relations.
It is surprising to find out how ready Israel was to establish normal relations with Germany and how hesitant Germany was. This was because German was thinking about its status within the wider context of the Cold War. They had the Hallstein Doctrine, against the recognition of East Germany by any country in the world, and they tried their utmost to stop other countries from recognising it. Recognising Israel would bring about repercussions within the Arab world, and so they were hesitant to go into it. Behind the scene, however, West Germany supported Israel in military and economic matters without having diplomatic relations.
Only when the president of Egypt, Nasser, first received that of West Germany in Cairo as a head of state (because of press reports about secret relations between West Germany and Israel, which then became open, which caused Egypt to recognise West Germany), did the president change his mind; this was in 1965. There was much pressure and much diplomacy to make this happen. (There was, indeed, an attempt to find an alternative solution.)
This was the outcome of only one symmetry, that of two states created in the same year. Another kind of symmetry is that both states, though new, also represent a very long history. Israel represents that of the Jews from ancient times, and West Germany represents the German people going back centuries. Both states claimed to be the sole representative (Reinvertretung) of their nation. Because of this, they represent more than two states which just happened to be created then.
This claim, and their historical dimension, plays a decisive role in the relations between the two states. Here the symmetry ends and the asymmetry starts.
One should have expected Germany to be more open to embrace Israel than the other way around. This is the opposite of the actual case. How did this come to be?
Even before either state was created, there were feelers between the two nations: Jews in Israel trying to get into contact with Germans in postwar Germany, and vice versa, on an individual basis. For many Germans who stayed in Israel, and many German Jews who left for Palestine, the new good relations between Germans and Jews seemed to be quite normal, after an intermission of the twelve terrible years of the Third Reich: People thought they could resume their relations and institutions from beforehand.
Take, for example, Josef Neuberger, a lawyer who left in 1933 for [British Mandate] Palestine. The moment the War was over, he thought of relocating himself in the German scene. He returned, and became Justice Minister of Nordrhein-Westfalen, and stayed there until he died.
On the German part, there were also examples of restarting relations with German Jews: As early as 1950 there were already Germans in Israel trying to start a new kind of relationship between Germans and Israelis. For example, Erich Lüth came with a project of Frieden mit Israel—peace with Israel.
The basis was already there for normalisation even before the compensation agreement. What happened in 1965 was more of a formal decision.
The relations before then were based on finding a way [lacuna]
The problem was that you couldn't relocate the Jews back to Germany; they had to accept the fact the Jews had a state of their own. This was problematic because Israel claims to be the sole state of the Jews, but not all Jews moved to Israel or accept their claim to be the sole representative of the Jewish people.
Since '65 relations have intensified, in terms not just of politics but also economics (again asymmetrically: Germany is a giant, Israel certainly originally an economic midget), culture (again asymmetrically), academically—since '64 Germany has become the second most important partner of Israeli academia after the United States). This is surprising, given how few Israelis speak German, and also how important the Holocaus tis as an element of Israeli self-consciousness.
In the case of sports, there is again an asymmetric relation. Gary Linneker famously said: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win." But for Israelis that's not applicable: the Israeli team is very weak and not to be compared with any European team, and have therefore not got to compete with Germany (and get beaten by them like England).
The relations, however, created a big impact on the Israeli attitude towards West Germany
In 1970 München ?Ladwach came to Israel for the first time and played against the Israeli national team. The German team won 6-0, and from that moment on, Israelis became fans of German football. A German diplomat said, "We are trying all the time to embetter the relations between Israel and Germany and do not know how to do it, but then along comes the Israeli football team and does it within just ninety minutes!"
This is not negligible: Israelis came to know more and more about Germany through the meidum of sports. In the 1974 World Championship (the one in which the UK did not lose against Germany, but Germany won against Holland) most of the Jewish Israeli fans were supporting the Netherlands; the support for the German team came from the Israeli Arab population, because they associated the football team [lacuna]
In 2006, when Germany had the World Championship at home, the sympathy for the German team was high amongst both Jews and Arabs.
In 2010 an opinion poll showed that amongst the last four teams—Holland, Uruguay, Spain, Germany—more Israelis were in favour of Germany winning than the others.
Public opinion polls in both states show that the sympathy of Israelis towards Germans is much more conspicuous than the other way around:
In 1980, about 50% of Israelis believed that West Germany should be called another Germany (גרמניה אחרת), i.e. they agreed with Ben-Gurion that Germany has changed so much that it has become another Germany. Now it is 85% of Israelis—only 15% do not believe that Germany has changed, not just from the Nazi period but even before 1933 too.
