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A History of the German-Israeli Relationship

By Barbie Goldstein

Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and Center for Israel Studies Director Michael Brenner (left) sits down with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog (center) and German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber (right) at an event at the German Embassy on November 28, 2022.

Since the 1950s, The German-Israeli relationship has developed into a strong partnership. Many argue that the republic is Israel’s strongest ally in Europe. However, during the beginning of Israel’s establishment, their relationship was strained at best. Israelis held strong reservations against the Germans, as evidenced by Israeli passports being valid for all places except for Germany. Israelis had no reason to trust the Germans in the years immediately following the Holocaust; many Israelis went to Israel because of the Holocaust. Psychologically speaking, trusting Germany at that time meant supporting the Holocaust and the nazis; it was an act of condoning the Germans since so many Israelis had been impacted by the Holocaust.

Once talks of reparations began to stir, Israelis primarily sat in two different camps of thought. For those who did not support the reparations, many believed that this would have been the only sign of compassion that Germany would show. The Germans were simply trying to gain back their platform in the international community and did not actually care about what they had done and who they had harmed. On the other hand, those who supported reparations believed that it was time to move forward; reparations represented a new chapter for the Jewish and Jewish Israeli communities. This line of thinking is what initially opened up the prospects of normalizing relations with Germany.

The discussion of reparations began in secret because of the Israeli public’s rightful animosity towards Germany. Under the Luxembourg Agreement in 1953, Israel received monetary compensation as reparations from Germany. While there was an outcry from the Israeli public, the Israeli government needed the money as a new country and decided it was best to form a relationship with Germany. Arguably, this was an extremely smart strategy for the Israeli government to make early on in modern Israel’s life. Germany will never be able to receive full forgiveness from Jewish people in the diaspora from the Holocaust. They will always remain in debt to the Jewish people and therefore the Jewish State. Germany has thus supported Israel in a multitude of its endeavors as an ally and as a country who “owes” the Jewish State.

In 1965, Germany and Israel officially formed diplomatic ties, which have only strengthened since then. A plethora of programs exist for German citizens to visit Israel and learn more about the Holocaust from a Jewish and Israeli perspective. The German Action for Reconciliation is a program in which German youth travel to Israel and other places (in lieu of military service) to volunteer with Holocaust survivors and continues to be a widely popular program for Germans. This cemented that, even though the Israeli public still mistrusted Germans, Israel and Germany could formally work towards forming an openly friendly relationship and moving towards an enduring working relationship.

Germany made further strides towards within their own borders when, on November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. To try to put what the German public felt into words is almost an impossible feat, with those who were there able to describe exactly what was happening around them as if the event happened the day before. This marked the dissolution of communism as millions of people were able to travel, with over two million Soviet Jews now able to leave. The Berlin Wall marked a period of time for Israeli-German relations because now many Jews did not know where to travel: Israel or Germany?

Over the course of ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, over one million Jews immigrated to Israel. Many ended up going to Germany since they knew they would not be denied citizenship. This caused tension between Israel and Germany because Israelis did not understand why so many Jews would choose to relocate in Germany compared to the Jewish State. Under the Rabin government in the early 1990s, Israel implored Germany to deny Jews the right to relocate in Germany to encourage more Jewish immigration to Israel which Germany denied to the Israeli government. However, this contention did not last long between the two countries and it was ultimately resolved.

In 2008, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2008 speech in the Knesset solidified Israel and Germany’s strong relationship. Her unprecedented visit and remarks in the Knesset have signaled that Germany will support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Israeli leaders have further praised Germany’s commitment to Israel and have continued discussing strengthening their relationships through government commitments and agreements, which relate to a range of topics including the environment and mutually assured security. Additionally, Germans and Israelis cooperate through a myriad of non-governmental organizations and state-sponsored programs.

In conclusion, Germany and Israel have had a largely positive relationship since Israel’s founding in 1948. The Holocaust continues to loom over their discussions and will likely never cease to be a factor when discussing the strengthening of relationships between Israeli civil society and between the governments. Today, the only tension between the governments revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of Germany’s commitment to supporting Israel as a Jewish State, along with their commitment to ending human rights abuses as a country and as a member-state of the European Union.

Barbie Goldstein is a senior at American University studying International Studies and Political Science. She’s been involved with Student Israelity for the majority of her undergrad, and is thrilled to continue being an editor and graphics designer this year. Aside from the blog, she is in Sigma Kappa, Alpha Phi Omega, and interns for the American Association of People with Disabilities. In her free time, she loves learning about different cultures through reading and obsesses over her dog, a black lab mix.

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