A day before Jerusalem and Hamas reached a ceasefire to end the latest round of fighting, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Israel. He toured the city of Petah Tikva, where a rocket fired from Gaza destroyed a home.
His trip was used by Israel in its PR war against Hamas, and Maas delivered: “The fact that we see that Hamas is again firing missiles into the south of Israel, since we have arrived here in Tel Aviv, is for us an indication of how serious the situation is that the people of Israel find themselves in,” the foreign minister said.
Dr. Peter Lintl, a researcher of Israel and the Middle East from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is not surprised by Germany’s strong support for Israel during the Gaza conflict. But he does think that Maas’ visit to Israel was “unusual.”
President Frank-Walther Steinmeier seemed to concur; he wondered aloud in the Bundestag why Germany, as represented by Maas, was acting unilaterally, Lintl noted. Steinmeier said he had his “doubts about whether individual states should try and mediate.”
“In general, there has been much support for Israel among German politicians in the past 20 years,” Lintl tells Haaretz. “Merkel has famously called Israel’s security to be Germany’s raison d’etat. And at the same time, the distance between Merkel’s governments and Netanyahu’s has constantly grown, mainly due to the ongoing occupation and the expansion of settlements, the talks of annexation and also the Iran nuclear issue.”
Lintl notes that one of Maas’ predecessor Sigmar Gabriel probably took the most critical stance on Israel. In 2012, he says, Gabriel likened Israel’s policies in Hebron to apartheid. But the overall position toward Israel has been consistent since Merkel took office in 2005. In 2014, during that year’s Israel-Gaza war, the chancellor “condemned without reservation the rocket fire on Israel” in a telephone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Editor-at-large at German BR/ARD TV, Richard C. Schneider, adds that “There is a big difference between the government and the people when it comes to Israel.”
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Schneider, who served as the ARD bureau chief in Tel Aviv, said that while the public sentiment is more pro-Palestinian, German politicians “are in complete agreement about Israel’s right to defend itself, especially against Hamas, which it sees as a terrorist organization. The understanding of what Israel has to deal with when it comes to Hamas was also emboldened by the wave of terrorism that hit Europe in the past two decades.”
Jürgen Hardt, a member of the German Bundestag and Foreign Affairs Spokesman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group, elaborates on Germany’s position vis-à-vis Israel and Gaza. “There is no doubt in our mind that what Hamas did, firing rockets at civilians, constitutes a war crime. And of course Israel has the right to defend itself against any country or actor that wants to destroy it. Israel went to great lengths to prevent the loss of civilians in Gaza, by for example warning the residents before a building would be bombed” Hardt says.
“If there is a demand in Israel for weapons exports from Germany to strengthen Israel’s defense capabilities,” he says, the party and its parliamentary ally, the center-right Christian Social Union in Bavaria, “support and ensure these Israeli desires,” as does the rest of the German government. Hardt stresses, though, that he knows “Israel needs no advice from Germany” in securing its civilians.
Merkel’s term ends this year. Are these strong bonds between Germany and Israel likely to continue after her departure?
“Merkel has, from the beginning, made sure to stress Germany’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself. In pretty much all her speeches on Israel you will find some sort of link to Germany’s past. And yet that has become something that is being debated a lot internally in Germany; how its past affects its relationship with Israel and Israel’s politics today,” Lintl says.
“The special relationship between Israel and Germany – which of course heavily stems from Germany’s Nazi past – will likely continue when Merkel is gone. But the longer Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians – and thus the occupation and the settlement enterprise – continues with no sight of a two-state solution, the bigger the chance of Germany distancing itself from Israel,” he adds.
Schneider says there is “nothing that doesn’t have to do with Germany’s Nazi past” when it comes to its policies toward Israel, but that doesn’t mean that German politicians were always as supportive of Israel as they are today.
The bad blood between Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who the chancellor has butted heads with on annexation, the nation-state law and other Israeli policies – has had a destructive effect on the relationship between the two countries, Schneider says. But they have largely managed to keep the drama far from the forefront.
‘Iran will kill you and your family’
The Gaza conflict has sparked a wave of antisemitism across the world, including Germany. Chanting “Shitty Jews” in a demonstration in Gelsenkirchen, burning of Israeli flags in front of synagogues in Bonn and Münster, as well as physical and verbal attacks, took place in Germany in the past two weeks.
A similar wave hit Germany in 2014, in the last Gaza war; Jews received death threats over the phone, and firebombs were thrown at a synagogue. At pro-Palestinian rallies, chants such as “Zionists are fascists, killing children and civilians” as well as “Jews should be gassed,” were reported in the media at the time. But it seems little has been done to counter antisemitism since then.
“The government has failed utterly; they have done nothing about the rise in antisemitism since the last Gaza war in 2014, when Jews were also attacked,” Lars Umanski, the vice president of the German Jewish Student Union, tells Haaretz.
“They keep saying they condemn the attacks, but where is the action? They should start with education, really,” Umanski adds. “We only talk about right-wing antisemitism, but there we have to talk about antisemitism on the extreme left-wing and among some German Muslims.”
Schneider agrees that the German government is sometimes oblivious to the kind of incitement and antisemitism that pervades some Muslim circles – of which the latest antisemitic chants in Gelsenkirchen is an example – and that more could be invested in education.
“I would say, however, that we have seen an effort by the government in recent years to allocate funds for education in today’s antisemitism,” he says.
Just like in 2014, German Jews are being held responsible for the Israeli government’s decision to launch widespread airstrikes in Gaza. A phenomenon that is exclusive to Jews, 25-year-old Umanski argues.
“The current rise in antisemitism in Germany is showing itself with people holding Jews accountable for actions taken by the Israeli government. I don’t have an Israeli passport, I don’t speak Hebrew and I don’t live in Israel. So why am I being attacked? I don’t recall anyone holding me responsible for what’s going on in Ukraine, and I’m actually from there,” he says.
And being a visible figure in a Jewish organization makes you a clear target for hatred, something Umansky can testify to. “When [the Jewish Student Union] posted our statement about the Gaza conflict on Instagram, we received tons of hateful comments,” he says. I myself was also attacked verbally on social media, and even received death threats. Someone wrote to me that I should be careful because ‘Iran would come and kill me and my family.’”
The German government, on its part, is planning on a number of measures to combat the rise in antisemitism. “First of all we want to ban the use of Hamas flags in Germany,” Hardt says.
“Secondly, we need to keep a close eye on these tendencies, not only among far-right groups, but also the far-left and of course in the Muslim immigrant circles where you find antisemitism like we see today. Thirdly, we will also have a discussion with Turkey about the rhetoric coming from Erdogan toward Israel. That is certainly not helpful when a lot of German are watching Turkish state TV where this kind of anti-Israel rhetoric is aired,” Hardt adds.