Tuesday marks the Jubilee of Israel-German diplomatic relations. In commemoration of this major milestone, German Radio’s Israel correspondent, Dr. Sebastian Engelbrecht, traveled to Kibbutz Yakum and recorded this interview (listen to the original Hebrew) on the state of affairs between the two nations. Among the most important issues was Burg’s urging the German leadership to take an active role in opposing the most destructive policies Israel pursues against the Palestinians. He also denounced Germany’s sale of five Dolphin nuclear-armed submarines to Israel.
Thanks to Avrum Burg for his support in republishing the interview. It was translated from German (which itself was translated from Hebrew) by an Israeli raised in Germany who wishes to remain anonymous:
INTERVIEW DER WOCHE / 10.05.2015
German Broadcasting Radio
The former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament, Avraham Burg, has encouraged Europe and Germany to openly criticize Israeli Settlement Policies. As long as Germany is afraid to openly state it’s opinion, nothing will change, says Burg to DLF [German Radio].
The Israeli leadership encourages the trauma of the Holocaust.
Sebastian Engelbrecht [interviewer]:
Next Tuesday, the 12thMay, the governments of Germany and Israel celebrate a major Jubilee marking the inauguration of diplomatic relations exactly 50 years ago. President Rivlin is expected in Berlin for the celebration. A few days before this, I am now with Avraham Burg at Kibbutz Yakum, north of Tel Aviv.
Avraham Burg was Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003 representing the Labor Party. In 2004, he withdrew from politics and is now an author, journalist, and internationally-acclaimed speaker. At the beginning of the year he joined Hadash, a Communist Party in Israel.
Avraham Burg’s father Yosef Burg came from Germany was a minister and one of the most significant politicians in the country for many years.
Q: Mr Burg, German-Israeli relations are very intense. What is powering these relations – pragmatism or attraction?
I think pragmatism is only a practical issue, when you can do it. I think there is a very complex engine, an engine with plenty of cylinders. The central cylinders are the feelings of guilt, very very deep feelings of guilt on the German side and the feelings of the Israelis, which correspond to the German guilt. They are two post-traumatic societies, each for opposite reasons. We deal with the most post traumatic societies in the West today. One reflects the post trauma of the other. Israel is the mirror of Germany and Germany is the mirror of Israel. And I think that underneath, in the depths, there is a formidable curiosity, which began within German Jewry; and continued in Germany all through the phase of the Weimar Republic, and of course ended with the rise of the Nazis to power. This fascination of Jews and Germans existed before the Holocaust and has remained today, with a role change. But there is an enormous fascination in the relations between the two.
“Jewish Israel is an ethnic society”
There are many who use the word “miracle” in this context.
I don’t believe in miracles, because the word “miracle” refers to something which occurs beyond the laws of nature and I believe that all of life is nature. I am a rationalist of the 17th and 18th century variety. I have emotions and feelings, but a “miracle” would mean that the sun ceased to set in the West and that water dropped from earth skywards. I don’t believe in such matters.
There is a strong rationalism in this relationship, the existence of mutual needs. Germany cannot be redeemed without the redemption of Israel and Israel cannot be redeemed without the redemption of the Germans. But let’s regard the issue from a deeper perspective. One of the greatest angers of the Nazis concerning the Jews was their cosmopolitism, their Europeanisms. Stefan Zweig is maybe the best known figure today, but there where many, Walter Benjamin and others. But the ethnic German said: “We want our folk, our ethos”. What is the internal reasoning which recognizes national loyalty only versus cosmopolitism? Now 70, 80 years have passed. Jewish Israel is an ethnic society and Germany is a cosmopolitan one. Look at the German National Football team: Two Poles, one North African, and one Turk. This was unthinkable 70 years ago. It means, we play the “Trip to Jerusalem” [Musical Chairs] together, and that is very important.
In 1952 Israel and Germany joined the Luxembourg Agreement, which regulated so-called “Reparations” after the Holocaust. Astonishingly, in the years that followed, it was Israel that urged the start of diplomatic relations before 1965, while the Federal Republic hesitated. How can one explain this?
“The new Germany”
In order to answer your question, we have to look at two developments, which are very difficult for radio and reality. We have to go back in time and consciousness, and that is not easy. But let us try.
We are at the beginning of the 50’s. The Cold War begins. The states are aligning with blocs. The USA needs Germany. Israel needs the USA and in some way the West. So we already were in one camp. We have a common friend: America. Secondly, it was clear that World Jewry was an important factor in this power game: the Jewish World Congress. Nahum Goldman and so on. And it was not only a game between Israel and Germany, but a chess game of three players. Israel, Germany and World Jewry with all its opinions, ideologies and exigencies.
Germany had not completed its internal transformation process. Yes, there was a mixture of Willy Brandts and Adenauers, who had not directly tainted themselves and had returned. But the internal world of official and bureaucrats, the teachers, the municipal clerks and the water-meter readers, they came from the epoch of the war.
Israel was completely new. A State that did not exist before. New immigrants. Sure, everybody carries their own trauma with him, but it was a new State. Therefore these were not relations as between Germany and Austria, between France and Germany, England and France. They were relations between new and old. And as long as the transformation was not complete and mutual trust had not developed, each one of them was at a different energy. This continued until the late 70’s, when the significant change began, when terms like “the other Germany”, “the new Germany” were minted.
50 years of German-Israeli relations – in Germany celebrated as a major Jubilee- in Israel, no big deal. Why doesn’t it interest Israelis?
Israel 2015 is not the Israel of 1950 or 1960, not in view of its leadership as well as its existential status. In what respect? Germany came out of the war as a closed society and became an open society. Today, Germany is a very open country. The word Volk today means more the citizens, not only the nation. There is a much greater understanding. And I speak not only of the people of the former DDR, but about immigrants from Turkey, Northern Africa and Africa etc. A very open State which excels through the citizenship and the culture of the place.
Israel is locked and further segregates itself. What does it separate itself from? Israelis are deeply convinced, which of course is a vague claim, that the whole world is against them. Secondly, that Europe is driven by anti-Semitism; and thirdly, that the second Shoah is at the door. From my viewpoint all these are – and I phrase it with caution –nonsense. But we don’t know it. There is an indoctrination on the political level. The Holocaust is a national strategy; or rather, trauma is a national strategy. The leadership promotes trauma, since it enables many things which an secure State and a secure society would not tolerate. Then we look at Germany and the 50-year Jubilee. Germany celebrates its openness and its ability to deal with the past without hiding it. After 50 years, Israel marks the relationship as part of the past. It doesn’t develop beyond it, it is still drowning in it. This is the difference in approach toward this subject.
You have just mentioned the meaning of the Holocaust in this connection. One of the strongest bonds between Israel and Germany is, paradoxically, the Holocaust. In your book The Holocaust is over, you take the view that Israel must free itself from the fixation on the Holocaust in order to be able to confront the challenges of the present. In view of relations with Germany, I think, this would be a mistake – to slip into forgetting history. What do you think?
“Germany consists of various Germanys”
I am not a person that says one has to forget – not to mention that Google doesn’t allow one to forget! My argument is simply that the past exists, but it cannot be that we only live in the past. Israel lives in the past. Everything is high-tech, all is modern, Tel Aviv is a wonderful city. Tel Aviv and Berlin are Sister Cities, if you judge by their inner energy. All this is true.
On the level of the national psyche, we are caught up in the past: partly in the Holy Temple of 2000 years ago, partly in the pogroms 500 years ago or in the expulsion of the Spanish Jews and – most of all- in the Shoah.
I claim: Yes, all this is here, indisputably, but it cannot be the only strategy. We have to create a movement from the strategy of trauma towards the strategy of trust, and this we have not mastered yet. I am not sure – as I am very sure of some of my greater failures – but I thought that through my book I would open the debate on the Holocaust in Israel. I took a lot of fire, but the debate has begun. Today one can speak differently on the issue. But I failed to reach Germany. Everywhere I have been told: “Herr Burg, it is too difficult for us. It is dangerous, too explosive. Please leave.” I did not reach Germany.
I feel that two different things have happened. In Israel everybody chatters about the Holocaust – the student, his mother from Iraq and his father who came from Afghanistan – all conscious of the Holocaust. Also, the ones who had no connection to it [the debate] are Holocaust survivors here. However, in many families in Germany it is still a secret, what we call a Black Hole in astronomy, which has not been opened yet. In public, the leadership speaks about it, there are ceremonies and Willy Brandt went to Warsaw in a mighty gesture – but not at home. In many homes of my friends the topic is still locked. When Israel will close the issue, Germany will begin it. We are not at the same level in the spheres of private, familiar and societal treatment of this topic.
Aside from this, I am not sure that I am right. I am not sure if the dispute about the Holocaust in the German educational establishment in the countryside or in the former DDR – the DDR had triumphed over Hitler – reaches the same conclusions. Also, Germany consists of a few Germanys. One has to wait. It takes time.
Now there seems to be a group that has reached beyond this issue, Israelis who are moving to Berlin since the beginning of the [20th] century. About 10-20 thousand Israelis, many hold a German passport, one cannot count them exactly. One hears Hebrew on the streets. How do you explain this phenomena?
Firstly, Berlin is a very attractive city, very contemporary. It was important for me to run the Berlin marathon. An important city. Very simple: an important city.
You ran the Berlin marathon?
“The presence of the Holocaust in Berlin has made it into a tolerant city”
I ran the Berlin marathon in 2008. I have run in Berlin many times. There is something deeper. I am not sure that the Israelis attracted by Berlin for its culture, openness, energy and beauty have left their trauma behind. Berlin has succeeded in something of great magnitude. The trauma is present on the streets, – the Stolpersteine, the line where the wall once stood, the Jewish Museum and the controversial Holocaust memorial, but also at street corners and in the missing houses – the Holocaust is present, but not in an aggressive manner. It is a reminder for the future. Actually I can say: The presence of the Holocaust has turned Berlin into a tolerant city.
