Members of the Peres family,
Ambassadors, as we have both a former and a new Ambassador here with us today,
Applicants for the Shimon Peres Prize,
Members of the jury,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to start by thanking you for giving me the honour of speaking here. If someone had told me over 35 years ago, when I met Shimon Peres for the first time, that one day I would award a prize named after him, I probably would have thought this was some sort of pipe dream.
When I returned home after my first trips to Israel, I thought the situation in the country was very confusing because when I talked to one person, I’d think, “Right, that’s how things are”, but then when I spoke to someone else I’d hear “No, actually it’s completely the other way round”. To put it briefly, I always returned home more confused than when I left.
However, then I met Johannes Rau, who advised me to try to get an appointment with Shimon Peres, as I would then finally understand how Israel was really faring.
Since that day, I have been something like a social democratic pupil of Professor Shimon Peres, who I hope was always a social democrat at heart. I have very fond memories of all our meetings. And that is why it is a great pleasure and honour for me to be here at this first award ceremony.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are truly witnessing a special moment. We are in the Jewish Museum Berlin, which presents the history of Judaism in Germany, but also – as I am aware from various events here – repeatedly highlights common ground, as well as current and potential future differences, between Germany and Israel. In such a special place, our aim today is to build a new bridge, doing so in combination with a truly wonderful award ceremony.
Ladies and gentlemen, many people have been welcomed here today, but I would like to add at least two further names to the list – Nadav Tamir of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and I would also like to say that I am pleased we have a representative of Givat Haviva here with us, that is, an educational institute of the kibbutz movement, Torsten Reibold, because I believe that such initiatives in particular can help us to think about the future and our own country’s work with Israel.
When Shimon Peres died last year, the world mourned the loss of a great statesman. It is truly very difficult to fill the gap left by his death, so it is good that we can use evenings like this one not only to remember him, but also to recall the task he would certainly have set us, were he here with us tonight. And thanks to Mr Raichel’s music and the song we just heard, we could do so in a very moving way.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The song we just heard is about the integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society – something that has not always been easy. In my opinion, this combination of political courage and cultural aspirations was precisely what defined Shimon Peres and made him so special. Just imagine – an almost 90‑year‑old president asks a young musician to compose the music to a text he had written and then turns up at a concert packed with young people! In doing so, Peres built a bridge between the generations, and played both a political and a very pragmatic cultural role. The prize named after him is also about paying tribute to young people who follow this example by setting up German‑Israeli projects and building bridges, both in politics, and in a broader sense, in the cultural sphere.
Ladies and gentlemen,
With the death of Shimon Peres, we did not only lose a statesman. In Germany, there is no doubt that we also lost a great and very close friend. And that, too, is something one can hardly believe. Despite the inconceivable horror of the Shoah, Shimon Peres was always committed to achieving understanding with Germany, particularly when he served as President of those forced to suffer this Shoah, which was perpetrated by us, or rather the generation of our parents or grandparents.
As Germans, we owe him a huge debt of gratitude and as Germans somehow we were always incredibly fortunate that a representative of the people who suffered the Shoah came along and said in a speech in Germany: “This is an hour of grace for the young generation, wherever they may be. That they may remember, and never forget, that they should know what took place, and that they never, absolutely never, have the slightest doubt in their minds that there is another option, other than peace, reconciliation and love.”
He said that on 27 January – the date when Germany commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust Memorial Day – in the country of the perpetrators, at the lectern in the building where the Nazis justified their seizure of power, and later on in the Kroll Opera House. He stood there as a representative of the people who were murdered, persecuted and killed in their millions on the orders of this Reichstag, this city and this country and spoke about love! He not only spoke about peace and reconciliation, but also about mutual affection, which cannot be expressed any more clearly than in terms of love.
How fortunate we Germans are to have encountered people like Shimon Peres so often in our country’s history and after the Second World War. Shimon Peres is certainly one of the most important such individuals, but at a time like this, when we are unsure how to proceed with Europe, I think it is good to remember that we were fortunate on more than one occasion. A few years after the destruction unleashed across Europe by Germany, European men – unfortunately, women were not allowed to play a part at the time – invited us Germans to return to the table of the civilised peoples of Europe. I cannot imagine this being a particularly popular idea – just as the establishment of diplomatic relations with the country of the perpetrators will not have been popular in Israel. Here were people who said they wanted to work with Germany again. That was our great fortune. And those who reached out their hand to us showed great courage. Many people – and not only in Israel – will have said, “For God’s sake, not with the Germans, of all people!”
