President of the German Bundestag,
And above all, our guests from Israel – welcome to Berlin!
President Shimon Peres stood here at this lectern five years ago.
He told the story of his beloved grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer.
After the National Socialists invaded the town of Wiszniew, they forced all Jewish people inside the synagogue. The rabbi led his congregation, wearing the same prayer shawl that Shimon had wrapped around himself on cold days as a small child.
The Nazis locked the doors.
The synagogue was set ablaze.
Burning ash was all that was left of the entire congregation.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day five years ago, Shimon Peres made a moving appeal against forgetting the past. And at the same time, he also spoke – and I quote – of the “unique friendship” between Germany and Israel!
Israel, the land of the victims, reached out its hand across the abyss of the past to Germany, the land of the perpetrators. And together, we, Germany and Israel, have built a bridge of friendship.
My dear colleagues, it is nothing less than a miracle that this friendship was forged!
We Germans in particular can be happy and grateful about this – and not only on remembrance days!
When we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic relations next week, we will be celebrating a friendship that was simply inconceivable at the end of the war 70 years ago.
However, three generations later, our children enjoy this friendship completely as a matter of course. It gives them pleasure and they are curious about each other.
And that is why this anniversary is far more than merely a political milestone. What has happened is that Germans and Israelis have grown dear to each other’s hearts, in the true sense of the word!
I am not able to pay tribute to all the stories of this friendship today, so allow me to mention just three personal highlights as examples that show how precious what we are celebrating today is.
My mother was born in what was then Breslau and is now Wrocław, a centre of Jewish life at the time. Fritz Stern and Ignaz Bubis also came from there. As children, they, along with thousands of others, had to flee from the hatred and vile racist doctrines of National Socialism. Ten years later, my mother also had to flee with her family from a war that the Nazis had unleashed on the world, a war that had turned against its perpetrators.
Six months ago, I was a guest in the restored synagogue in Wrocław, where I was privileged to attend the first ordination of young rabbis since the war – rabbis who had been trained here in Berlin and in Potsdam. These four young rabbis stood there as living proof of the fact that Jewish life is flourishing again today in Europe and here in Germany. And not only Jewish people should be happy about this. It enriches all of us!
The second highlight I recall was during the first visit by a German Federal Chancellor to Israel, when I was 17. At that time, when Willy Brandt went to Jerusalem, it was like walking on eggshells. Each side carefully weighed the other up; each step had to taken with great care; and there was huge mistrust as regards a new start with the land of the perpetrators.
Today, German-Israeli visits are part and parcel of our day-to-day political activities!
In fact, our two cabinets even gather around a large table once a year to plan projects and talk. We laugh, but we also argue seriously and honestly, just like good friends do.
The courageous political seeds sown by David Ben-Gurion and Konrad Adenauer have blossomed. And they have borne fruit beyond our own borders – for example when we work together in international forums to fight anti-Semitism and racism.
The third highlight involves our children’s generation. I am thinking of my own child, but also of my Israeli colleagues’ children. German-Israeli encounters have become a completely normal part of exploring the world for our children! Tel Aviv and Berlin attract young people like magnets of modernity. Young Germans are involved in Tel Aviv’s booming start-up scene, attend university in Jerusalem or do voluntary work on a gap year in Israel. For their part, young Israelis come to Berlin, where they throw themselves into the art scene, open restaurants or launch new business concepts. They also look for traces of their grandparents and great-grandparents who experienced untold suffering under the Nazis.
Colleagues, these stories reflect the human miracle of German-Israeli relations. This friendship has long been more than an affair of the political elites alone. No, this friendship is held together by the people of our countries, it comes to life in a thousand little details of our daily lives and that is exactly what makes it so strong and indispensable, dear colleagues. Let’s safeguard what we have built over the past 50 years.
Looking back over the past 50 years sharpens our focus on the future, too.
It opens up a horizon of hope.
For, colleagues, the very fact that Germany and Israel were able to forge a friendship, after the unspeakable cruelty of the past, sends a powerful message.
A message of reconciliation and understanding which can shine out in this world still so full of conflict, of hate, this world which lacks peace. Here in the German Bundestag, President Peres spoke of this horizon of hope, saying: “While my heart is breaking at the memory of the atrocious past – my eyes envision a common future for a world that is young, a world free of hatred.”
Someone looking at the state of the world today, especially Israel’s conflict‑strewn neighbourhood, may call this hope naive
Yet anyone who looks at Germany and Israel’s friendship and remembers the dismal depths that it has grown out of will see that hope is not necessarily a manifestation of naivety – quite the opposite.
And anyone who realises this must also take to heart the message of reconciliation and understanding embodied by this friendship, and must not only praise it in words but put it into practice whenever and wherever possible.
That means that here at home we must stand up against any form of anti‑Semitism, racism and xenophobia – there must never again be room for any of that in our society.
It also means that we must work towards peace for Israel and its neighbourhood. Israel’s security is a historical imperative for Germany and an integral part of our friendship. And we believe that lasting security for a Jewish and democratic Israel will not be possible without a viable and democratic Palestinian state. That is why, as arduous as the path to a two‑state solution may be, we will continue to support the process. Personally, I think that a good friendship can withstand differences of opinion and the honesty that accompanies them. I thus fight back all the more strongly when in some public debates our friendship is reduced to nothing but these differences of opinion.
We also have Israel’s security in mind when together with our E3+3 partners we negotiate on Iran’s nuclear programme. It’s clear that at the end of the day only an agreement which ensures more – and never less – security for Israel will be signed. And equally these negotiations carry a message of understanding, too. If we succeed in reaching a settlement, then we’ll be sending a message of hope which could reverberate in the many other conflict zones in the Middle East.
Our generation that has seen the German-Israeli miracle grow will not live to reach the horizon of hope, to see the world without hate that Shimon Peres envisioned.
But we will pass on his vision to a strong, optimistic generation of young Israelis and Germans. A generation which is connected in all spheres of society, from the economic to the cultural. A generation of young people who critically question their own and each other’s government policy – that is part of who they are. Above all however, it is a generation of people who are curious about one another and about the world, people who think and live at an international level.
When I look at this generation I know that as unpeaceful as the world may be, our shared German-Israeli hope of reconciliation and understanding was not naive in the past, and neither will it be naive in the future!