Germany and Israel: Between Obligation, Taboo, and Resentment

, September 25, 2006

“Gerhard Schröder, too young to be part of Nazi Germany, was the first German chancellor who did not seem to labor under the historical cloud that preoccupied all his predecessors from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl. Its three components were: inherited guilt feelings toward the Jews, a sense of moral obligation toward Israel, and, especially under Adenauer in the early days of the Federal Republic, the sense that it was good realpolitik to be on the side of the young Jewish state.”

Josef Joffe is publisher-editor of the German quality weekly Die Zeit. He is also adjunct professor of political science at Stanford University, where he teaches U.S. foreign policy and co-teaches a seminar on terrorism. At Stanford, he is Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies as well as Abramowitz Fellow of International Relations at the Hoover Institution. These positions combined give him a broad perspective on political issues.

He explains the origins of this realpolitik: “The German restitution-known as Wiedergutmachung-under Adenauer had a moral as well as realistic impetus. Adenauer, the chancellor of a defeated nation, understood that one victor-the United States-mattered above all in the quest for rehabilitation and sovereignty. To gain American benevolence, he reckoned, it was necessary to pay restitution not only to individual Jews but also to the state of Israel as the heir of the voiceless dead.

“This led to a number of initially secret deals brokered by Nahum Goldman, then president of the World Jewish Congress. Thus a tradition began that continued through the decades, even under Schröder and his successor Angela Merkel.”

No Lip Service

Joffe remarks that with Schröder there was more than met the eye. “On the one hand, there was a certain reserve toward Israel; in his seven years in office Schröder did not visit the country once. He left that to his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer of the Green Party, who made up for the apparent neglect in spades. Fischer was rhetorically almost Schröder’s polar opposite. He used the most sympathetic language toward Israel of any German foreign minister. Even Klaus Kinkel, who had an Israeli son-in-law, was not so outspoken in his sympathies for Israel.”

For instance, in an interview with Joffe on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations in 2005, Fischer said:

Not Guilt, but Responsibility

Later in the same interview, when asked about the impact of guilt feelings on German policy, Fischer answered:

Not guilt feelings, but a historical, moral responsibility that Germany has for the Shoah. I experienced it again recently during the opening of the Yad Vashem [museum]. There is one nation about which this museum speaks when it shows the perpetrators, and that is us. When I go there, I find the most abysmal, blackest history of my people. That creates this special situation. Not in the sense of feeling guilt, but historical moral responsibility.1

Joffe observes: “When one talked to Fischer about Israel, one was struck by the warm language. His actual foreign policy may not have been as pro-Israeli as his words, but remember that in modern democracies, foreign policy everywhere has flown from the Foreign Office to the chief executive-whether Downing Street or the White House. We might sum up German foreign policy toward Israel in the Social Democratic-Green era (1998-2005) as an interesting mix of aloofness (chancellor) and heartfelt sympathy (Fischer).

“Yet now to the surprise. At the very end of his tenure, practically in the last hours, Schröder signed a deal that will give Israel two state-of-the-art submarines at subsidized interest rates. My considered judgment is that these U-boats will be used to strengthen Israel’s seaborne nuclear deterrent. What is the moral of this story? In the affairs of states, pay less attention to words and more to actions. At the end of the day, the Schröder government gave to Israel what it craved most, and what will strengthen the country’s deterrence posture against a nuclearizing Iran.”

Merkel’s Attitude

“Nonetheless, symbols do matter, and so it was a critical signal of future intent that the new Christian Democrat chancellor, Angela Merkel visited Israel almost immediately-at the end of January 2006-after assuming office.”

When asked whether this new approach had anything to do with Merkel’s East German origin, Joffe answered: “It is fascinating, but not necessarily revealing to speculate about the impact of biography. Also, by the time Merkel entered office, the Wall had been down for sixteen years; so the GDR was a long way off already. At any rate, I find it hard to attribute ‘East-Germanness’ to her. To become chancellor, she had to adapt to West German ways of politics. If you listen to her, her language and terminology have very little East German about them.

