Is Germany still a friend of Israel? Yes, but Berlin risks drifting away from Jerusalem.

Commentary by Tomas Sandell

For most of recent EU-history, Germany has been the glue which has kept the European Union together. No single EU-member state has poured in more financial resources into the common budget of the European Union than Germany. For that sacrificial giving every European citizen should be grateful.

Germany has also been perceived as the ultimate guarantee that Europe would never forget its past and would keep a right attitude towards the Jewish people and the State of Israel. For many years Germany was considered to be Israel’s best friend in Europe – but is this still the case? While Germany may still be considered a friend of Israel, I am now concerned that Berlin seems to be drifting further away from Jerusalem.

This shift is taking place while Germany itself is changing its internal make up. Whilst modern Germany has been a stable democracy over the years, governed by either the Christian Democrats (CDU) or the Social Democrats (SPD), today the political landscape is more fragmented, and the current government, consisting of a coalition of the two former major political parties, is barely clinging to power. Whereas the Left is losing ground to the Greens (a third of all Germans under 30 voted for the Greens in the recent European Parliament elections !), the CDU is being challenged from the right by the Alternative Für Deutschland party (AFD). While outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel during most of her reign exercised an unquestionable authority both domestically and in Brussels, this is no longer the case.

The refugee crisis in 2015

So how does Israel fit in to this new political environment? The right of Israel to be a secure and safe country has always been a fundamental value and a cornerstone of any German government and is even said to be the raison d’être for modern Germany.

But is this still a political reality? As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, many Germans seem to be tired of constantly being reminded of the nation’s guilt towards the Jewish people and their solidarity with the State of Israel is growing thin. The commitment to “remember” is expressed through numerous monuments and museums in Berlin and throughout Germany, but today it is actually less clear as to exactly what it is that we need to remember, as the lessons of the Holocaust are becoming universalized and not primarily linked to the annihilation of the Jewish people.

In 2015, 70 years after the end of Holocaust, in the middle of the refugee crisis stemming from the civil war in Syria, Angela Merkel made a strategic decision to open the German borders, resulting in over one million refugees seeking asylum in Germany. She later defended her decision to open the borders to unregistered refugees, saying that the decision was right and had shown Germany’s friendly face to the world.

When new history books are written, Germany may no longer be remembered as the country who tried to annihilate the Jews, but rather as the country that saved millions of refugees and ultimately redeemed the German soul. Years later she admitted that the uncontrolled influx of young refugees from totalitarian Islamic countries where they have been systematically indoctrinated with Jew hatred had made life more difficult for the Jewish population in Germany and rest of Europe. As the new refugees poured into Europe, another people group left in record numbers – the Jews.

Are Germany and Israel really as different as Venus and Mars?

The collective experience of Germany and Israel after the war could not be any more different. Whereas the end of Second World War for many European leaders spelled the death of nationalism, it marked the re-birth of the Jewish state. While Germans were told that conflict cannot and should no longer be solved through war, the newly re-created Jewish state has had to fight wars from its very beginning until today. And now the Israelis take great pride in their armed forces because they know that it was the absence of a nation state and having no army to defend them that made the Holocaust possible. The new narrative in the West seems to indicate the opposite, insinuating that it was nationalism and wars that made the Holocaust possible. This leads to two divergent views on the connection between Israel and antisemitism. One group claims that the policies of Israel are the reason for modern antisemitism, whereas the other group recognises that the State of Israel provides the solution to antisemitism.

In Europe the horrors of the Holocaust eventually led to the creation of the European Community. The leaders argued that through international cooperation, and eventually by creating a federal Europe, Europeans would prevent future wars. For the Jews the solution to the Holocaust was the creation of their own nation state, Israel, which had been promised to them under International Law already in 1920 in San Remo.

In Europe today, nationalism and national sovereignty is seen as a threat. Whereas Germany and the EU as a whole want to promote humanism, federalism and universalism, Israel is building a successful nation state. Whereas humanism teaches that history and religion are obsolete, the State of Israel takes its reason for existence from Biblical history, going back 3000 years to reconnect with its Biblical roots. In Israel therefore the national identity is strong, whereas in Europe it is almost non-existing, except where sport is concerned.