Another question: 50% believed then that relations between Israel and Germany are already normal. Now it is nearly 90%. From the point-of-view of the Israelis, they are no longer special relations: they became normal and stayed normal. This is against the background of general European relations with Israel. People know that Germany supports Israel or Israel's policy more than other European nations. In such a situation this asymmetry comes to the foreground. We [Israelis] think about practicalities, not history. We know what happened, but we put it aside.
The number of Israelis are still boycotting German goods, compared to Jews in the UK or the USA, is very low: about 6% do, or at least admit to it.
In the field of culture, only 12% of Israeli Jews are against the use of the German language in any open Israeli space. OTOH only 50% of Israelis are for the German President addressing the Knesset in German, which has happened since the 1990s.
The Israeli Jewish community is not homogenous. Most opposition to Germany, German goods and German politics comes from the religious Orthodox group who have associated Germany with Amalek. It's surprising that the difference between right and left is smaller than that between religious and secular. Even between Arabs and Jews there is not that much difference.
On the other side of the picture, Germans have become over time more and more negative toward Israel. (The speaker is not talking here about the fact that about 65% of Germans believe that the end of the story of the Holocaust should be arrived at in our times.) Only 35% show sympathy for Israel compared to over 80% the other way around. Israel's policy or behaviour vis-à-vis the Palestinians results in dips in sympathy for Israel whenever relations between Israel and the Palestinians turns bad.
This asymmetry started not just in 1965 but 1952.
One question is especially disturbing: About 12% think that Israel should not have the right to exist. The idea of putting the reverse question to Israelis, whether Israelis think that Germany has the right to exist, does not even occur to anyone to ask.
Responses to audience questions
Adenauer's right hand was Globke, who turned out to have been a Nazi.. Israelis were not knowledgeable about this, or chose to turn their backs to it. It only came out in the last five years that the number of Nazi party members in the foreign ministry after 1952 was larger than the number of Nazi party members before 1945. Yet Israel chose not to let this stop them from seeking relations with Germany. Only since the students' revolution of 1968 did the German state start to reexamine its own past.
Question: Wasn't there opposition in Israel, led by Begin, towards compensation from Germany, calling it blood money? Answer: Yes, there were violent demonstrations, which the speaker saw as a child growing up opposite the Knesset building. But the opposition melted away quite fast, and was not considered a serious obstacle by Ben-Gurion; and the demonstrations in 1965 when the first ambassador, Rolf Pauls, came were not as severe as those in 1952, or indeed those when Adenauer came as ex-chancellor in 1966. (Adenauer came to the Hebrew University, and right-wingers tried to stop him entering the campus, but somebody found a way for him to enter through the National Library.)
Even today there is opposition to Germany in Israel, but the opposition is looking for substitutes. Most are not looking for a protest against the German President or German support for Israel, etc, etc; they demonstrate against playing Richard Wagner in Israel. (Daniel Barenboim made himself persona non grata by doing just that.)
Question: To what extent has the Springer press moulded German attitudes towards Israel? Answer: The Springer press were ordered to support Israel. But because of the critical approach towards Springer and his newspapers, this had a boomerang effect regarding attitudes towards Israel.
Question: Where does the negative attitude towards Israel come from, the Israeli government's policies or the very existence of the State of Israel? Answer: It has little to do with the government's policy, but we have to pay attention to the boomerang effect. the discrepancy between what the Jews represent as the ultimate victim and Israel's position as a conqueror and oppressor in the West Bank. On top of this, the German government and political class are very cautious when it comes to the question of Israel. Many politicians say this kind of criticism is something that we can't afford because of our past. This is why criticism of Israeli occupation is muted in Germany compared to, for example, the United Kingdom.
Question: Austria. Response: Austria managed not only vis-à-vis eastern Europe but also Israel to create the impression that it was the first victim of National Socialism. This is something Israelis—mainly those of Austrian origin—were ready to accept. When the composer Stolz came to Israel, he was welcomed as a hero, a good Austrian. But the fact Austrians collaborated in the extermination of the Jews was marginalised. It was deemed better to put the blame on the Germans and talk about the Austrians as if they were victims too.
Question and response: There is no doubt that the compensation saved Israel's economy in the early fifties; Israel's economy was in a very poor state then. Those payments and financial support by Germany buying Israeli exports did lessen opposition within Israel.
Question: Does BDS [the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel or the settlements in the Occupied Territories] exist in Germany? Answer: There is no boycott within Germany. There is a call by the EU not to enable producers from the occupied territories to enjoy the advantages given to Israel in its relations with Europe. But when Israel protested against this vis-à-vis Germany, it was very easy to put pressure on Germany by using the word "boycott", because of the boycott of 1 April 1933. This is why they took back the slightest attempts to put into practice the regulations of the EU. There was one famous case of ?KDB trying not to sell wine from the settlements, and when the Israeli politicians raised a howl, the management of KDB ordered the bottles returned to the shelves.
There is no academic boycott either; nobody would dare.