My first contact with Holocaust survivors was when I joined Kibbutz Barkai in 1963. The founders of the kibbutz, members of the socialist-left Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, were all Holocaust survivors from Poland and Romania. Most had survived the horrors of the concentration camps, while a few had escaped and joined the Red Army or partisans fighting the Nazis. They came to the fledgling State of Israel to rebuild their broken lives.
They had been so scarred by the concentration camp experience that they weren't strong enough to maintain the kibbutz community and economy by themselves and needed reinforcements until their children became of age. I was one of them.
For three years, I was a shepherd, getting up at 3 a.m. to milk the sheep and take them out to pasture. Although wool wasn't the primary money earner from these Awasi sheep, there still came a time when the sheep were sheared and the wool collected to be sold to make rugs, coats, whatever. That meant you needed good sheep shears to cut the wool.
The best shears in the world were manufactured by a German company. This meant that the decision to buy the shears had to be brought before the Saturday night general kibbutz meeting for a decision, pro or con, by the members. The veteran kibbutz founders from Poland and Romania, the survivors of the Holocaust, were all united in their firm opposition to buying anything German. I totally identified with this opposition to buying German products. I did own one German product, a high-quality Hohner Harmonica, which I fit into the Bob Dylan-type neck harmonica holder that I wore when I played the guitar, but who knew it was from Germany?
It was unanimous, a no vote to buying the German shears, even if it meant buying the second best product.
This opposition to anything German on the kibbutz lasted until 1967. When the first young Germans asked to volunteer to help the kibbutz in the time of crisis created by the Six-Day War and the drafting of many of the young members into the army, even the Polish and Romanian veterans agreed that this was a new generation, and they welcomed them to the kibbutz. Those were the first Germans I ever met.
Some of them had been members of Aktion Sühnezeichen (Action-Reconciliation), a German peace organization founded in 1958 by the Evangelical Church to confront the legacy of Nazism. Its founding declaration stated: “We Germans started the Second World War and for this reason alone, more than others, became guilty of causing immeasurable suffering to humankind. Germans have, in sinful revolt against the will of God, exterminated millions of Jews. Those of us who survived and did not want this to happen did not do enough to prevent it.” Believing that the first step toward reconciliation had to be taken by the perpetrators and their descendants, the founders hoped that "the other nations, who suffered because of us, will allow us with our hands and with our means to do something good in their countries” as a sign of reconciliation and peace. In Israel, volunteers worked in historical or political education, at the national Holocaust memorial site, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and in projects with Jewish and Arab citizens working toward mutual understanding.
The Reparations Agreement: A turning point
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was the first to realize the importance of reconciliation with the Germans. Together with the Russianborn, German-educated Dr. Nahum Goldmann, the progressive Co-Chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and President of the World Jewish Congress and World Zionist Organization, he engineered a Reparations Agreement with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, which was signed in September 1952, and went into effect in March 1953. The agreement was attacked both by
the right-wing Herut leader Menachem Begin and by the left-wing Mapam party as "blood money," with the right wing organizing rock-throwing demonstrations against the Knesset which the police had to disperse with tear gas. The Germans kept their part of the deal, which was a key factor in their post-Nazi rehabilitation in the eyes of the world.
The Reparations Agreement with Germany was clearly one of Ben-Gurion's wisest and most courageous decisions. It became a major building block in the development of the fledgling Israeli economy as it was absorbing hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and other hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1950s. It also enabled many of the penniless and traumatized Holocaust survivors to buy homes and build small enterprises.
The German reparations that were received by members of Kibbutz Barkai went into the collective treasury, and the money was used to build a cultural center, which included a club room where people could relax after work, read newspapers and drink coffee, along with an outdoor amphitheater for performances and the screening of films every Thursday night.
In the 1980s, Israeli peace and anti-nuclear activists began to encounter German colleagues at END (European Nuclear Disarmament) conferences throughout Europe, and they discovered a shared interest in the quest for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution. Some of the initial dialogue encounters between young Israelis and Palestinians were also held in Germany.
