The Mantra of “Special Relationships”

One should be skeptical if there is a consensus across party lines in the Bundestag. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, a debate took place in the German parliament on the bilateral relationship, a “one-time process that reminds and—yes—celebrates the birth of a foreign state,” as Alexander Gauland (Alternative for Germany or AfD) noted in his speech. This parliamentary debate had the potential to help find an answer to the question of whether German-Israeli relations have always been “special,” as Lily Gardner Feldman advocated, or “normalized,” as Shimon Stein claimed recently.

Two requests were submitted to Parliament: one by the CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP, which was also supported by the AfD, and one by Bündnis 90/The Greens and The Left. They differed only slightly, which was to be understood as a signal that one would have wanted a motion across party lines if the Union factions did not insist on their exclusion principle regarding cooperation with Die Linke and the AfD. The consensus was obvious. The debate[1] was opened by SPD parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles, who in her speech repeatedly referred to anti-Semitism in Germany, which was, in fact, discussed more prominently throughout the debate than relations with Israel. The rejection of anti-Semitism certainly also saved some in the Bundestag from having to disclose their attitudes toward Israel. The reality of contemporary Israel and German-Israeli relations were only superficially discussed in this parliamentary debate.

Even the motion finally adopted by the CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP, with the approval of the AfD, remained vague. The special character of the relationship to Israel was subject to discussion at various, sometimes contradictory levels. The motion noted that, “The special value of today’s German-Israeli relations is the fact that Germany’s only security partner in the Middle East that lives European values is Israel.” This is a clear interest in security cooperation influenced by realpolitik. It goes on to say: “The unique relations between Germany and Israel are and will remain one of the key pillars of German foreign and security policy.” How should that be addressed concretely? Katrin Göring-Eckardt (Greens) put it this way in the debate: “The existence of Israel is directly linked to the existence of our country as a free democracy. And that is why we are responsible: as Germans, we must be the guarantor of Israel as a state.” This pious desire expresses an attitude whose consequences, however, remained unanswered in this debate. Would Germany also fight militarily alongside Israel in an emergency? The adopted motion also states: “Israel’s right to exist and its security are not negotiable for us. […] This gives the relations between the two states a unique character.” Is this then the “special character” of bilateral relations? That Germany does not question the existence of a state to which it has longstanding relationships? Is the principle of state sovereignty not a universal one? Is it necessary to name this explicitly in Israel’s case—and not a matter of course for Germany? In what bilateral relationship would such a sentence still fall for the appreciation of a friendship?

“The existence of Israel is directly linked to the existence of our country as a free democracy. And that is why we are responsible: as Germans, we must be the guarantor of Israel as a state.”
–Katrin Göring-Eckardt

“After the collapse of civilization in the Shoah, the step to normalize relations was anything but self-evident.” With regard to this argument of the motion by CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP, the special character of the relationship is therefore the normalization of ties despite historical wounds and certainly also contrary to the public will in the beginning. The inclusion of a quote from former German president Joachim Gauck in the motion by the Grüne and Linke affirms this understanding of “special relationships”: “Our normal relationships are not self-evident and require intensive care.”

When Andrea Nahles says: “Germany and Israel are united today in having overcome the deep gulf of the past,” she only takes the German perspective of the development of post-Nazi society, a society that has learned and changed for the better. It is, however, from both sides that the past remains divisive. There is not, and there cannot be, a common perspective. Germany was and remains the land of perpetrators. Israel was and remains the country which offered protection to the victims after their liberation and will continue to stand for Jewish sovereignty in the future. “Normalization” does not take place because of, but despite the past.

Blurred Solidarity

The question of whether relations are “normal” or “special” is not decided by dealing with the past. It is undisputed that the Shoah was a “breach of civilization.” Rather, the character of German-Israeli relations is decided by the current challenges Israel is facing and Germany’s commitment to it. The parliamentary debate had no answers to this.  Far too few people have even spoken about concrete forms of solidarity with Israel. The levels between the self-evident rejection of anti-Semitism, the emphasis on Jewish diversity in Germany, the special character of German-Israeli relations, and concrete solidarity with Israel thus blur the nuances. So, is it enough to wear a kippah—as many people recently did to show their solidarity after an anti-Semitic incident in Berlin—and does summoning the fight against anti-Semitism meet the challenges that the state of Israel and its people face today?

