Never Again, Never Criticize: Why Germany-Israel Relationship Is In Peril

Jerusalem and Berlin have strong ties in no small part because German officials virtually never criticize Israel. But that may be the seed of creeping estrangement.

Merkel and Netanyahu have maintained good relations.
Merkel and Netanyahu have maintained good relations.
Peter Münch


BERLIN — Some speak of a miracle when they regard the celebration of this friendship. Fifty years after having established diplomatic relations with Israel, and 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Germany and Israel are close allies and share ties on all levels: political, economic, military, cultural and, most importantly, interpersonal and human.

This may seem wondrous and wonderful but it is anything but a miracle, thank goodness. Because when miracles happen, no one knows just how to feel about it — and one should do well to not rely on miracles in the first place.

No, this particular friendship between Germany and Israel, between the country of perpetrators and the country of victims, did not come out of nowhere. It is not a coincidence but the result of hard work and fighting one’s own demons on both sides. This relationship was able to grow because Germany faced its past and Israel opened itself up to the future. This was the solid foundation on which it was built.

But the crucial question now is what all of this means for the present? How can a friendship that is not free from conflict thrive, grow and become stronger?

It goes without saying that normalcy cannot be a part of this relationship, knowing that six million Jews were killed by the Germans. The nature of this should not change even as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles every year: – there are only approximately 200,000 people left who had to personally endure the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

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Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo: Eleephotography

More and more say it's time to draw a line across the acts of history. According to a recent survey, some 80% of young Germans feel that they should not be held responsible for the crimes committed by the Nazis. And yet, it still must be clear that the past is never past. And this is just as important to Germany as it is to Israel, as this shared past has endowed both with a task.

Meaning of "never again"

On the one hand, this task connects both of these states, in the sense spelled out by Chancellor Angela Merkel as German responsibility for Israel being defined as a national raison d'etre. This approach is important and good, but it is only half the truth. Because on the other hand this historical task is what divides both people, and is the source of today’s differences.

Never again. In Germany, this means never again will we create a place like Auschwitz, never again will we wage war, never again will we be guilty. German policies are advertising moral and human rights, as universal principles. And the oppression of Palestinians through an occupational regime in the West Bank or the waging of an excessively brutal war in Gaza are deemed violations of these values.

In Israel, however, never again has a different meaning. Never again will we be victims, never again will we be defenseless. Challenged by nearly all its neighboring states, the Jewish state defines itself through its ability to defend itself. Weakness is seen as a threat to your very existence.

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Anti-Israel protests in Saarbrucken Germany Photo: Myahya

The different lessons that Germany and Israel have taken from history are now colliding with one another. The Germans are increasingly seeing Israel as an aggressor against the weaker Palestinians. The Israelis feel misunderstood, and that they can do very well without the hesitantly raised German finger of moral admonition. And so the lack of understanding is growing on each side, creating a danger that both nations are exposed to now after 50 years.

The only way to face to this threat is an open-minded approach to the differences between both nations. The Israeli government usually voices its expectations of the German government openly and that is a frank and honest approach as both sides know where they stand. But the federal government often enough ducks away from taking a stand against Israel — publicly at least. This is understandable when one considers its history. But it is the wrong path to look to for the future.

The newly formed right-wing Israeli government will most likely rub its Western friends the wrong way, and this is a particular challenge to its relationship with Berlin. But the German government should not avoid this open debate, also because it owes that to its relationship with Israel.

This is by now a relationship secure enough to weather conflict. The Israeli government should be the first to know that this is true. Choosing a quiet tension instead is always bound to lead to the opposite of the desired effect. As misunderstanding builds in silence, friendship eventually will turn to something we call estrangement.

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