Germany Anchors Israel’s Relationship with Europe

Berlin is still inclined to support Israeli positions, but Jerusalem needs to nurture its relationship with younger Germans.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Netanyahu and Merkel
Netanyahu and Merkel
Flash 90

The diplomatic fallout between Israel and the United States has yet to occur, but many are anticipating its coming. Without the United States' support on the international stage, Israelis fear a breakdown of Israel's international standing. That position is challenged by some observers, who point out that while things appear bad in Europe, the tides might be changing. In any event, Israel's misfortune in Europe is not uniform country to country, certainly not in Germany.

It is an understatement to say Israel and Germany have a complicated history. Even before the two countries established formal relations, West Germany (which eventually subsumed the communist East Germany) started paying reparations to Jewish Holocaust survivors living in Israel. West Germany began sending aid to the nascent state as early as 1950.

"Germany is our friend in Europe," says Esther Lopatin of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya (IDC), where she specializes in European Affairs. "They are our most important ally. The money they invest in scientific cooperation and academics is probably the highest in Europe."

The European Union remains Israel's largest trading partner and Germany subsequently manages the biggest economy on the continent. The cultural and financial ties between the countries are equally intensive.

The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a Germany think tank named for the Chancellor who initiated a relationship with David Ben-Gurion, has a branch in Jerusalem.

Politically though, despite some cracks in the relationship between Binyamin Netanyahu and Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany is a stalwart for the Jewish State in Europe.

“We’ll never be neutral and that Israel can be sure of our support when it comes to ensuring its security,” Chancellor Merkel told the Jewish Voice of Germany in a 2013 interview. “That’s why I also said that Germany’s support for Israel’s security is part of our national ethos, our raison d’être.”

It's partially based on guilt, or a debt, many Germans see owed much of the Israeli population. But it has become a hard element of Merkel's Christian Democratic Party particularly and other German parties generally.

Whatever standards might exist in German politics to offer Israel political and diplomatic credit, Lopatin emphasizes that German society is changing. The younger generation of Germans is much more distant from this status quo.

"With the people, I think we have to work on those ties because of skepticism. All kinds of studies show that a lot of younger people do not have a positive view of Israel, mainly young Europeans."

Sound familiar? If it does, that's because you might be remembering what experts on the United States have been saying to explain the widening rift with the Democratic Party and younger America. Adults in the US, even among Jews, are far less familiar with the underdog Israel of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Memory of a weak Israel has given way to a narrative found on the American extreme left, that Israel is the bully. On Germany, Lopatin offers the following:

"We need to try to reach those kids; that generation. It's something that we have to do because we tend to think the Germans will always remain our strongest friend or ally (in Europe). We have to work on this relationship. It's like marriage, where we have to continue working on relationships. The same kind of work is required between two states."

It goes far beyond buying flowers though. Lopatin says that Germany has the strongest base of support for Israel on the European continent, so that cultural relationship needs to be nurtured further. As a faculty member at the IDC, she sees an "eagerness" among Germans to engage Israelis in particular, to study in Israel and in turn see Israelis study in Germany.

"We have to do all kinds of things to align ourselves with NGOs who really do support the Jewish State, and to help them out. In terms of the academic level, to have more German students come here would be wonderful."

"The students I've met at IDC, they leave the IDC and contact me with 'I miss Israel already,' or 'I'm coming back.' I see how they love the country."

For Lopatin, it is as simple as contact theory, where the best way to engage someone who does not understand your position is let them get to know you. From her vantage point, she feels German students started to at least understand the Israeli view of politics and society here, if not come to embrace it.

Other countries have varying relationships with Israel, as Lopatin notes. Places like the Czech Republic similarly have a legacy for supporting Israel's standing, though there also there might be some generational challenges.

"I’m optimistic of the future because we have friends there (in Europe). We just have to discover our friends and we have to form (joint) ventures with them.”