“All politicos must adapt and forget. Merkel had a decent career as a scientist under the East German dictatorship. She was a member of the Free Democratic Youth, the youth organization of the Communist Party. Thereafter she adapted brilliantly to the West German system, which was like emigrating to another planet-except that they spoke her old language in the new world. Otherwise she would not have become chancellor.”

A Preponderance of Critique

What is the country’s attitude toward Israel? Joffe recalls that the pro-Israeli mood during his youth began to turn after the Yom Kippur War. “Today, it would not be unfair to say that the majority of German opinion ranges from critical to resentful. But it is difficult to tell whether this is specifically German or European-or neither, but part and parcel of the postmodern liberal mindset throughout the West.

“Certainly, in the ‘chattering classes’-the media, the academy-the ideological center of gravity is on the Left. But that is true throughout the West, certainly in Western Europe. How does this relate to Israel?

“The new European dispensation is antipower, antiwar, antiracist-the prise de conscience, as the French call it, of ‘Never again!’ It reflects Europe’s horrible past, with a lot more complicity in the Nazi project than some nations-say, Norway and Sweden, who are among the most anti-Israeli in Europe-are willing to own up to. It reflects ancient guilt feelings and the unconscious need to project them onto somebody else. Israel makes such a good candidate because it is (a) the source of these guilt feelings and (b) refuses to behave like Sweden or Switzerland, mainly because it does not live in their neighborhood that looks like a permanently pacified Europe.

“So suddenly, the Israelis are the perpetrators and the Palestinians are the victims. Never mind that Palestinian or Hizballah terror is directed at innocents as a matter of principle. It is very comfortable to point the finger at the Israelis and say: ‘You are no better than our forefathers were, in fact you behave like Nazis. We have learned our lessons, and you have not. So you have no claim to our sympathy, let alone on our conscience.'”

In an essay titled “Nations We Love to Hate,” Joffe wrote:

To regain moral stature, Europeans have turned anti-Fascism into a worldly doctrine of transcendence, into a secular Decalogue that reads: Thou shalt not pray to the discredited gods of nationalism; thou shalt not practice power politics, thou shalt relinquish sovereignty and rejoice in cooperation. From there, it is but a short step to the darker side of redemption. Don’t the Israelis-and the Americans-behave in the evil ways we have transcended?   Aren’t we better than those who are a grating reminder of our unworthy past?2

Israel, the United States, and Europe

Joffe also made a far-reaching forecast in that essay:

Israel will remain a threatened polity, and the United States the world’s number 1 power, hence a target of antipathy, for the rest of this century…. Both countries remain targets not only for what they do, but also for what and where they are…. Without extraordinary strength and the willingness to use it, neither will Israel endure as state among those who deny it legitimacy, nor America as “Imperial Republic” (to recall Raymond Aron’s term) that wants to remain the world’s predominant power while seeking safety in the juste milieu of a democratizing world.3

In an interview in 2000, Joffe detailed Europe’s military dependence on the United States even in the post-Soviet period and explained that this also creates resentment:

A high official in the Pentagon recently told me that every French plane that took off in the post-Yugoslav skies had to be accompanied by four American planes. One to go in front to do the defense suppression, electronic warfare. One on each wing for protection. And one on its tail for damage assessment, which the French apparently have no capabilities for.

So here’s the reason why the United States, by dint of its incredible conventional technological superiority-at this point at least-is forced to carry most of the burden, as it has in Bosnia and Kosovo, and of course in the Gulf War. It’s easy for the Europeans to hang back because they know Big Daddy is there, and Big Daddy is incredibly rich and has technological goodies for which we don’t have the money. So that too explains why the United States would trigger so many resentments because of its power, [and because it still] remains a much-needed player in these games.4 

Sublimated Anti-Semitism

“One crucial issue is how anti-Semitism relates to anti-Zionism. Of course, and it is tiresome to repeat it again, there is lots to criticize about Israeli policy. For instance, I would have no problem criticizing the Four Week War against Hizballah in the summer of 2006 on strategic, political, and even moral grounds. Militarily, the IDF fought to a draw only, for the first time in its history. Politically, the war did not weaken Hizballah, Damascus, or Teheran. Morally, it was not exactly a shining moment, given the destruction of civilian infrastructure.

