Seeing the Other more clearly
The Bertelsmann poll found that 43 percent of Israelis suspect that Germans are anti-Semitic even today, compared to only 19 percent of Germans who consider their own people to harbor anti-Jewish sentiments.
In recent days, Haaretz has again focused on Israel's image in Germany. In his review of last weekend's 8th Europe-Israel Dialogue in Berlin, sponsored by the Axel Springer Foundation ("Germans again mull Israel's right to exist," March 12, 2007), Assaf Uni warns that Israel's right to exist is increasingly being questioned among the German population. The author bases this statement on discussions at the conference and recent surveys conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the BBC World Service.
Uni begins his article as follows: "The state of Israel is facing two strategic threats: an Iranian nuclear bomb and the denial of its right to exist." He goes on to discuss the evidence for the second threat, with specific reference to German public opinion.
Before explaining the poll results and their implications they have for the subject of Germans' opinions on Israel, I would like to suggest an alternative headline for Uni's piece: "Like most Israelis and American Jews, a majority of Germans (62 percent according to the Bertelsmann survey) agree that Iran's nuclear program poses a threat to Israel's existence."
Uni refers to a BBC poll, of residents of 27 countries, in which most respondents ranked Iran and Israel as the countries with the most negative influence on the world. In Germany, 77 percent of respondents viewed Israel as having a "negative influence," although Uni, in his article, referred to 77% of Germans having mainly negative "views" of Israel.
There is a fine line between negative "influence" and negative "views," as it appears in Uni's piece. Moreover, perusal of the more detailed Bertelsmann survey sheds light on why 77 percent of Germans consider Israel to have a negative influence in the world.
In Germany, 57 percent of the population believe there is no circumstance justifying the use of military force. As the pollsters themselves explain, German attitudes are greatly influenced by the motto of "Never again." This view has become so deeply ingrained as to translate into a revulsion for any kind of military confrontation. The "negative influence" Germans see Israel as being inextricably linked to the use of force and the situation in the region.
This view is underlined by German media reports about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In reporting the speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that opened the Berlin conference, Uni emphasizes her support for Israel's right to exist: "I regret that I am forced to reiterate this repeatedly," she said.
The Israeli reader may be interested in knowing that the German media dealt with completely different aspects of the chancellor's speech. Headlines focused on Merkel's statement, "We cannot lose hope for a solution to the conflict," and on Germany's special responsibility for mediating an end to it. It thus seems that Germans want to help Israel in ending the conflict, which is at the root of Israel's perceived "negative influence."
The images portrayed in the German press and here are thus completely at odds with one another, leading one to wonder whether there is not a tendency to resort to readily available stereotypes when covering this highly sensitive and emotionally charged relationship.
It's not my intention to single out the Israeli media for pouncing on even the smallest neo-Nazi gathering and turning it into a matter of life or death for the State of Israel. This also refers to German journalists who all too often prefer the image of the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint to that of the Israeli student or homemaker.
The Bertelsmann poll found that 43 percent of Israelis suspect that Germans are anti-Semitic even today, compared to only 19 percent of Germans who consider their own people to harbor anti-Jewish sentiments. This raises the question of whether both peoples actually apply their own views, however concrete or baseless, to their beliefs, thoughts and, yes, also to their coverage of the other.
Due to deeply seated and well-founded existential fears, Israelis always suspect more Jew-hatred than there actually is. Whereas Germans, rightfully ashamed of their horrific past, prefer to downplay any racist or anti-Semitic elements in their society.
Interestingly, the Bertelsmann survey found that 78 percent of Germans view Israel as a state like any other. Far from denying Israel's right to exist, this is evidence of a normalization of relations and perceptions, in which Israel is accorded the same rights and obligations as all other members of the international community. It also found, however, that 56 percent of Israelis believe Germany cannot treat Israel like any other country.
In light of the past and the psychological and social currents it has imprinted onto each people's collective consciousness, it may be impossible for either country's media coverage of the other to ever approach the latter's own self-image. Nevertheless, an attempt at explaining the nuances may help prevent a biased picture from emerging, a bias expressed in the headline "Germans again mull Israel's right to exist."
The writer is a German journalist living and working in Tel Aviv.