Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the 2021 Shimon Peres Prize award ceremony in Berlin City Hall

06.10.2021 - Speech

It is a great pleasure for me to be presenting this prize here today. It honours Shimon Peres. And it stands for the German-Israeli friendship.

As has already been mentioned, Klaus Lederer and I were here virtually on our own last year, talking just to a camera in front of rows of empty seats. Happily, things are different today, and we are here talking to all of you.

It really does make a difference to see all these faces and to be celebrating together with you all.

The pandemic has demanded a great deal from each and every one of us. It has shown us how vulnerable our globalised world is, precisely because it is so interconnected. But it has also shown how strong the German‑Israeli friendship is.

  • Think, for example, of the repatriation flights in the wake of the outbreak of the pandemic last year. We flew German nationals home from countries all over the world. I well remember the moment when we decided in the crisis unit to treat Israeli nationals exactly like German nationals and take them on board the repatriation flights.
  • We also set standards in the context of vaccinations against COVID‑19: one of the most advanced and effective vaccines was developed in Germany within a very short space of time. This vaccine then enabled Israel to drive on with its remarkable vaccination campaign, which led the world. Together we are, hopefully, well on the way to beating the virus.

The fact that we have made such progress is thanks not least to our innovative strength and our open societies. The founders of one of the leading companies developing vaccines, Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, are children of Turkish immigrants. They belong to the first generation that learned German in Germany and went through the German school system, eventually to achieve amazing things in science.

The example of BioNTech shows that our countries’ strength lies in their diversity. One’s origin must not be allowed to determine one’s path through life. Not where we were born, not what religion we belong to, and not what job our parents had.

Whether a society is open and inclusive or not really does make a difference.

And that is why I would also like to say something about the issues that are again occupying Germany, and in particular about the recent events in Leipzig with Gil Ofarim.

Let me tell you – I really have had enough. I don’t know when I last gave a speech about Israel or about Jewish life in Germany that didn’t need to be changed at the last minute because something had happened somewhere in Germany. Something antisemitic.

And that really riles me. Enough is enough! And I do not believe that I’m the only one who is appalled, when again and again things happen that one would not have believed possible. Demanding that someone remove his chain is a new one.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that antisemitism is something many Jews are experiencing day in, day out in our country. That is a truly painful sentence. And Leipzig is not a one-off case.

So it is all the more important that we counter all forms of antisemitism in this country, everywhere and at all times. At federal level, we will make available more than a billion euro over the next four years for the fight against right-wing extremism, racism and especially antisemitism.

But that alone is not enough. Society must stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against antisemitism. Looking the other way cannot be an option – particularly in Germany. Because we Germans ought really to have learnt from our history that even doing nothing can make you an accomplice. That is why it is important that politicians, the state based on the rule of law, do not merely consider the issue, but take the right decisions and do their utmost to combat antisemitism in this country. At the same time, however, this is a task for all of us.

All of us, more or less, live in the social networks. And sometimes it is quite edifying to see that the world keeps turning even if these networks don’t work for a while. Yet sometimes, too, it is horrifying to see what kind of hatred and hate-speech is being spread on social media. On my trips abroad, I have often been asked, “What on earth is going on in Germany?” Because any instance of antisemitism in Germany is met with close attention. And rightly so. Whenever I am asked that question, I try to convince the people I am talking to that it is a minority who think and act like this. And it is a minority in Germany. But an extremely well organised minority, including in the digital sphere.

And that is why we too have a part to play in determining how our society articulates itself here in Germany, but also how we are perceived abroad. It is a small minority spreading antisemitic hatred and incitement that exploits the possibilities of the digital world and thus attains a volume that would lead one to believe it were far more than just a small minority. It is up to each and every one of us to determine how loud this minority becomes. Because ultimately the majority regulates the volume of the minority. And each and every one of us can – and, I believe, must – do our part. Today – and, sad to say, probably in future, too.

Dear guests,

The pandemic has also fanned the flames of conspiracy theories. This has been a stress test for democracy – not only here in Germany. Whereas other countries were far stricter in imposing restrictions during the pandemic, we always sought a balance between freedom of the individual and responsibility for the community.

It does make a difference if you have intensive debates about the proportionate restriction of some fundamental rights for a limited period of time. I believe this enables you to strengthen democratic coexistence.

