Speech by Foreign Minister Baerbock at the congress of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

15.12.2023 - Speech

I was in Dubai for the final days of the Climate Change Conference. You will all have seen that the negotiations were tough – but in the end we achieved a good outcome. In my view, it’s more important than ever to make clear in these difficult times that multilateralism works. Above all, we had hectic days and extremely long nights.

You walk through huge crowds of people in the conference venue. The atmosphere is tense and it’s extremely noisy. However, I experienced a moment of silence during this noisy week, a special moment which I owe to Sara and Steve and their four children. They are a Jewish family living in the heart of Dubai with whom I had the honour of lighting Hanukkah candles – in their garden. As you all know, it’s a bit warmer in Dubai at the moment – outside at least. There was a huge Hanukkah menorah in the garden, much bigger than me. We celebrated Hanukkah there in the centre of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

And it was such a special moment for me in these times of crisis because it was a moment not only of silence but, most especially, a moment of hope.

באנו חושך לגרש

For those for whom, just like me, this is not their native language, that means: “We have come to drive away the darkness. Everyone is a small light, but together our light is strong.”

We not only sang this wonderful Hanukkah song, which perhaps some of you know and have sung with your friends and families during the last few days, but also had an intensive discussion about it. Because this song is full of hope and because I felt hope in this garden. To be the guest of a Jewish family celebrating Hanukkah together with their neighbours of different faiths, in the heart of the United Arab Emirates.

There really is no better way to illustrate the motto of your gathering this year: “Living together”. We can all do with this hope at present. “Living together”. The motto of this year’s congress is valid around the world. And it’s also a fitting motto in Dubai, in a country which has placed its relations with Israel on a new footing with the normalisation agreement.

However, a friend of the family also told me in that garden that since 7 October, since Hamas’ barbaric attack against Israel, against Jews, he no longer likes to show his Jewish identity as openly as he used to in Dubai. As he did before that terrible day, before this watershed. Because he doesn’t know how safe he is. Because the appalling attack by Hamas has also left its mark in Dubai. That reminded me of the shocking conversation I had with a teacher in a Jewish daycare centre here in Berlin a few weeks ago.

There, too, the teacher spoke of the sense of feeling unsafe, about the fact that they could no longer go on day excursions like any other normal daycare centre in Berlin. That they no longer travelled on local trains with the children out of fear they would encounter hostility or, even worse, be attacked. I have to say that I’m lost for words when I hear something like that. And I tell this story all over the world because it’s important to understand what 7 October means to people around the globe. What it changed for Jews.

Especially with regard to their place in our communities. The fact that here in Germany, nearly 80 years after the Shoah, Jewish men and women, young Jewish children are again afraid to take part in everyday life. That we have seen attacks against Jewish community centres, that we have seen Jews in some parts of our cities taking their names off their letterboxes out of fear of being attacked in their own neighbourhoods. And that we have heard crude attempts, especially on social media, to justify Hamas’ violence using supposed anti‑colonial theories. And this is coming from sections of society which regard themselves as progressive.

That is utterly unacceptable. Antisemitism has no place in our country.

“We have come to drive away the darkness... together our light is strong”. This is what it says in the Hanukkah song. We all have a responsibility to defend “living together” as a normal state of affairs, something we regard as a given. Together we have to be a strong light.

We all have a responsibility to stand up together against antisemitism.

And I hope that we can drive away the darkness together. Not only because I believe that we can only engage in politics if we have hope but also because we experience that on a daily basis. Because my visit to the daycare centre didn’t focus solely on the fact that there were no more excursions. I was also told that a new group was being set up as there were so many families from Israel who wanted to live for a while in safety following the abominable attack by Hamas on 7 October. And they had chosen to take refuge with their children in Berlin.

