The EU is emerging as the world’s most significant political force that can put pressure on Israel.
Berlin, Germany – It is called “Israel Day” and it features lectures, cultural performances, open discussions in schools and universities, and even dance lessons with Israeli music.
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, and 35 percent agreed that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians today is essentially the same thing as what the Nazis did to Jews during the Third Reich, 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.
“It is not necessarily because of Israel. It’s connected to many other things that concern the average German. We are trying to work on this, and change it.”
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 Germans’ 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 $1m 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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
Stegner told the Die Welt newspaper he is not anti-Israel, but believes sending weapons to the Middle East does not contribute to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
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.
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“.
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.”
“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.
Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner