The Chancellor's Visit
On Tuesday March 18, a German chancellor addressed Israel's Knesset for the first time in the German language. Angela Merkel began and ended her speech in Hebrew and received a standing ovation for remarks in which she pledged that her country would always stand by Israel's side. With her historic speech, Merkel further advanced the close relationship that Germany has with Israel. A Haaretz editorial the following day called Germany "Israel's best friend in Europe, and perhaps even in the world, excepting the United States." And writing in the same edition of Haaretz, Tom Segev noted that even United States politicians have never equated a threat to Israel as a threat to their own country—as Merkel did on this trip, her third in the last two years.
Merkel arrived in Israel with a large delegation that included prominent German businessmen, members of parliament, and eight senior cabinet ministers. These ministers participated in a join cabinet session with Israel's government. Previously, Germany had held joint government session with just two countries, France and Poland, and no foreign government has held a session in Jerusalem since the British Mandate.
The Israeli reaction to Merkel was not completely rosy. Several Knesset Members boycotted Merkel's address, citing the need to be vigilant about the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors (one of these MK's, Limor Livnat, said that "if even one survivor is living, German should not be allowed" in the Knesset). And in Tom Segev's opinion piece, he criticized Merkel for "her unrestrained support for Israeli policy," which, according to Segev, overlooks Israel's harsh treatment of the Palestinians. [Segev offered an intriguing explanation for Merkel's particular enthusiasm for Israel. He noted that Merkel hails from East Germany and that she thus grew up thinking that the Holocaust was the responsibility of West Germany alone. Only after German reunification in 1990 did Merkel discover that the blame lay equally on all Germans, and according to Segev, it is therefore the passion of a convert that drives Merkel's support for Israel.]
The overall tenor of Merkel's visit, however, was to make quite public Israel's exceptional relationship with Germany. The stigma against Germany and German products is almost completely gone in contemporary Israel. The vast majority of Israelis see nothing wrong in buying German products. Indeed, when I had to buy a new oven a few years ago I chose one made by the German company Bosch. But interestingly enough, the appliance salesman, before showing me the various ovens he had for sale, asked me if I would be willing to consider products from Germany. I answered in the affirmative because the Germany of today is a true friend of the State of Israel. The fact that the oven I bought is of excellent quality (Sarah's black humor: "at least we know it works") and was at a good price obviously also had a lot to do with my purchase.
Buying German products is not seen by Israelis as minimizing the Holocaust. The Holocaust is remembered and commemorated both by Germans and by Israelis, but Israel's economic, cultural, and political needs make cooperation between the two countries imperative. For example, it is precisely Germany (more than the United States) that takes Iran's growing nuclear threat with the seriousness that Israel feels it deserves. Chancellor Merkel was at pains to specifically remind the Knesset that Germany has not forgotten its responsibility for the Holocaust, but Israelis could not help but be captivated by her remarks, especially when she said: "For me, as a German chancellor, Israel's security is nonnegotiable."
Copyright 2008, Teddy Weinberger