I found that very moving. I feel it’s important that we spread this hope because Jewish communities in particular are giving us hope and because Jewish communities in particular have shown so often during the last few months what it means to be open and generous. For example, when it comes to helping the many Ukrainians who have sought refuge with us from Russia’s war of aggression. The Jewish communities here in Germany were the first port of call for many thousands of them. For example in Munich, where – together with Charlotte Knobloch – I spoke to young people in the community about what support is needed in the initial phase, especially in schools. Because we can only live together in harmony if people help each other in the first difficult days. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks for this extraordinary commitment.

The fact that today German Jews are key to the integration of people who have been forced to flee to us in Germany is another glimmer of hope. Living together in Germany. We and our ancestors have been doing just that for more than 1700 years. Two years ago, we celebrated this life. We celebrated 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany. I found that deeply moving, especially the debates and the official ceremony in the German Bundestag, because they showed how visible Jewish life has become and, above all, how rich and varied it is. There was a Sukkot competition, Jewish rap, as well as Jewish comedy and many digital commemoration projects. However, this anniversary also presented the German Bundestag and me personally with a mandate. We want to make Jewish life even more visible so that it really is perceived by everyone as being an integral part of our society. For we have to admit that that’s not yet the case. If we were to ask the pupils in our children’s classes when they last saw a Jew wearing a kippah, I’m sure that not many would say: Oh, “last week at the bakery” or “two weeks ago at our away football game”. However, I wish that they could say precisely that. I wish that Jewish life in Germany was seen as unquestioningly belonging to our country and, above all, just as visible to all others. That’s why it’s so important to me to talk about how we can make Jewish life more visible – especially at this time. There are so many brilliant projects on this in Germany.

For instance, the Jewish community in Ulm, which decided after the arson attack on the New Synagogue in June 2021 not to hide or withdraw but to courageously open the doors of the synagogue. And that brings me to another small coincidence. When I was there to view the synagogue, a daycare group had just been there before me. Because the Jewish community has made it clear that children from our cities visiting a synagogue just as they would a church or a mosque is part of the Jewish life they want to promote.

Or striking projects such as Meet a Jew, which was set up by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. To be honest, when I first heard it I found the name a bit strange. And then I realised how great the project is. That was about nine months ago when I was in the Jewish Museum in Berlin with school classes and Daniel Libeskind. Of course, we spoke a lot about history. The school classes, and I believe this is also important, asked: “How should we approach Judaism?” They did so because they had no real-life experience of this. At the end, two young people came to present the project. Meet a Jew. It was immediately apparent that they connected with each other. That we really need projects like this. Not only projects of remembrance but in particular projects which engage young people. That, too, is essential in order to make Jewish life more visible.

We need this frank exchange more urgently than ever, especially at this time – not only here in Germany but, of course, across the world. My role as Foreign Minister at present, therefore, is not only to talk about how life should be here in Germany, without hatred and incitement, but to address the difficult questions and to also confront hard and unfortunately often false allegations. My role is not simply to dismiss them but to put forward arguments, to be there and to speak out against these allegations the more absurd they become. Not only by setting out positions and stating that this is the stance of the German Foreign Minister. Rather, my role is to try and address questions, stress the complexities and emphasise time and again that there are dilemmas. That’s complicated and it’s not easy – but it’s more important than ever.

We regard Israel’s security as part of Germany’s raison d’état. This responsibility is rooted in our history. It is unalterable. That’s why we put forward this clear position throughout the world – on platforms and behind closed doors. We stand firmly by this.

I hear the interjection: “Why did you abstain then in the United Nations?”, and I’d like to talk more about that very issue. I believe that responsibility doesn’t simply mean proclaiming to the world: “That’s our stance. And anyone that doesn’t understand it has obviously not understood the world.” I believe that such an attitude doesn’t get you anywhere. If I really want to convince people then I have to be prepared to listen. I have to be willing to place myself in the situation of others even if my own situation is completely different. Otherwise I’ll never understand where their views come from. And I keep trying to do just that. That’s why it’s so important to me to go there. Not only to come to you but to go wherever heated debates are taking place. Where there is a discussion about but not with Israel. I’ve also been asked critical questions: “Why are you travelling to a meeting of Mediterranean states in Barcelona if Israel isn’t sitting at the table?” I believe it’s important that the German Foreign Minister is there because otherwise hardly anyone will speak up in support of Israel.

