German President Joachim Gauck marked his state visit of Israel on Monday by warning the country’s international critics that they must judge Israel’s policies “purely in a spirit of friendship”.
In an interview with Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, he continued to say: “It’s certainly acceptable to voice criticism, but there’s no room for prejudice.”
Gauck’s visit could not have come at a more opportune time, following a spate of anti-Israel incidents that have emerged recently in Germany. Earlier this month, a group of suspected neo-Nazis attacked a booth distributing pro-Israel material during an otherwise peaceful “I like Israel” event in the West-German city of Siegen.
Last month, controversial German novelist Guenter Grass sparked debate when he published a poem What Must Be Said in which he claimed Israel was threatening to “wipe out the Iranian people”. German intelligence chief Heinz Fromm claimed in an interview with a German newspaper last week that the chances of a Toulouse-style anti-Semitic attack in Germany were high and that “the danger for (Jews in) Germany has not decreased. And former German central banker Thilo Sarrazin stoked anti-Semitic fires by claiming in his new book Europe doesn’t need the euro that Germany has allowed itself to become the eurozone’s “hostage” as penitence for the Holocaust.
With such a backdrop to his visit, Gauck was keen to assert that “growing resentment of Israel isn’t solely a German phenomenon”, attributing it instead to general ignorance and prejudice towards foreigners which “flares up here and there, time and again”. Speaking of a recent poll published in German Stern magazine which found that 59% of Germans consider Israel to be an “aggressive state”, however, he conceded that “as a friend of Israel these results alarm me nevertheless”.
The man once described as “Germany’s Nelson Mandela’ for his role in the peaceful collapse of the Berlin wall, Gauck was keen to echo foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s address to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum earlier this month in which he pledged Germany’s commitment to “preserving the memory of the Holocaust for future generations”: “(Germany) has a unique responsibility for Israel due to the darkest chapter in our history...Germany is fully committed to the security and right to exist of the State of Israel”, the President stated.
Refuting Sarrazin’s claims, he stated: “We are not only the country of guilt and the country of guilty people. We are also a country that has been able to carry out a very enormous effort of returning to democracy and the rule of law and a constitutional state.”
Germany’s president of 100 days had been criticised for not immediately joining the international condemnation of Nobel Prize winner Grass’ poem when it emerged in April. Speaking on Monday, ahead of the start of Gauck’s visit to Israel, the head of the Israeli branch of the (international Jewish human rights and Holocaust education organisation) Simon Wiesenthal Center, Dr Efraim Zuroff questioned “why did he not use the opportunity (to criticise Grass’ comments) in Germany where his stature carries moral weight?”. He went on to say that Gauck should use the occasion of his visit “to respond to Grass. (That would be) one way to assure Israelis that official Germany is no longer party to Grass”.
Meanwhile, Israeli ambassador to Germany Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, spoke of his expectations that Gauck would address the “big danger” of rising anti-Semitism in Germany during the course of his visit. The ambassador declared on Monday that “anti-Semitism is more present in Europe. We see it, unfortunately, almost every day. Also in Germany the phenomenon has now recently emerged and spread.”
German-Israeli public diplomacy spokesman Melody Sucharewicz spoke of her hopes for Gauck’s role in preserving strong Israeli-German relations:
“Gauck, as a real freedom fighter, would do good both for Germany’s role in the peace process, but especially for the future of German-Israeli relations, if he used this visit to increase awareness in Germany about the trends underlying the public resentment against Israel and to advance creative policy to oppose these trends before it becomes irreversible”, she said.
Gauck’s election to the largely ceremonial role in German politics in March was greeted with approval by German-Jewish representatives, among them Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said: “He will certainly breathe fresh air into politics and should, as a moral authority, bring our diverse society closer together”.
Dr Zuroff, however, was less optimistic, choosing to focus on Gauck’s decision to sign the 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communisim, which he claimed likened the crimes of the Nazis to those of the Communists: “Instead of building on the foundation of Germany’s to-a-large-extent successful, even if far-from-perfect, confrontation with its Nazi past, he is likely to strengthen those voices which seek to de-emphasise the importance of the Holocaust in German history and consciousness”, he wrote in an article for The Times of Israel.
Speaking ahead of the second day of his visit to the region on Tuesday, where he is scheduled to take in the Palestinian territories, Gauck reaffirmed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s commitment to a two state solution in insisting that “the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people must be taken into consideration”.
Much of his discussions with the Israeli administration have inevitably focused on Iran, in the wake of last week’s second round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 (the US, Great Britain, China, Russia and France, plus Germany) and Iran in Baghdad. Gauck echoed the sentiments of US officials in stating that “we will judge Tehran by its actions and not by its words”. A key proponent of EU-backed sanctions programme, he is however “concerned” about the “concrete threat (Iran represents) to Israel but also a potential threat to the region and also for us in Europe”.
Gauck is due to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich later on Tuesday, before meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, ahead of which he claimed Israel as “one of Germany’s most important partners and friends”.
“Germany and Israel are more connected to each other than ever before – through common values and common interests”, he continued.
After meeting with Shimon Peres during a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, Peres then accompanied his German counterpart on an official visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Gauck was then scheduled to meet with members of Israel’s 1972 Munich Olumpics delegation and their families.
Peres meanwhile warned that Iran’s denial of the Holocaust brought fresh danger they might commit a new Holocaust: “We will never forget the Holocaust. But we will also not forget that it is upon us to build a different future”, he said, adding: “There is no room for indifference or disregard. Indifference to tragedy is the greatest tragedy.”