And in Israel the Palestinian past is not present. Therefore one is not tolerant towards it. Our Jewish past is over-represented. It stands alone. For this reason we do not move forwards. Very many Israelis, of course the intellectuals, sensitive people, artists – feel that Berlin offers an balance of past and present, trauma and hope, reality and memory, which is right. This is a mighty achievement, a mental and spiritual achievement of Berlin. This does not exist everywhere in Germany. You and I know that there are places in Germany where it is difficult to tread.
Do you think that the Germans have learned from Jewish tradition? So that they now bring the past so strongly into the future?
You are opening an issue which occupies me more than others and I have still not managed to understand it. There are two big models of world Jewry. 78 percent of the Jews of the world live in either Israel or the US. Judaism in the US is based on religious identity. The Passover seder at the White House, the Hanukkah lights on Times Square etc. I call that “religious-style”.
Judaism in Israel revolves around the Nation. Judaism in Western Europe and, at its centre the Jewry of Germany, since Moses Mendelssohn, cannot be categorized in such fashion. It was a corpus of ideas, a strong generator of ideas, general European, general German and general Jewish ideas. All these renewal movements – they all happened in Germany. What is missing today between the American “Religious Style” and the Israeli national centralization is a body of ideas and values. I think we lack that in Judaism today.
In Germany there are interesting ideas, after the war there was the Group 47 of writers. What an important group! What immense influence. Think of the time before the war. The Frankfurt School. Adorno was part of it even before the war, but his influence holds up to today. The Germans listen to Hanna Arendt. Even today. She is much more respected there [in Germany], than here. I can continue endlessly. I think the Jewish-German conversation from before the war was severely damaged, but it is not dead. It is like Hawking. He is paralyzed, he can hardly move, but he is full of inspiration. In Israel there is no Jewish-German conversation.
“The Germans listen to Hanna Arendt!”
Since the murderous attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, the discussion on the question, should European Jews leave Europe has re-emerged. Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked them to. You were head of the Jewish Agency and of the Zionist World Organization between 1995 and 1999. Do you share Netanyahu’s views?
This is a controversial question, since as you know I do not share any views with him. But Netanyahu follows a long, sad and horrible line, which I call “”Catastrophic Zionism”: the greater the catastrophes are for the Jewish people outside Israel, the more will immigrate to Israel. I think this is absolutely wrong. In addition I think it is a paradox. One addresses European Jewry. 750 million people live in Europe. Not even 5% are Muslims. Out of the 5%, 90% are wonderful citizens and a few are problematic.
Because of this one says to the Jews: leave this place of values, the tolerant and humanistic institutions and come to Israel, where 20% of citizens are non-Jews for whom discrimination is integral, while between the Jordan and the [Mediterranean] sea there are 50% non-Jews. There is twisted logic in this claim. Upon deeper reflection it is wrong. In what respect? I think that there is a significant struggle for the future of the West–about its dialog with the “Other” who is non-Western–going on in Europe. The “Other” can be various types of “Other”.
This is not happening in the US, Australia or Japan. It happens in Europe. And it is not an cliched multi-culti [conversation]. It is a daily challenge. It is the neighbour, the colleague at work, the cabdriver, everybody. This struggle is after all led by the development of new models of a new West and of a new tolerant Western Islam, which do not exist today. If this struggle were to take place in a Europe “empty” of Jews, if the struggle for a new “Other” would take place in a Europe without Jews, it would be the failure of the West and a strategic failure of Judaism – therefore Netanyahu’s speech is utter nonsense.
The quality of Israeli-German relations will also, in the future, depend on the internal development of both countries. Here are some developments that sometimes worry the German partner. Israel isolates itself noticeably through its Settlement policies. The alienation of its closest allies, Germany included, is growing. The Israeli government doesn’t seem to take this criticism seriously. Can this continue?
It cannot continue. But as long as Germany fears expressing its opinions publicly – Merkel phrased it very politely last year – and as long as Germany thinks that the delivery of U-boats [Dophin submarines] is to be understood as part of the moral relations between the countries, nothing can change. It concerns all of Europe, but in the heart of Europe is Germany, from every perspective. As long as it is not able to express its opinions loud and openly – it has three terrifying complexes: The complex of post colonialism towards the whole Middle East, the complex of post-Holocaust towards the Jews, and an inferiority complex towards the US. –Europe cannot be a political player. And if Europe is not a political player, Israel can do what it wants. Europe has to understand that beyond financial power it has political power. And Europe should say: Within our value system of equality, post colonialism, repentance and acts of reconciliation, we cannot accept a country in our midst which occupies another country. As long as Europe does not say this, all will stay the same and the relations will be based on guilt and weapons. And that is not good!
Will this issue be a heavy burden on German-Israeli relations in the future?
That depends on Germany. I think that the current German leadership still lives in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and allows Israel to do as it pleases. And the Israelis are taking advantage of this. I am not sure, that 20 and 30 year-olds today, when they join the leadership will have the same memories. They will follow other interests, and this whole conversation will change.
Avraham Burg, Thank you very much for this talk and Aufwiedersehen – maybe in Kibbutz Yakum or somewhere else, maybe Berlin.