The Israeli attitude toward buying German products and visiting Germany began to change. Volkswagen Beetles and other German cars appeared on the streets. More and more Israelis visited Berlin for tourism and business, while German tourists began to come to Tel Aviv. Israeli football fans began to follow the German teams, and children wore shirts with the names of their favorite German players. Songs by German groups like "Winds of Change" by the Scorpions and "99 Luftballons" (99 Red Balloons) by Nena were high on the radio playlists, and movies by filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders became very popular. However, strong opposition still remains to playing music by Wagner, considered an anti-Semite whose music was an inspiration to the Nazis.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet bloc collapsed, my initial reaction was to oppose the idea of German reunification, considering the havoc that was wrought by a united Germany in the past, particularly during the Nazi period in World War II. That was the position of the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) and the Green Party as well. Germany was reunited, however, though clearly it has not been smooth going. There still appear to be great differences between East and West Germany, and the rise of the ultra-right wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) Party in the East is very worrisome. The recent Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle by a right-wing extremist which killed two non-Jewish bystanders only served to reinforce that concern. Was my initial instinct correct?
The Important German Role in Support of Israeli-Palestinian peace
After becoming Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, I discovered that some of the most dedicated supporters of the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution were the six German political foundations in Israel/Palestine, particularly our partners at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Jerusalem and the Heinrich Boell Foundation and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tel Aviv. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation has also supported our activities.
Over the years, my resistance to the very idea of visiting Germany gave way to curiosity. My first visit to Germany took place in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and since then I have been to Berlin many times, and also to Frankfurt, at the invitation of the German foundations, the strong German branch of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, and in the context of Palestine-Israel Journal trilateral roundtables.
In September 2011, with the support of ifa-Zivik and the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the Palestine-Israel Journal organized a two-day roundtable workshop on "The Future of Jerusalem" at the Evangelische Akademie (Protestant Academy), Bad Boll, near Stuttgart, with the participation of six Israelis, six Palestinians, and six Germans. One of my comments at the roundtable was that the outsider view of sympathetic third-party Germans can frequently provide important insight to Israelis and Palestinians who sometimes cannot see beyond their immediate immersion in their own perspectives on the conflict. At the conclusion of the two-day workshop, three Israeli and Palestinian participants went to present a summary and recommendations from the workshop at the prestigious Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which advises the Bundestag and the federal government on foreign and security policy issues.
Security and Cooperation in the Middle East and a WMD-Free Zone
One of the most ambitious encounters that my colleague Ziad AbuZayyad and I were involved in also took place at the Protestant
Academy, Bad Boll, at the initiative of Prof. Mohssen Masarat, an Iranian who came to study in Germany and remained there. He initiated a series of meetings to try to create a Conference on Security and Cooperation-Middle East (CSCME), modeled on one of the forerunners of the EU, the Conference on European Security and Cooperation (CESC), with participants from Israel, Palestine, Iran, and all of the major Arab countries. The first meeting took place in January 2011 as what became known as the Arab Spring was beginning in Tunisia, and a follow-up meeting was held in October of the same year at SOAS in London, with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. One can only hope that one day the situation will be ripe to develop such an initiative for the sake of all the peoples in the region.
Following the publication of a special Palestine-Israel Journal issue devoted to “A Middle East Without Weapons of Mass Destruction” (Vol. 19 No. 1 &2, 2013) supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, in April, 2014, the New York and Washington branches of the FES organized, together with the PIJ, a conference in New York devoted to "Advancing a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East,” with over 50 participants from the NGO and UN-based international community, which coincided with preparations for the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The Washington phase of the project consisted of an advocacy mission for a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East on The Hill with all relevant Washington players in the field of arms control. Unfortunately, the quest for a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East broke down with the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, and one can only hope that an effective process will be revived at the forthcoming 2020 NPT Review Conference.
Another dimension of German involvement in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is the fact that among the almost 200 international student interns who have been an invaluable part of our work at the Palestine-Israel Journal since its inception have been many excellent young German interns who have been a great help in our work, and learned a lot in the process of being active in our unique binational environment. And we even had the benefit of a 70-year-old German intern, Dr. Rainer Kessler, who taught German to Palestinians while working with us at the PIJ.
We Can't Do It Without the International Community
The famous Bauhaus school of avant-garde architecture, fine arts, and design was opened in Germany in 1919, first in Dessau and later in Berlin by Walter Gropius. In the founding manifesto of the school he wrote: “Together let us call for, devise, and create the construction of the future, comprising everything in one form: architecture, sculpture and painting.”
