by Thomas Siurkus
What can Israelis and Palestinians learn from German-Israeli reconciliation? That’s the question New York-based international lawyer Harry Rubin has been contemplating for years. Born in Munich to a Holocaust survivor, Rubin spent the first ten years of his life in Germany before moving to Israel. After his Israeli military service, he moved to the United States and studied international relations at Harvard University before attending Columbia Law School. Throughout his career, he has worked on German and Israeli matters and has been active in legal and commercial fora and Jewish organizations, organizations focused on Germany and Israel and pre-Holocaust Jewish German history. A fluent German and Hebrew speaker and citizen of the United States, Israel and Germany, he feels deeply connected to all three countries.
Last year marked 50 years of diplomatic relations between the state of Israel and Germany. How did the process of reconciliation begin?
German-Israeli reconciliation is one of the most unique and hopeful relationships of modern diplomatic history. After the war, Germany and Israel were in a state of mutual taboo. Germany and all contacts with Germans at any level were taboo in Israel. In Germany, the past itself was a taboo, making relations with Israel inherently impossible.
This began to change in the 1950s through the vision and great sense of political exigency of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, German President Theodor Heuss and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Adenauer knew that reconciliation with the Jewish people would be a prerequisite for Germany regaining its international legitimacy. He and Heuss also saw a moral, almost religious, imperative in such reconciliation.
Ben-Gurion was the ultimate pragmatist. He was building a country from nothing. He needed material and political support. Ben-Gurion also recognized that Germany would emerge as a key European political and economic power. Adenauer and Ben-Gurion met in a taboo-breaking summit in New York in 1960 and launched the relationship on its formal trajectory. The meeting was preceded by Heuss’s formal admission of Germany’s historical and moral responsibility. Reconciliation continued with the reparations accord for Jewish survivors and clandestine German military assistance to Israel. Formal relations were delayed in the fifties, because Israel was still not ready, and later due to the complex rivalry between West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR). Broad internal pressure within Germany ultimately lead to formal ties with Israel in 1965.
In those 50 years, what were some important milestones in the relationship between Germany and Israel?
After 1965, we must look at it not in terms of dramatic events, but trends. On the German side, relations with Israel had a unique dimension that I call “Moralpolitik.” Germany acknowledged a historical responsibility toward Israel. This did not mean that Israel was immune to criticism. But it does mean that Germany was firmly dedicated to Israel’s existence. More recently, there has also been a growing recognition of their common strategic and security interests.
But there have also been irritants in the relationship. Sometimes the personalities of the leaders of the two countries worked better, as with Willy Brandt and Golda Meir and Helmut Kohl and Yitzhak Rabin. The all-time low point occurred with Helmut Schmidt and Menachem Begin. Begin had been a vitriolic opponent of relations with Germany. When he became prime minister, he and Schmidt had major blow-ups over policy and the Palestinians.
There is no question that Angela Merkel is the single most pro-Israel German (if not European) leader ever. She has been at the forefront of protecting Israel from extreme resolutions in various international fora and has done a great deal to deepen the commercial and military relationships. Germany is Israel’s second-most important ally. I’m confident that this relationship could even go further were it not for irritants such as settlements and lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Let’s move beyond the government level. How would you assess the reconciliation between the German and Israeli people?
I would rate it as extraordinarily successful. Berlin is the most popular city abroad for Israelis under 30. Germany sends more tourists to Israel than any country other than the U.S. There is wide collaboration in all major industry branches and significant cultural and educational collaboration and exchanges. German is finally being taught in some Israeli schools.
But I also have to mention that there is a competing trend in Germany. In addition to anti-Israel German Muslims and the German hard left, the young generation of Germans is pacifist and non-interventionist. Violent flare-ups between Israel and Palestinians, such as the Gaza wars, have led to significant anti-Israel protest in Germany. Lack of progress on the Palestinian-Israeli front and settlements are constant irritants in the relationship on all levels.
So what key characteristics define German-Israeli reconciliation, and can we apply them to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I would describe the German-Israeli relationship as a “victim and perpetrator” relationship. The responsibility of each side in the relationship is defined by these roles. In the Palestinian-Israeli context, there is no clear-cut “victim-perpetrator” relationship. Each side views itself exclusively as a victim and sees the other side exclusively as a perpetrator. For there to be progress, there must be a major taboo-breaking event, like the Adenauer and Ben-Gurion meeting. It goes beyond the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993. The handshakes in Washington, D.C. and in Oslo were a statement that we don’t want any more war. It did not reach the deeper moral and psychological reconciliation sphere.
The Israelis do not say, “We understand that you have legitimate claims to the land we control and parts of Jerusalem, and that we the have contributed to your suffering.” And the Palestinians do not say, “You have legitimate claims to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem, and we acknowledge that we have inflicted terrorism upon you.” Instead, it is a competition of who the bigger victim is—and the bigger monster.
The second thing that is required is the type of leadership that Ben-Gurion and Adenauer exhibited. They had an unusual combination of moral and political courage and pragmatism. Each of them moved the national consensus within each country. It was an enormous challenge for Ben-Gurion to establish relations with Germany when he did, given the literally violent opposition amongst large parts of the Israeli (and worldwide Jewish) population. For Adenauer it was challenging to start dealing with the Jewish issue while Germany was still in rubble after WWII and when Germans didn´t wanted to deal with responsibility and guilt. Both of them also realized that time was of the essence. Ben-Gurion had to build a state quickly; he needed reparations and help. Adenauer wanted Germany to become a player again in international affairs and for West Germany to be the legitimate Germany.
But substantial segments in Israel and amongst Palestinians seem to think that time is on their side. Some Palestinians think that if they don’t make a deal, Israel eventually will implode and be crushed by demographics and that the international pressure will bring Israel to its knees. Many Israelis think that immigration will counterbalance demographics; that Israel’s economic and military might is constantly increasing, rendering it immune to outside pressure; and that the world’s focus on ISIS and other crises will lessen the pressure on Israel to make a deal.
Both lines of thinking are wrong. Time works against both sides, and something has to happen soon.
Do you believe that there will be a good Israeli-Palestinian relationship one day?
The big message about German-Israeli relations is one of hope for other conflicts. After everything that happened between Germany and the Jewish people, there emerged a close, ongoing alliance and relationship. Valuable lessons on how to get there are right in front of us.