Ladies and gentlemen, why am I telling you this today? Because I think it serves as a wonderful message and example that bitter enemies cannot only become partners, but even friends. What a message in a world where it seems like enemies, rather than friends, are growing in numbers. In this regard, remembering Shimon Peres in Germany means more than paying tribute to the partnership between Germany and Israel. I see it for example in the European Union as a concept of friendship and partnership – Peres describes it as love – that goes far beyond this relationship between German and Israelis and Germans and Jews and serves as a shining beacon of hope in what seems to me to be a dark and uncertain world.
That is why I am so moved when I think about Shimon Peres. From time to time, we Germans should remember the courage people had in the past when they worried that international understanding was not fully understood among their own population. It is up to us to strive and fight proactively for unity in Europe. We Germans in particular have benefited from the courage of others and should therefore count ourselves as fortunate that we no longer have to struggle to survive in Europe, but actually only talk about money. What a fortunate situation where money is all there is to discuss!
Ladies and gentlemen,
It still seems almost like a miracle that these new relations developed between Israel and Germany and that once again we have a vibrant Jewish community in Germany, including here in the heart of Berlin, following the crime of the Shoah, which is unparalleled in the history of humankind. The fact that the gaps created by Germans are now being filled with new life, that rabbis are being trained in Germany and that we hear Hebrew on the streets of Berlin is a gift that we want to cherish forever and an incredible sign of trust in our democracy.
Shimon Peres’ words are both a guide and a duty. Anti‑Semitism and racism have not been overcome. Dr Or just spoke about what can still happen in our country. There are many reasons why we need to take care. Willy Brandt, who naturally knew Shimon Peres well, tasked us Germans with being a nation of good neighbours at home and abroad. This sentence is now more important than ever. We need to address the young generation in particular and to support it by confronting it with the past, but also through education, empathy and dialogue, in order to make peace and reconciliation tangible.
That is why civil society initiatives play such a special role in the close relations between Germany and Israel. Since the first German youth groups travelled to Israel in 1955, over 600,000 young people have taken part in youth exchanges, school exchanges or voluntary work programmes. Between 2001 and 2014, the German Government provided funding to almost 800 German and Israeli organisations, including local authorities, sports clubs, music schools and youth associations. And my own home town is twinned with the city of Ra’anana. That is also one of the reasons why I have visited your country so often. I think I have been there more often than any other country, including European countries.
All of this forms just a small part of our relations. So many initiatives and institutions are involved in exchange between Israel and Germany that it would hardly be possible to name them all.
Ladies and gentlemen, after 1945 we Germans endeavoured to learn from the experiences and crimes of our past. We thus acknowledge the full extent of our political and moral responsibility, which in turns leads to our unwavering commitment to Israel’s right to exist.
We are absolutely committed to the fight against anti‑Semitism, to human rights, to tolerance and to international understanding. Wherever possible, we demonstrate this commitment in a very practical way, such as in education for children and young people, a field in which the Academy of the Jewish Museum plays such an important role.
It was thus very important to me personally that the German cabinet decided to adopt the internationally widely accepted definition of anti‑Semitism in this legislative term as the basis for Germany’s policy.
One aim of this definition is to clarify that there is also anti‑Semitism based on criticism of Israel. This goes beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli Government policies and conceals its true face by pointing to conduct by Israeli politicians that can justifiably be criticised. Because we have spoken a great deal about critical NGOs, I also want to say that I was not happy about the resounding applause for my talks in Israel, as I quickly came to suspect that some of those applauding were not doing so in response to my actions, but rather promoting their own agenda. I think we need to take care on both sides not to offer the wrong people the wrong reasons for the wrong applause. Clarifying that was another reason why the cabinet’s decision on this definition of anti‑Semitism on 20 September was important.