By repeating the peculiarity of relationships in a mantra-like way, without ever becoming concrete, the very doctrine of uniqueness is eroded. In line with the purpose of mantras, the repetition then helps especially those who use it for self-assurance. Even seventy years after its founding, solidarity with Israel means standing up for Jewish sovereignty. This is not an invitation to adopt the positions of the Israeli right or to defame left-Zionist parties or civil society initiatives as anti-Israel. Solidarity with Israel can neither be used for covert criticism of Israel (in solidarity with Israel under certain conditions) nor for enthusiasm about deporting Africans (the credo of imported anti-Semitism, which only wants to distract from one’s own anti-Semitism in the majority population), nor for Muslim or Arab hatred (which in any case should be untenable in a country whose population is one-fifth Arabic).

The Greens’ and the Left’s motion, which was ultimately rejected by the parliamentary majority, was still refreshingly concrete in suggesting what could be done by the German government in the 70th year after the founding of the state of Israel in order to stand in solidarity with the partner and friend. Among them were proposals such as dual citizenship for Israelis and Germans, support for Israel as a non-permanent member at the UN Security Council, and increased pressure on the Palestinian Authority to end the payment of martyr pensions to terrorists.

Bijan Djir-Sarai of the FDP said, “It is time not only to talk about how good relations with Israel are, how important a Jewish state is and how great our historical responsibility is. It is time for us to take action for our Jewish fellow citizens in Germany, Europe—and in Israel. The Federal Government—and all of us—are called upon to take effective measures against the burgeoning anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe. But from a foreign policy perspective we also must put ourselves even more in Israel’s shoes. It seems to me that many Germans have increasingly refused to do so in recent years.”

“But from a foreign policy perspective we also must put ourselves even more in Israel’s shoes. It seems to me that many Germans have increasingly refused to do so in recent years.”
–Bijan Djir-Sarai

It takes more than a mental attitude. As important as fraternization is, it must not hide the fact that no social or political change grows from it. Where, for example, are all those who show solidarity with the Jews at the annual Al-Quds march when Iranian anti-Semitic fantasies call for the annihilation of Israel and demonstrators chant “child murderer Israel” or “Jew, Jew, coward pig, come out and fight alone” in the very center of Berlin? And is it too hard to deny a regime the economic cooperation that openly dreams of the destruction of Israel, namely Iran? Our view of Israel should not be focused on ourselves (anti-Semitism, Jewish life) but on the needs of the other.

German society risks losing its inner compass. The lesson from the Shoah and the Second World War seemed to be: Never intervene again, keep staying out of international conflicts. However, in an interdependent world this attitude must be given up: we cannot stay out anymore—even more so if Germany promotes its values internally and externally. In our interdependent world seventy years after the founding of Israel, the reality looks something like this: Eritreans having fled from the military dictatorship to Israel were rejected there and came to Germany via Rwanda, Sudan, and Libya. Today, they are part of German-Israeli relations, are fluent in Hebrew and German. Or like Necla, a German participant in a bilateral future workshop: She herself is a Yezidi. On a Shabbat evening in Tel Aviv, Necla met the grandmother of an Israeli participant. She was the first German that the older woman ever encountered after the Shoah.

These relationships were and are far more diverse, unusual, complex, and often misunderstood than what many may think or expect. They are special even if both sides have always pursued solid, “normal” interests, and even if one cannot rely on this friendship in a crisis. Social exchange is all the more important for encounters as described above, so that these relations are not regarded as “especially normal,” but “normally special.” Then Germany will also work with more empathy and understanding for Israel’s reality without losing sight of its own failings and social challenges.


[1] All speeches can be found in the plenary protocol of the German Bundestag: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/19/19029.pdf#P.2622

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Lukas Welz

AMCHA Germany

Lukas Welz is chairman of AMCHA Germany, an institution that supports the psychosocial aid for Holocaust survivors in Israel. Within this volunteer position he developed the PresentPast dialogue forum on trauma that brings together practitioners and scientists. He currently serves as policy advisor in the German Bundestag and works for a NGO in the field of political education for the German multicultural society. Lukas Welz studied political sciences and history in Heidelberg and conflict, development and governance at Cranfield University/Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He was head of the Working Group “Conflicts in Europe” of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research and researched on Transitional Justice in Cambodia. Lukas Welz has been involved in German-Israeli relations since his civil service with the German NGO Action Reconciliation Service for Peace in Jerusalem, Israel. From 2008 to 2015 he has been chairman of the German-Israeli Young Forum and member of the executive board of the German-Israeli Friendship Association.

He is a 2017-2018 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).