In 2015 a Gallup Global Survey revealed that Europe is the continent with the fewest people willing to defend their country in a war. According to this survey, only 15% of the Dutch said that they were willing to fight, followed by Germany with 18% and Belgium 19 %. Compare that to mandatory service of all men and women in the Israeli army and the contrast is striking. The same lack of conviction and hope for the future can be seen in terms of the birth rate throughout Europe. While Israeli women have the highest fertility rate in all of the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with 3.11 children per woman, the EU average is 1.58. Why is it that Israelis, who have lived in Israel under constant threat of war since its inception, raise large families, tend to have an optimistic outlook on life, and are generally a contented people? Could it have something to do with the sense of identity and a purpose in life?

For the European Union, the pivotal moment with regard to defining a European identity came at the negotiations of the Lisbon treaty in 2007. Here it was decided to leave out any mention of God or a Judeo-Christian heritage in the final text. Europe had, in its own words, no history or meaning beyond itself, while Israel has remained true to its own heritage.

The meaning of 2015

This short commentary is not meant to be comprehensive but simply a series of observations. But perhaps it helps to explain why Germany is drifting further away from a more self-assured and future-oriented Israel.

When the sense of history is lost, we do not remember what we should remember. This may explain why the impressive Jewish Museum in Berlin, which was built to remember Jewish life, saw no contradiction in hosting an Iranian official in March this year. The Iranian regime calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. The discussion between the Iranian diplomat and the director of the Jewish Museum was revealing, in that they both agreed that “the equating of antisemitism with anti-Zionism is a problem that needs to be scrutinized”. Also in the meeting, the Iranian diplomat remarked that “the line between Zionism and Judaism” needs to be preserved, like “the border between ISIS and Islam.”

After having spent two days in multiple meetings in Berlin, my observation is that Germany is still at ease with remembering and honouring the victims of the past, but is increasingly uneasy with those Jews who survived, and who, against all odds, built the miracle which we today call the State of Israel, especially when governments are led by nationalistic parties such as Likud.

I have already mentioned the significance of the refugee crisis of 2015. Let me mention two other events which makes 2015 a year to remember in German – Israeli relations.

It was with strong German support that the six world powers, the so called P 5 + 1, (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, plus Germany), in July, 2015 reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, releasing 150 billion USD of frozen revenues for the Islamic regime and additional 1.8 billion in cash (!), knowing very well that the real intention of the Iranian regime was to annihilate the Jewish state, and its practical outworking was for Iran to arm Israel’s enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah, to carry out a proxy war against the Jewish state.

Germany is by far the most important European trading partner for Iran. It was Hans-Dietrich Genscher, West German Foreign Affairs Minister, who was the first Western foreign minister to visit the state after the Islamic Revolution back in 1984. (And it was Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel who was first to visit Iran after nuclear agreement in 2015.) German trade to Iran became increasingly prominent in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. By 2004, Germany was exporting €3.6billion (£3.2billion) in goods to Iran each year.

Germany’s trade with Iran has suffered a sharp fall since the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. German trade with Iran was down 50 per cent, at nearly €340m for the first quarter compared to the same period in 2018.

In November of 2015, Germany made another decision to break from its historical role as a protector of Israel in the EU-capital. In an EU Council meeting Germany decided surprisingly not to vote against an EU-directive to label Israeli goods from the disputed territories. This took other, less powerful pro-Israel EU-member states by surprise. “If Germany, who is Israel’s best friend in Europe, does not see any reason to block such a proposal, it cannot be that bad”, they argued. Thus the directive was adopted, leading to a diplomatic crisis between the EU and Israel.

Quo vadis?

Where is all this leading? Let me end on a more positive note. If Germany gave universal acceptance to an EU boycott of Israeli goods and services from the disputed territories in 2015, in May 2019 the German Bundestag voted to condemn BDS, as the first ever national parliament to do so, openly making a comparison of BDS with the tactics of the Nazis in the 1930´s.

The last years have included several mixed messages from Berlin. While Merkel has actively prevented EU-member states in Central and Eastern Europe from moving their embassies to Jerusalem, the new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has committed himself to supporting legitimate Israeli interests at the UN, while at the same time acknowledging that Germany may have failed Israel in the past.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we will focus more attention on Germany and try, as an outside observer and friend, to strengthen the many good forces inside and outside of Germany that wish nothing but to remain Israel’s best friend.


Den vollständigen Text können Sie hier auf Deutsch lesen. (The whole article in German)



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