As celebrations kick off marking 50 years of diplomacy, an increasing number of Germans is expressing negative views.
Yermi Brenner War & Conflict, Human Rights, Politics, Europe, Middle East, Al Jezeera
|Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Israel's|
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak at a press conference
Israel Day has taken place in more than 20 cities throughout Germany since 2006.
It is part of the Foreign Ministry's efforts to increase familiarity with the country and try to reverse what it sees as a worrying trend: growing criticism of Israel in German society - particularly its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Sixty-two percent of Germans have a negative opinion of the Israeli government, according to a recent study by the non-profit Bertelsmann Foundation.
"Yes, we can say that among the [German] public opinion there is some withdrawal in the attitudes towards Israel," said Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel's ambassador to Germany.
|Yakov Hadas-Handelsman Israel's|
ambassador to Germany
While the ambassador implied Israel's policies were not to blame for growing negative attitudes towards Israel, the results of the Bertelsmann study and other polls suggest otherwise.
Is it really Israel's policies that are to blame or is it the perception of those policies as put forward by a largely anti-Semitic media in Europe? Liberal (left leaning) media in any country tends to side with the Palestinian people against the Israelis. Consequently, people who listen to that media have their opinions coloured by biased reporting that is sympathetic to Palestinians and condemning of Israel.
I hope to present a discussion soon on why it is that left-leaning people are almost always at least somewhat anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian, and right-leaning people are almost invariably the opposite.
Germany remains Israel's main trading partner in the European Union and has delivered highly sophisticated attack submarines at subsidised prices, according to Der Spiegel.
But more than ever before, there seems to be a wide gap between the warm economic and diplomatic relations the two countries share, and the German people's views of Israel.
This year, the two countries mark a half a century of diplomatic relations, which began in 1965 - two decades after the Nazi regime was toppled and the Holocaust ended after millions of Jews were killed.
To celebrate the anniversary, the Israeli embassy in Berlin, in collaboration with the German foreign ministry, is organising a series of cultural events and ceremonies aimed at strengthening the connection between the nations. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has allocated US$1 million to its German embassy for celebrations.
Hadas-Handelsman said Germany is an economic superpower that is gaining weight when it comes to international diplomacy, and maintaining good relations with Berlin is essential for a state such as Israel.
"Germany is committed to its special responsibility towards the Jews and towards the state of Israel because of the past," said Hadas-Handelsman.
To some extent, this is not something that is specific to Israel. I think that liberal people are against any kind of occupation.
Stephan Vopel, Bertelsmann Stiftung
"But Germany is an ally of Israel not only because of the past. Germany and Israel share a lot when it comes to values, when it comes to the way we analyse the world, and especially the situation in the Middle East. We see many things eye-to-eye, or almost eye-to-eye."
The perception Germans have of Israel is based on a combination of both Germans trying to come to terms with their own past, and the way Israel is often portrayed in the media, which is mainly through the Middle East conflict, according to Stephan Vopel, programme director at the civil society group Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Germans feel historically responsibility for the plight of Jewish people during World War II, Vopel explained, but at the same time a main lesson learned was the need to preserve and protect universal human rights.
"I think these two things put together make it very difficult for Germans to understand Israel today, and I think this is probably one of the core reasons why Germans have a very critical perception of Israel," he said.
It's actually pretty simple: Israel wants to survive! The tiny country of a few million Jews is surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs and/or Muslims, all of whom want to see Israel disappear, and several of whom have stated that fact emphatically and often. Other countries are less obvious but fund anti-Israeli terrorists with many millions of dollars. Can you blame Israel for being a little insecure?
So the most basic of all rights, the right to life, should be high on the German psyche but it is not, and I think the media is to blame. They paint the Palestinians as victims, when they are the aggressors as far as terrorism is concerned, and anything that Israel does to protect its very existence is universally condemned in the media.
"To some extent, this is not something that is specific to Israel," Vopel added.
"I think that liberal people are against any kind of occupation. It is the same as being against apartheid, or the mistreatment of migrants in Germany. I think this is a general part of liberalism."
I think he is right in that last statement, but not right in the previous. The fact is Palestinians who live in Israel would never willingly move to Gaza or the West Bank. Life is infinitely better in Israel. They have free health care - some of the best in the world, they have pensions when they retire, they have jobs and access to great schools. They will admit that they are treated much better by the Jews than by Palestinian authorities.