Ladies and gentlemen, in Germany we have seen that it often takes a long time before a society is willing to face up fully to its painful past. I know this from my own family’s history.
I grew up in a family in which my father vehemently denied that Auschwitz had existed – and he did so until the day he died. At the same time, my daughter, who is now an adult, has relatives on her mother’s side who died in Auschwitz. We found their names together in Yad Vashem. They were victims of Mengele. People who denied Auschwitz and people who died there – all in the same family. That shows how close this past still is to us today. I think this examination of one’s own past and of the gaping holes left behind by the crime of the Shoah must continue to serve as a reason to address the past and future. At any rate, I do not believe we can draw a line under the past. And there is certainly no need for a 180‑degree shift in how we remember history, as the AfD or members of the AfD recently said.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We would not do justice to Shimon Peres today if we did not look beyond German‑Israeli relations and remember that reconciliation with Germany was not enough for him. On the contrary, he also worked tirelessly for reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbours. I had a long talk with him about Europe one time, and we found this discussion very inspiring. He firmly believed that the dream of a state of Israel which can live in peace with its neighbours like Germany despite terrible experiences, frequent warfare and much bloodshed can only be achieved through a negotiated two‑state solution. During my many visits to Israel and my work with Givat Haviva, it became clear to me how complicated this is. Givat Haviva has a very interesting project, and we should think about whether it could also be adapted to our society. The project is called Children Teaching Children. Over a period of two years – I’m not sure if it still works the same way today – the project brought Arab and Jewish children together in Israel, both at school and in the children’s homes. For example, I met Jewish children who told me that when they were being driven through an Arab community, they were pretty sure someone would open the car door and abduct them, so they always made sure to lock the door. And Arab children felt the same way when travelling through a Jewish area. The children had learned something completely different in their school books from what they then experienced. In conducting this process of understanding, Givat Haviva’s aim was not to resolve the conflict, but to teach children and adults how one can live in peace with this conflict, without violence breaking out.
I believe that such steadfast endeavours to bring about reconciliation and resolve conflicts peacefully are what defines Shimon Peres’ dream. He himself did not have the good fortune to see his dream come true, so we must work all the harder on this dream and on making it happen. We are doing so at a time when the vision of peaceful coexistence between Israel with a Palestinian state on its borders is becoming ever less accepted – something that naturally must be a cause of concern for us.
But we, too, firmly believe that his vision will ultimately convince more people than permanent war, disputes and uncertainty, and in order to come closer to achieving such reconciliation, the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, which was founded by Shimon Peres himself, promotes direct contact between people in a similar way to Givat Haviva. And such contact can be the basis for peace. Peres said: “In spite of our differences, we can build peace, not just negotiate peace. We can create the proper environment, and not just become victims of the existing environment.”
These words are addressed to the young generation in particular. And we urgently need to preserve and protect space for social engagement in Germany, Israel and everywhere we can in the world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In order to pay tribute to Shimon Peres’ lasting legacy after his death, Federal President Frank‑Walter Steinmeier launched an initiative to create this prize when he was still Foreign Minister.
He was motivated by Shimon Peres’ determination, desire to build bridges and need to fill the “empty spaces” with a shared future, as well as to be guided and inspired by this future and to be optimistic, as his daughter advised us earlier this evening.
That is why we are paying tribute today to young people in Germany and Israel who are pursuing Peres’ idea of creating peace and working optimistically on what he envisaged – young people who are working together to make a tangible contribution to our unique relations. That is what we need more than ever today – people whose aim is peace and reconciliation and who add to the bridges between us. Incidentally, I firmly believe that one learns far more from good examples than bad ones.
I congratulate all the applicants for the Shimon Peres Prize for their commitment and kindly ask them to continue their good work. The future of German‑Israeli relations depends on your endeavours and on the work of young people.
I would like to thank Dr Or as a representative of the German‑Israeli Future Forum Foundation, which made this evening possible. It is a great pleasure and honour for me to award the Shimon Peres Prize for the first time.
Thank you all very much indeed for being here this evening. I am delighted to hand over now to Nadav Tamir, who will tell you who the jury chose as the winner of the first prize.
I think Shimon Peres would have been proud of this bridge building. Thank you.
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