However, some of what we saw during the demonstrations against coronavirus measures was also a challenge to all of us as democrats. Let me say this quite clearly: everyone can say what they think is right. But anti-vaxxers at demonstrations comparing themselves to the victims of the Holocaust is nothing less than intolerable. Because they are also insulting the victims of National Socialism. They are trivialising the inhuman brutality of National Socialism, and they are destroying fundamental civilised values that are indispensable for our coexistence in our democracy.

Whenever such things happen in Germany, in recent months and, regrettably, again and again, I personally always feel a mixture of shame and fury. This raises the question of what every individual can do to help ensure that this is not the image that characterises our society, either here at home or abroad.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In my opinion, these issues fit well with an event dedicated to Shimon Peres, his life and work. And, as I look around the room and see who all is present here today, we realise that the Shimon Peres Prize is one that is not only awarded by the government, but also supported by society and civil society. And it is a prize with which we document our friendship with the State of Israel. Shimon Peres embodied this friendship like no other.

He more than anyone else advocated understanding and reconciliation between our societies – just as he advocated reconciliation between Israel and its neighbours.

And I am pretty sure that Shimon Peres would have been proud to hear that people like Hagar Bareket had been inspired by him. Hagar is one of our honorees today. But her chair is empty, and that fills us with profound sadness. Hagar died far too young on 20 September last year, aged only 27. Her art is her legacy. She was a talented illustrator who found great joy in playing with shapes, colours and styles. She passed her enthusiasm on to many others. Mr and Mrs Bareket, we are very grateful that you are here with us today in your daughter’s name.

In 2019 your daughter was one of a team of German and Israeli graphic design students who created a touring exhibition of posters on twelve international conflicts. We heard about it just a few moments ago. They included examples of reconciliation, like the Élysée Treaty between Germany and France. But also examples of ongoing conflicts, like that between Israelis and Palestinians. The exhibition is called “Negotiation Matters”. I am sure that Shimon Peres would have liked that very much.

Because throughout his life he firmly believed that tenacious diplomacy and dialogue between people make the crucial difference when it comes to resolving conflicts. He was right – as, for example, the normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states since last year proves. At the time, as you, Jeremy, know, we in Germany regarded as a very special gesture the fact that the first meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Israel after the establishment of diplomatic relations took place here in Berlin. And what is more: not only did it take place here in Berlin, in the Foreign Minister’s guest house – but we started the day by visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the company of our Arab colleague. That was, beyond doubt, one of the most impressive days and impressive experiences I have had in the past few years.

Reconciliation for peace in the Middle East is possible. We heard that here just now, too. For lasting peace in the region, however, there need to be new talks – and direct talks – between Israelis and Palestinians about a fair two-state solution. That is what we are working towards. We believe it is worth continuing to fight and work for that, just as Shimon Peres did, to the very end of his life.

I also congratulate the other prizewinners from the Institute for National Security Studies, Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, the Goethe-Institut and Berlin University of the Arts on this wonderful exhibition, which will be forever associated with Hagar’s name.

The second winning project, InterCare & Awareness, is devoted to an often marginalised issue – but that is precisely why it is so important. It aims to help intersex people to develop and thrive in their own identity thanks to psychosocial support. That, too, is an essential value of our democracy. An individual’s own identity and respect for it from all. So I extend my sincere congratulations to the Martin Buber Society of Fellows of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Institute for Sex Research, Sexual Medicine and Forensic Psychiatry of the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf. You have done remarkable work here!

Ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests,

“Negotiation Matters” – this might be the headline for the next few weeks in German domestic politics. We are starting now with three parties, and I hope it won’t ever have to be eight. By the way, if you counted exactly, there were three parties in the old government as well. Now I hope that it all goes off well. On the Monday after the election my Israeli colleague Jair Lapid got in contact and offered his help and support if there were any problems. After all, he said, he had experience of how to bring eight parties together, and the same should work with three.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Absolutely irrespective of who will govern Germany in future, there is one thing of which I can already assure you: our closeness to, our cooperation and our friendship with Israel, will remain an enduring constant in our country, no matter who happens to be in government. Quite simply, that makes a difference, and that is something you can count on.

Thank you very much.


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