Nor would they willingly go to Jordan or Syria or one of the other countries where many Palestinians are warehoused without work, medical care or education. Arabs treat their own far worse than the Israelis. Why are Germans not up in arms about those Palestinians? They are far worse off than those on the West Bank or Gaza, yet you never hear a word of complaint about them in the media. Did you even know about them? That's anti-Semitism!
In Pew Research's 2013 Global Attitudes survey, Germany and France were the only Western countries in which a significant majority expressed unfavourable views of Israel.
Among Germans, negative attitudes were higher for 18 to 29-year olds, who are more detached from the Holocaust, said Vopel.
"I don't feel there is a contradiction between feeling historically responsibility to Israel, and criticising Israel's right-wing government," said Jan Lichtwitz, a 27-year-old law student in Berlin, who is active in the youth branch of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), a party that is part of the coalition governing Germany since 2013.
"We, as left-wing, have very close partners in Israel that are not part of the government and we stand with them when we criticise the settlement policy for example."
Lichtwitz said he is convinced of the necessity of Israel as a country where Jewish people can live securely, but building more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he said, is an obstacle towards peace.
The concept of peace in the middle east is simply absurd. If it ever happens it will never last more than a few years. How can there be peace when very large, wealthy, Muslim countries want only the complete and utter destruction of Israel? Both sides of a conflict have to want peace and only Israel wants peace in the middle east.
In 2007, Lichtwitz spent a year in Jerusalem working with both Israelis and Palestinians at the Willy Brandt centre, a place for cross-cultural encounters and cooperation named after the SPD leader who served as West Germany's chancellor for more than two decades.
Conflict of values
SPD's current deputy chairman, Ralf Stegner, ignited public debate when he said last September - following the conflict between Israel and Hamas - that Germany should halt its arms exports to Israel.
|Jan Lichtwitz says Israeli policies are |
not conducive to the peace process
He's right, of course. Not sending arms to Israel would insure it's complete destruction and the Palestinian conflict would be solved.
SPD's chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, responded by voicing his support for weapon deliveries to Israel - reflecting the conflict that exists here.
In the Bertelsmann study, more than 80 percent of German participants expressed negative views on Berlin supplying arms to Israel.
German law stipulates that the government must ensure German weapons do not end up being used in wars around the world.
Now this is a stupid law. If it were upheld, then Germany should not be able to sell arms anywhere in the world for they will surely end up being used in a conflict - that's what arms are for!
Nevertheless, Germany has been providing Israel with weaponry since the 1950s, according to a report by the Berlin-based Information Centre for Transatlantic Security, a non-governmental organisation focusing on security issues.
In the collision between two values enshrined in post-WWII German society - disinvolvement in wars and ensuring the security of Jews - the latter has, so far, decisively prevailed.
Larger mediator role
But Germany has also repeatedly criticised Israel's policies in the West Bank. Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying the building of settlements on Palestinian territory is a "grave concern".
After Sweden recognised Palestinian statehood, Merkel opposed the unilateral move, placing a significant diplomatic obstacle on the potential domino-effect recognition of Palestine in Europe.
This may change soon, according to Professor Hajo Funke of the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science at Berlin Freie Universität.
"Yes, that can happen," Funke said. "As long as there is no [Israeli] will for a peace compromise with the Palestinians, it can be that the German public and the German parliament says we'll make a symbolic decision to acknowledge the Palestinians."
Here is an example of the misinformation and errant blaming that affects the German people. Israel wants peace, Gaza does not want peace they want the end of Israel and nothing else. Israel will not achieve peace by narrowing its borders to a 7 mile wide strip of land in the middle of the country which is completely and utterly indefensible. Such an agreement, as John Kerry is proposing will not bring peace, only destruction. Israel has to be defensible before there can be any peace whatsoever.
"This is symbolic but it may be important to give a signal to the Israeli public, to the Israeli discourse, to rethink the legitimacy of the current government," he told Al Jazeera.
Funke said he expected Germany to play a bigger role in future peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He said after the failure of US-led negotiations after years, it is now more than ever time for Europeans to try to mediate peace.
For now, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is mostly dead. But the battle for the German public's support is alive and kicking.
The next "Israel Day" festivities are scheduled to take place this week in the German town of Celle.