“But in Europe, there was something relentless, obsessive, and merciless about the criticism. For instance, in a poll taken six days into the war (Der Spiegel, 24 July 2006), almost two-thirds of the German respondents opined that ‘Israel had no right to eliminate the attacks of the radical-Islamic Hizballah’; only 22 percent conceded that right. Does this mean Israel should return to the classic Jewish role as victim? I hope that these figures don’t prove that.

“So the larger question is, over and over: is anti-Israelism sublimated anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism still carries an enormous taboo, certainly in polite society. To hate Jews is a no-no, but to loathe Israel is apparently not. Has Israel become the über-Jew, a legitimate target, while Jews as such are not? Why do people so strongly condemn Israel but not Arab terrorism? Because Israel is ‘one of us’ and the Arabs are…what?: savages we cannot hold to the same rules?

“All of this is of course subliminal. A nice instance was Norbert Blüm, a former CDU labor minister, who in 2002 accused Israel of ‘a war of Vernichtung’ against the Palestinians. Now, Vernichtungskrieg (war of extinction) is a term usually applied to the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews and other ‘subhumans’ in Eastern Europe. The unconscious equation here was: the Jews are like the Nazis.

“A telling case was the Hohmann affair in 2003. The Christian Democrat parliamentarian Martin Hohmann called the Jews “Tätervolk,” a nation of perpetrators, by referring to what he termed an inordinate number of Jews in the Bolshevik Revolution, which took the lives of millions. Again, the message read: you are as bad as we were, or worse: you came first on the road to evil. But if you want to play the pars pro toto game, why didn’t Hohmann say that the Georgians were a nation of perpetrators, even though, from Stalin down, there were a lot more Georgians in top positions of power than Jews (who were murdered, one by one, by Stalin). The CDU did the right thing by expelling Hohmann from the party and parliamentary faction.

“I might add that nobody in his right mind would call the Arabs a terrorist people just because so many of the terrorists are Arabs.”

Will Jews Ever Be Forgiven for Auschwitz?

“To an Israeli psychiatrist, Zvi Rex, is ascribed this quip: ‘The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.’ He meant to say that the Germans, and in fact all of Europe, did not want to live under the psychological burden of Auschwitz forever. The Jews and the state of Israel are constant reminders of the moral failure not only of Germany but also of Europe. This leads to the projection of guilt on Israel. Although some criticisms of Israel may be valid, accusations of Nazi behavior have nothing to do with reality and must be seen as exercises in self-rehabilitation.

“It is not the first time in history that the roles of victim and aggressor have been reversed. The more so as the Arab-Islamic side of the struggle is so much larger and more powerful. The Arab-Islamic world could seriously damage Europe if it ever wielded its oil weapon in a sustained manner. It can also inflict terrorism on Europe, and has done so already in Madrid and London, not to speak of many foiled attempts, most recently at the end of July 2006 in Britain. Hence, one might surmise, the reflex that seeks to propitiate, even to appease.

“Muslim terrorism in Europe including the bombings in London has nothing to do with what happens in the Middle East and whether or not there is peace between Israel and the Arabs. These folks do not bomb for a two-state solution, nor did Al Qaeda lay low the Twin Towers because of Ariel Sharon. Moreover, this European-type terrorism is homegrown, stemming from the encounter of uprooted young Muslims with what they see, or are taught to see, as poisoned and corrupt modernity.

“Farther afield, I would counsel anybody searching for the ‘root causes’ not to look at Israel, though it is a convenient target of limitless hatred, but at Arab-Islamic societies themselves-at myriad dysfunctionalities in their political cultures, starting with domestic oppression and an exploding population of young men without a job and a future. Empowering women might also enhance civilizational restraints. My wife civilizes me all the time, and so do my daughters.

“The resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict will not lead the Saudi government to loosen its grip on Saudi society. It will not reform the Wahhabite self-righteousness it seeks to impose at home and abroad. Israeli policy cannot possibly explain the closed economies of the Arab world, of countries that trade only minimally with one another. That contributes to the lack of development and growth in this part of the world, as do the serious lack of education and the widespread exclusion of women from education and the workplace.”

