I first heard of Germany from my father when I was a boy in the early 1950’s. We were then a refugee family as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, having left our family home in the West Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Qattamon to move to a Franciscan-owned property in the Old City along with some other Christian families who had fled for their lives. As a child, I did not grasp the full significance of the Nuremberg trials from the few references my father made to them. What I always did recall vividly was that my father was always visibly disturbed when he mentioned Germany and the Germans. He would have a serious look in his face, and on a few occasions I heard him murmuring vague accusations with regard to the predicament in which our family and our people found themselves. It was only years later, in high school, that I began to understand my father. Somehow the Nuremberg trials had agitated him and stirred up feelings of anger toward the Americans and the British who, as the victors in World War II, were deemed by him and others of his generation to be responsible for the disaster that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. To my father and others like him, the Allies were not only in charge of conducting the trials but, in a more personal way, were also seen as “out to get” people like him, possibly due to a conscious or unconscious wish to have seen a different outcome in World War II.
when the topic of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 came up while my parents sat sipping their coffee in the early morning, there was an acute awareness of the impact of World War II on what happened to us as Palestinians as well as the atrocious and obvious impact on the Jewish people. They saw a connection that I as a young boy failed to see. From what I heard them say, it was clear that they had empathy for the Jewish people, despite the difficult dispossession they had experienced as refugees. In fact, in one of these discussions, my father said outright: “The Jews are victims as much as we are, if not more so.” Despite his dual take on the Nuremberg trials, he remained a decent person who could not accept what had happened to the Jewish people and rejected the anti-Semitism that was propagated mostly in West and East European countries.
I myself once joked to a German friend, whose father was a general in World War II, that I should request reparations from the German government for what befell my family and my people. He was not sure that I would be successful in such litigation. This was indeed a difficult and perhaps misplaced statement, as it signified guilt by association for what had happened to us Palestinians as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. But the rationale behind it, while seen by some as far-fetched, was simply that the tragedy and horror that befell the Jewish people impacted our lives when, following World War II, the state of Israel was established. The question of moral responsibility is a difficult topic and is better left for those who continue to grapple with the question.
While it is clear that Germany and the Germans had no direct bearing on what happened between the Palestinian and Jewish people in Palestine leading up to the 1948 war and the establishment of Israel and the expulsion of my people from their homeland known as the Nakba, nonetheless some among my father’s generation insisted the turn of events leading to their dispossession began with the tragedy suffered by the Jewish people in Germany and the anti-Semitic sentiments in the West, particularly in some Eastern European countries. They believed these events were part of the reason for the disintegration of Palestinian society and their refugee status as a result of the 1948 war and the establishment of the state of Israel. Even nowadays in side discussions, some Palestinians will argue, perhaps insensitively, that we had to pay for what happened to the Jewish people in Germany and throughout Europe.
This is not the place to deal with our own failure as Palestinians to come to terms with Israel and its establishment, which is indeed a complicated topic. I am not apologetic, nor do I defend the Palestinian argument about Germany’s part in our dispossession and dispersal as refugees. I do not agree with those who blame the victims for what befell them, not in the Palestinian-Israeli context and not in any other. My intent here is to focus on whether Germany nowadays can play a role to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, given its past and its disposition toward the state of Israel and the Jewish people?
Guilt feelings can prod individuals and nations to action that can heal. If they remain untreated or individuals and nations fail to acknowledge them, they can become a destructive and obstructive force to self and national recovery. I am not a student of Germany’s efforts at national Vergangenheitsbewältigung, but I know from following current developments that the Germans have set themselves the task of contributing all they can to
the regeneration of the Jewish people. Germany’s unquestionable support of Israel should be seen in this light. However, the preoccupation of Germans
who become intermediaries or act as representatives of the German State and undertake public and covert acts are intended not simply as service and support of Israel but as importantly, if not more so, as a reflection of the commitment of Germany and Germans to the Jewish people in its entirety.