That’s why I spoke to many, many Arab partners at the Sir Bani Yas Forum on the fringes of COP. And yes, the opinions I heard there were, to put it diplomatically, rather challenging. However, it was important to engage in these debates and to be there. For if I hadn’t been there I would not have been able to ask other Arab partners: “If you’re submitting a resolution, why don’t you include a call to Hamas to lay down its weapons? Why can’t you do that?”

It’s right to ask these questions. It doesn’t immediately change anyone’s views. But it makes clear that as long as Hamas doesn’t lay down its weapons, Israel will never be safe and that a ceasefire without security for Israel is not a solution.

And that was precisely my aim at the United Nations in New York. As I only have a limited time to speak here, I’d like to give you an insight into the talks without going into great detail. When I want to persuade others that we have to see the suffering on the other side, that Arab countries must be prepared to mention Hamas’ brutal terror in their resolution, when I urge them to see that there can only be peace for them if there is peace and security for Israel, it’s very difficult to take such a stance if one is not prepared to see the suffering of others.

I believe, indeed I am firmly convinced, that standing up for Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’état. Israel’s security means that the country will only be able to live in security if Palestinians can someday live free of terrorism. Equally, Palestinians will only be able to live in security if Israelis live in security. That’s why I don’t find it so easy to say: I reject any resolution that says that children in Gaza are suffering in a brutal manner. If I’m not prepared to say that it breaks my heart as a mother to imagine what it would be like if my own children were currently wandering around without food and water looking for their parents, then I won’t manage to persuade anyone in the Arab world to imagine how they would feel if their children were abducted in the most brutal manner by Hamas.

And that’s why it’s so important to me, particularly at this time when we need light, to make clear that Israel didn’t choose this war. Israel has to wage it because on 7 October a terrorist organisation launched the most brutal attack against it. Hamas is still holding more than 100 people hostage. Israel is still under attack from missiles launched from the Gaza Strip. And not only from there, because Hezbollah is also threatening Israel from the north. And the Houthi attacks from the south also pose a threat to Israel’s security. Hamas is still saying that it wants to destroy Israel.

We’re trying to make that clear in the Arab world. Because I’m convinced that we need this debate with our Arab partners to keep channels of communication open, to build confidence. I have also been making clear during the last few weeks that a political solution in the Middle East needs to involve Israel and the Palestinians. And we can only achieve that together, with constructive and moderate Arab states. For we won’t advance one centimetre towards peace if this dialogue ceases. For living together means recognising the suffering of others. I will therefore urge my interlocutors to look at the whole picture.

I will make clear time and again that the suffering on one side can only stop if the suffering on the other side ends. Israel must defend itself for as long this terror continues. Hamas must finally free all hostages. That’s why we’re calling for humanitarian pauses and that’s why we cannot support a simple ceasefire. Instead, we point out to our Israeli partners time and again that everything must be done to protect the civilian population in Gaza at all times. Otherwise there is a risk that more suffering will breed more terror. There is a risk that the violence will spread. That is Hamas’ perfidious strategy. It’s therefore crucial to get help to people in Gaza now.

Because our commitment to Israel’s security and to international humanitarian law are not mutually exclusive. They are two sides of the same coin.

Living together in the Middle East – that’s hard to imagine at the moment. It seems like a very distant future. Nevertheless, we have to start thinking now which steps can lead us there. It’s all the more important that we here in our country, where we are lucky enough to live in peace because our neighbours and friends made it possible for us, stand up for what living together means.

Without hate and without incitement.

It’s important that we make clear that this is possible, especially at this difficult time. If we stand up together against antisemitism, if we stand up together against hate and incitement, if we stand up together against inhumanity and also anti‑Muslim racism, regardless of where we come from, regardless of which God we believe in or regardless of whether we believe in any God at all.

We can only live together if we unite. Therefore, our task at this difficult time is to be the ray of hope in the darkness.

באנו חושך לגרש


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