The Nazis saw it as a breeding ground for radicals, filled with "Bolshevists" and "cultural Marxists," and decadent to boot. When they came to power in 1933 they closed the school, and some of the German Jewish students and teachers went to Mandatory Palestine. There they built many buildings in the functional modernist International Style created at the Bauhaus school. Since the heart of Tel Aviv has over 4,000 Bauhaus buildings, the largest collection in the world, in 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed Tel Aviv's White City a World Cultural Heritage site, as "an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century." The citation recognized the unique adaptation of modern international architectural trends to the cultural, climatic, and local traditions of the city. I have lived in Tel Aviv since 1985, and across the street from my apartment on Moses Hess Street in the Old Tel Aviv neighborhood, not far from the Mediterranean Sea, stands the Liebling House, one of the early Bauhaus buildings. In 2015, in a reflection of the constructive nature of German-Israeli relations today, the Tel Aviv Municipality together with the German Government decided to convert the building into a museum dedicated to the history of Tel Aviv and the role of Bauhaus in the city. A few months ago, a new Liebling Café was opened in the building, so I can go across the street to enjoy a cup of coffee and read the daily newspaper alongside books dedicated to Gropius' philosophy and the Bauhaus contribution to architecture and design. Perhaps the most striking expression of the change in attitude towards Germany in Israel today is the fact that an estimated 20,000-30,000 young Israelis live in Berlin, attracted by its cosmopolitan, dynamic atmosphere and relatively inexpensive cost of living.
And today, in the age of Trump, Angela Merkel's refugee-welcoming Germany suddenly appears to be a bastion of liberal democracy and hope, at least for liberal Israelis.
When we, Israelis and Palestinians, who are struggling for an end to the occupation and for a two-state solution, look at the situation today, we realize that it cannot be achieved without the help of the international community. Germany in particular and Europeans in general have to play a central role in helping to advance a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Wall Must Come Down
On my table at the Palestine-Israel Journal I keep a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961, during the height of the Cold War, to separate East Germany from West Germany and to prevent East Germans from moving to the West. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) authorities called it an "Anti-Fascist Protection Ramp," while the West Germans, particularly the West Berliners, called it a "Wall of Shame." Between 1961 and 1989, over 100,000 people attempted to breach the Wall, and while over 5,000 people succeeded in making it to the West, there was an estimated death toll ranging from 136 to more than 200 in and around Berlin. When the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the Wall finally came down and the celebrations began.
In Israel-Palestine, the Separation Wall was built between 2003 and 2006 following the failure of Camp David 2000 and the eruption of the violent Second Intifada which included a spate of suicide bombings, many coming from the West Bank, which killed many Israeli civilians. Although it was originally supposed to be built along the internationally recognized Green Line border, 85% of the Wall actually cuts into territory which is part of the West Bank. The Israeli Government calls the Wall a "security fence," despite the fact that it frequently is an 8-meter-high thick wall, while many Palestinian advocates call it the "segregation" or "apartheid wall." At the Palestine-Israel Journal, we use the neutral descriptive title "Separation Barrier." While the Wall has led to a major reduction in the danger of suicide bombings and killing of civilians, according to the B'tselem human rights organization, "the route chosen for the wall has laid the groundwork for the de-facto annexation of most settlements and much land for their future expansion. The barrier has broken up contiguous Palestinian urban and rural blocs, severed inter-community ties forged over generations and abruptly imposed an arbitrary reconfiguration of space based on settlement boundaries and to suit the convenience of Israeli security forces." The piece of the Berlin Wall on my desk contains remnants of the colorful graffiti that was posted all along the Wall. Similar colorful Palestinian patriotic and peace-oriented graffiti covers much of the Separation Wall in Israel/Palestine, including the iconic image by mysterious British artist Banksy of a young Palestinian throwing a bouquet of flowers rather than rocks over the Wall.
Just as the Berlin Wall fell after 28 years, our Separation Wall between Israelis and Palestinians will fall one day, too. And then both Israelis and Palestinians will be able to place colorful pieces of the Separation Wall on their tables, to remember the days when the conflict was still raging.