Anti-Semitism in Germany

“We have talked about anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe, open or sublimated. The most critical thing is that in Germany the taboo against classical anti-Semitism remains exceedingly powerful. Whoever breaches this taboo is dealt with swiftly, and the price is the loss of position and office. One example was Jürgen Mölleman, a key figure in the Free Democratic Party (FDP). After some initial hesitation by the party’s leader, Guido Westerwelle, Mölleman lost his functions and afterward died in a parachute accident, which was probably a suicide.

“Looking back over ten to twenty years, I could not come up with more than ten names of people in positions of influence who acted as Hohmann or Mölleman did. All were quickly ostracized.

“Anti-Semitism in Germany, whatever its strength, is now part of the European mainstream; there is nothing specifically German about the phenomenon. Measured anti-Semitism is low, perhaps 15 percent of the polled population. Ironically, some surveys suggest that anti-Arabism is stronger than anti-Jewish sentiment. Far more people would reject an Arab or an African as a neighbor than a Jew.”

A Past That Will Not Pass Away

“When one analyzes the basic anti-Zionist thrust of European opinion, one is quickly drawn to Europe’s past that will not pass away. Many Europeans, though generations later, may feel a sense of inherited guilt about how their countrymen collaborated in the Holocaust or just stood by. Norway, perhaps the most anti-Israeli country in Western Europe, may have come to terms least with its collaboration. There was a lot more than Quisling. It is also among the fiercest critics of Israel. We might assume a correlation between the two.

“The same goes for Austria, which managed to have itself declared as ‘first victim of fascism.’ I detect little sympathy for Israel in Austria, and some of its foreign ministers have acted as hardliners against Israel in the EU. In jest, one might say that in 1938 when Austria became part of Germany through the Anschluss, it was the Austrians who took over. There was certainly a disproportionate number of Austrians in the top Nazi hierarchy: Hitler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Adolf Eichmann, and Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz. The same holds true for membership in the Einsatzgruppen and concentration camp personnel.”

Possible Realignment

“There are some new cards in the ancient Middle East game. In the old days it was just Israelis fighting Arab terrorism. Suddenly, so much of the world is on the target list of Arab-Islamist terrorism. For the Europeans it is no longer so easy to separate between the Israeli and Western dimensions of the conflict, not after 9-11, Madrid 2004, London 2005, and the foiled plots in London and Germany in 2006. So perhaps, there may be a bit more sympathy for the Israeli struggle against Islamist terrorism. But the opposite may happen just as well, on the basis of the fallacious theory: if it weren’t for those damn Israelis, we wouldn’t have this problem.

“The second factor that may lead to a realignment is that it is becoming harder to romanticize Palestinian nationalism. How many cafés have to be blown up? How many buses have to be gutted? How many children have to be murdered? Especially now that the Israelis have vacated Gaza, leaving a space behind where the Palestinians could build a protostate that would then segue into a state encompassing the West Bank. Unless you are a Lawrence of Arabia, you are bound to have second thoughts when withdrawal from Gaza leads not to ‘nation-building’ but to an endless rocket barrage, when southern Lebanon, vacated by Israel in 2000, becomes the springboard for Iranian- and Syrian-equipped Hizballah terrorism.”

Dr. Josef Joffe is publisher-editor of the German quality weekly Die Zeit. He is also adjunct professor of political science at Stanford University, where he teaches U.S. foreign policy and co-teaches a seminar on terrorism. At Stanford, he is Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies as well as Abramowitz Fellow of International Relations at the Hoover Institution.

1 “Anwalt Jerusalems,” Die Zeit, 11 May 2005. [German]

2 Josef Joffe, “Nations We Love to Hate: Israel, America and the New Antisemitism,” Posen Papers in Contemporary Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005.

3 Ibid.

4 Harry Kreisler, “Power and Culture in International Affairs: Conversation with Josef Joffe,” Institute of International Studies, University of California at Berkeley, 20 January, 23 March 2000.

About Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.