It was a telling moment. At a public lecture on perceptions of Israel in German news media, held at a southern German high school, a Middle East expert had just completed a long and detailed analysis. The surprisingly large audience of teenagers was patient and quiet throughout.
The first question was asked by a young student: "How was Israel founded, anyway?"
It was an innocent question, and an important one. But it revealed much about the lack of basic knowledge about the country established in part by many who’d survived a genocide originating in Germany itself and whose perpetrators may even have been among the grandparents, or great-grandparents, of those very students.
Such popular ignorance about Israel, and indeed about the Holocaust, in Germany, is not necessarily reflected at the political level. Diplomatic relations between the countries is strong. Chancellor Angela Merkel calls Germany’s support for Israel part of her country’s "national ethos," part of its raison d’etre.
In fact, according to the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Israel is one of the few countries with which the German government holds joint cabinet meetings and (outside NATO) whose soldiers participate in joint army exchanges. Germany supplies Israel with weapons and has acted as mediator in negotiations with Hamas.
But such official relations are not always reflected in public attitudes or in the media. Just recall comments by one of the most iconic German writers, Günter Grass, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, who called Israel, and Israel alone, a threat to world peace. Grass himself hid for decades his wartime membership in the Waffen SS.
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Grass also called it a taboo to criticize Israel in the German media. Yet according to the Center for Antisemitism Studies at the Technical University of Berlin, nothing is further from the truth. "On the contrary, German media hardly criticizes a country as often as it does Israel."
In fact, the Jewish state has a very negative image in the German media, and is even equated with Nazi Germany on a regular basis. Especially during military confrontations, it is usually presented as the aggressor, with Palestinian violence legitimized as a mere response to Israel, rather than as actions based on political ideologies and calculations of their own.
An extreme example of such demonization of Israel in the media was the headline by a popular magazine, Focus, which described Israel’s deterrence of Iran’s nuclear program as "Israel threatening to defend itself." Even the country’s self-defense is treated as aggression.
And yet, feelings among Israelis towards Germany are quite positive. In fact, "Israelis have a more positive image of Germany, than Germans have of Israel," according to the Bertelsmann foundation. I’ve heard anecdotal support for this: during a visit to the Jerusalem fresh produce market, an Israeli vegetable seller heard my friend was from Germany, and immediately said, "I forgive you" - and smiled.
In fact, four out of ten Germans hold the radical (or ignorant) belief that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is comparable to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. It’s a strange comparison in empirical terms because the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation has grown rather than shrunk. As Eve Garrard writes, "few genocides end up with an increase in the victim population of the order of several hundred per cent."
Whether these grotesque caricatures are residue of classical anti-Semitic attitudes - which remains steady in Germany at 25% - or instead a form of "guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism," as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called it, remains debatable. Are Germans deflecting feelings of guilt for their own country’s crimes onto Jews? The Israelis have come a long way towards the Germans - but was the Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex right, that Germans still haven’t forgiven the Jews for Auschwitz?
One absurd outcome of this dynamic has been the introduction of the term "Israel-critical" into the official Duden dictionary. Defined seemingly neutral as "being critical of the State of Israel," the underlying assumption is that the critic is woke – whereas everyone else is a hypnotized fool. Search in vain for the terms "Saudi Arabia-critical" or "Boko Haram critical," as the German-Jewish comedian, Oliver Polak writes in his recent book "Against Jew-hatred!"
But one group trying to change perceptions of Israel in Germany is the German-Israeli Society. Founded in the 1950s, it has over 50 chapters across the country, with the aim of educating Germans about Israeli civil society, beyond its confrontations with its neighbors. To mark Israel’s Independence Day, the organization participates annually in many of the nearly three dozen celebratory and commemorative events across the country.
According to Ruth Frenk, chairperson of the group’s Lake of Constance region in southern Germany, these events are usually only attended by those who already hold a sympathetic view of Israel. "Those who are against Israel simply don’t come." This limits the possibility of engagement.
She sees the most important way of changing attitudes is by engaging with school-age students. In the past, she has accompanied Holocaust survivors to meet pupils at schools, but many of them are into their old age and passing on now, making such direct interactions more difficult. When they organize events, teachers and students just don’t come, she told me. They’re overburdened – and there’s no space and no money for this education.
The organization has also laid the blame on school textbooks for creating bias or disinterest, which they see as skewing young people’s perceptions.
A joint German-Israeli textbook commission described German schoolbooks as presenting Israel as a "warlike nation," according to a 2015 report. The study by the German-Israeli Society and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East agreed with this assessment, naming its own study, a "pedagogy of resentment." One textbook had to be removed after an anti-Semitic image was discovered depicting the Rothschild bank consuming Europe.
It is interesting to note that the same study found Israeli schoolchildren learn "virtually nothing" about Germany and its transformations since WWII.
Frenk’s organization is one among many such initiatives. In its work on WWII memory, it is joined by numerous left-wing and liberal groups in Germany committed to remembering the lessons of the Holocaust and Nazi totalitarian rule. But even some of these groups have their problems, she explained. They want to be on the right side of history, but they often have little contact to Jews and little knowledge of Jewish realities.
"They organize events on Friday night. And we tell them for the 150th time that we won't come on Shabbat. But they keep doing it. They just don't want to understand. They have to deal with living Jews, and not only dead Jews. It's easier to deal with dead Jews."
But organizations like German-Israeli society are growing, Frenk tells me, pointing to the formation of a new university student group and student exchange programs to Israel. "But I’ve been doing this for 25 years. It’s time for me to move on."
Bearing in mind the far more fragile emotional and intellectual ties of younger generations of Germans to Israel and to understanding the past, will there be a cohort to take up the baton?
Robert Ogman is a journalist and lecturer on contemporary politics and social issues and lives in Germany. Twitter: @r_ogman