As a Palestinian, I have no issue with this reading of German relations with Israel and the Jewish people. The Germans owe it to the Israelis and to the Jewish people. Where I see a problem is with those who would argue that because of history and the guilt feelings it generated among Germans, Germany should not assume positions that challenge Israeli policies and interests, particularly when they touch on the conflict with the Palestinians and the ongoing illegal Israeli occupation of their land. I feel that the German government and a multiple of agencies that follow developments in our Middle East region are quite reticent when it comes to assertively calling for an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yes, there is awareness that the continuing conflict with the Palestinians, if not resolved, may jeopardize the stability and security of Israel in the long run and spill over beyond the region into Europe. This certainly would go against Germany’s specific concern for the welfare of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. But aside from some occasional German NGO-led initiatives on discussions of current developments within Israel, focusing on relations with its Palestinian citizens and with the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), I believe that Germany is not doing enough to propel the stalled peace process. My belief is that German aid to the Palestinians, like aid from other Western countries, is geared to promote the interests of Israel by creating a kind of accepting and docile Palestinian partner under continued Israeli occupation. Some will definitely disagree with me on this point, but as a Palestinian friend of mine once remarked, if our adversary was any country other than Israel, the amount of aid and interest in our Palestinian ‘predicament’ would be significantly lower than it is at the present time. Inevitably, it is Israel’s security that determines ‘concern’ about what is happening with the Palestinians in the OPT.
This brings me back to the story of my parents and their dispossession, which is jumbled up with the past and present violations of the human rights of the Palestinians as a result of the illegal Israeli occupation. No, I would not ask that reparations be paid to my parents and other Palestinian families for their dispossession, but I would insist that Germany stand firm on issues of human rights and the abuses to which average law-abiding Palestinians are subjected on an almost daily basis by Israeli settlers and the occupation authorities. In this season of olive harvesting in Palestine, Israeli settlers, sometimes escorted by Israeli soldiers and border police, burned olive trees and carried out scores of attacks on innocent Palestinian farmers who have just harvested their olives and who posed no threat to the settlers or their illegal communities on the occupied Palestinian lands. I am a pacifist, however, so I do not believe that ‘armed struggle’ should be the preferred choice of some among my people to bring to an end to the long continuing and painful Israeli occupation. Nevertheless, I am exasperated by the insistence of the West, Germany included, that the nonviolent Palestinian struggle should be tailored according to Israel’s economic and other interests. Western legislators, not only in Germany, view the call for the boycott of illegal Israeli settlement products as a vicious device to ruin Israel’s economy and hence jeopardize its security. Speaking out publicly and in universities and other academic institutions about the sad state of human rights in the OPT is often equated to anti-Semitism, with dire consequences for freedom of expression, a cherished value in Western democracies. The sensitivity of the Israelis and their lobbies to any nonviolent initiative by Palestinians and their sympathizers becomes a strict line that defines what is permissible and what is not.
I am truly at a loss when it comes to the German and Western positions, particularly because of the urgency of finding a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are not in need of more cosmetic approaches which, in the end, only further entrench the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and solidify Israel’s control of an ever-growing Palestinian population. We need peace, and we need it now. There is a responsibility that falls to Western governments, Germany included, to be more assertive in encouraging both the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to the table and to work out deep-rooted differences. Only such a political process can answer the concern of the German establishment and people for the long-term security of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. There is a clear cause-effect relationship between the West’s support for the creation of the state of Israel and the disintegration of Palestinian society and the dispossession of the Palestinian people. The horrible tragedy that befell the Jewish people at the hands of the German Nazi regime was another reason to expedite the creation of a national home for the Jewish people without consideration of the Palestinians or the costs they had to pay in the process of their dispossession. The pretext offered nowadays by some Western politicians of their preoccupation with more important business, whether it be cementing the unity of Europe as it deals with internal and migratory pressures or facing the populist threat to Germany and other democracies, is not convincing to me and to my Palestinian people. Given its complex historical context, Germany in particular has a responsibility, to see to it that a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is achieved. Without ending the Israeli occupation and helping the Palestinians exercise their right to a state, the long-term security and stability of Israel, a perennial concern for Germans, will remain at stake.