Monday, April 30, 2007

Transforming the Narrative
Alexander Arndt

In Communist East Germany, anti-Zionist indoctrination was part of our curriculum. A classmate of mine in elementary school was almost kicked out of school for drawing a Star of David - whatever his intentions were; it was considered an "imperialist symbol". During the first Intifada we had to make posters about Israeli human rights violations. The Berlin Wall became history in
1989 but my belief that Israel was a cruel dictatorship lingered on until my parents took me there in 1992. Needless to say, I was reluctant to go. But my perception of the Jewish state changed drastically from then on - for the better.

Times change and we change with them. Today, Germany is presiding over the EU Council while the world in general and Israel in particular are severely challenged by global Jihad and Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Bertelsmann Foundation, a well-respected German organization associated with one of the worlds largest media companies, has just released a new study on the German-Jewish relationship seventeen years after the reunification.

Prior to 1990, both Israel and West Germany had worked on forming a special relationship, something that was all but self-evident after the Shoah. When the Cold War order disintegrated not altogether smoothly, right-wing extremism soared in Germany with Jewish cemeteries desecrated and xenophobic riots lasting for days on end. Our politicians were quick to assert that we had learned a lesson from our past: "Never again war."

During this turbulent transition Israelis had a reason to be concerned. When asked in 1991, almost 80% of them saw the reunited Germany threatened by right wing extremism. True, more than a third of the Germans agreed that "the Jews had too much influence in the world" and almost a half believed that the Jews were responsible for being hated. These embarrassing numbers were not exactly a cause to celebrate when "the end of history" (Fukuyama) was announced.

But history has moved on. Germany has proven to be a strong democracy and is, as president of the EU Council, committed to furthering its special relationship with Israel.

Many Germans, including myself, had hoped for the success of the Oslo peace process. For some, including myself, its failure has been a wake up call. Still, many things can be said about Europeans living in denial about threats against Israel's security.

Some of the findings of the new Bertelsmann study provide reasons for concern. While Israelis see the new democratic Germany in a far better light than before, wouldn't it be great if the Germans would have left any sort of anti-Semitism - open, secondary, or anti-Zionist - behind them?

Alas, if anti-Semitism is waning, it is doing so very slowly. Still, one of three Germans believes in a disproportionately high Jewish influence in the world and only 58% can bring themselves to "absolutely disagree" with the appalling notion that the Jews are responsible for being hated.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Consider this: only one of four strongly disagrees that Israel is waging a "war of extermination" against the Palestinian people, and even less reject the idea that Israeli treatment of Palestinians equals Nazi treatment of Jews. In light of this, it doesn't come as a surprise that some German bishops on a recent visit immediately compared Ramallah to the Warsaw Ghetto. This gross inversion of Holocaust memory reveals that many Germans tend to transfer guilt on the grounds that the moral lesson of the Shoah is "Never again war."

I was born in a society where young people were indoctrinated to dislike Israel. For the root cause of Nazi crimes was imperialism - a narrative that helped to deflect German guilt to the Western camp, Israel included. Similarly, Jewish victim hood was minimized. These views had some significant influence on West Germany's public discourse since the 1967 Six-Day-War and the rise of the student left in 1968.

Today, aforementioned "moral lesson" and full acknowledgment of the Holocaust are integral parts of the German self-image. But the Israeli lesson is the refusal to ever become victims again. Thus, what seems imperative is to help the German public to understand the existential threats Israel is facing. Whoever wants to prevent war must also secure peace.

The Bertelsmann study reveals that there is room for change of perception. German sympathies for the Israeli situation have increased significantly. Sure, only half of the Germans support the deployment of German troops to Lebanon, but one should not forget that the public debate in Germany centered around the fear of having to shoot at Jewish soldiers. Already almost two thirds of Germans realize that the Iranian nuclear program poses a severe threat to Israel, although dislike for military action is widespread.

I don't want to underestimate the disturbing findings on the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Germany. This has to be taken seriously and confronted appropriately. But I believe in the chance to transform the German narrative. If Germany is taking its moral lessons seriously, it has to move beyond the "never again war" with a vested interest in peace and security for Israel guided by its special relationship.

Alexander Arndt is a PhD-candidate at the University of Potsdam, Germany, and research associate for Knowing Israel, a study-tour program for European journalists.