Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Shimon Peres Prize award ceremony

15.09.2019 - Speech

“The rainbow will emerge up there in the heavens, shining bright between the lightning shards, and I will know that the time has come.”

This, Yoni Peres, might be the English translation of one of the verses you and your band have just performed for us.

To some of us living in hectic Berlin, these lyrics might sound rather poetic, perhaps even like something not of this world.

So imagine how they must seem to the people in Israel, who for 70 years have lived in a country that can but dream of peace?

And yet it is not all that long since young Israelis, Palestinians and Norwegians sang that song together, full of hope. At the Oslo negotiations, where the song became an anthem for all those who, despite everything, still believe in peace in Israel. Because that is what the song is all about ‑ “Zeit für Frieden”, time for peace ‑ as we had the chance to join in singing in German at the end.

It almost seems like a brave thing to do – to still be talking about peace in Israel today, or even to dream of peace. It would be perfectly understandable, on the other hand, after the many conflicts over these decades, to slide into a feeling of resignation.

We here in Germany, too, are pained that the dream of Oslo, the dream of peace, still seems far off.

In recent days we have again seen just how far off that peace is. It worries us all.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Peace comes from two sides moving towards each other. Sitting together at a table. Starting to talk to each other. Looking for solutions. Being ready to give, not just to take.

And it is precisely this that characterises the organisations being honoured by the Federal Foreign Office and the German‑Israeli Future Forum today.

They are working in the spirit of Shimon Peres, whose commitment to balance was lifelong. Just as in the song, the hope for peace was a constant throughout his entire life.

He worked for peace with the political skill we all admired, and with a tremendous determination which impressed us all. He was committed to the two‑state solution, to Israeli‑Palestinian understanding.

And to us Germans, he was nothing less than one of our country’s most reliable friends. We can scarcely imagine how much he must have had to overcome personally to arrive at this feeling of friendship. After all, those of his relatives who had remained in Poland were killed in the cruellest manner by our forefathers.

He is one of the many who offered their hand to us, despite the German crimes against humanity. It is above all thanks to them that Germany and Israel have such close ties today.

To their willingness to “build bridges over an abyss of hate and mistrust”, as David Grossman once put it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Hate and mistrust. Shimon Peres was firmly convinced that it is up to young people in particular to shape a world in which there is no place for either of these.

And we all know that, regrettably, his hope has not – or hopefully not yet – been fulfilled.

The fact that, despite the bitter experience of the Shoah, antisemitism is rearing its head again in the world, and also in Germany, is a shameful and for us Germans also an intolerable truth. At least, it should be.

One need only look at Berlin; the Mayor has already spoken about it: it is only a month ago since Rabbi Teichtal was spat at on the street. And just a few days ago an Israeli tourist was punched in the face on the street. And why? Because he was speaking Hebrew!

This shows that antisemitism seems to be becoming what it must never be: an everyday occurrence.

A study conducted last December found that 41 percent of German Jews had experienced antisemitism in the previous year. This is utterly incomprehensible. It makes us furious.

But we must not get bogged down in anger. We need to respond. And at times like this there is one thing above all that we need to do: raise our voices.

We need to have the courage to open our mouths and object whenever antisemitic clichés are being bandied about – in the pub, among our friends, at school or at the sports club. We must not look away if someone is being insulted or attacked merely for being identifiably Jewish.

Because, ladies and gentlemen gathered here in Berlin City Hall, we all know only too well where the lack of civil courage can lead, where indifference can lead.

Ladies and gentlemen,

“Indifference” is certainly not a word that can be used to describe this year’s prizewinners. Far from it. They are representative of the many people and organisations in Israel and Germany who are working to tackle extremism and promote tolerance and freedom.

Who know that democracy cannot be taken for granted; that it needs to have life breathed into it, again and again.

Maybe this is something we need to realise, especially those of us who, like me, have known nothing but democracy. Who have grown up in peace and freedom and relative prosperity. In a state based on the rule of law, with all that that entails. We had everything served up to us; others had to fight for it. My generation just enjoys it.

And if one looks around the world today – and one doesn’t have to look to far‑flung regions – one sees that none of it can be taken for granted.

We ought not just to live through everything that makes our life good. Sometimes we also need to defend it. And I think we are living in just such a time.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is exactly what the project More than One Democracy is about. It gathers together the experiences of three societies. And the resulting book proves that these experiences are more than the sum of the individual parts. Rather, what emerges is something unique, something special.

And the project Professional Exchange shows that every effort to support young people in particular who have had many difficult experiences is well worth making. It shows that one has to depend on them and give them hope. And that this support is gratefully received. This shows how a society can be held together. And what works on this small scale works just the same on a larger scale.

Everywhere I go, I see the same thing: wherever young people come together, they grow together very quickly. And so I am delighted that the projects being recognised here today have produced many friendships.

It is good – and important – that these friendships stretch not only between our capitals, but also between towns in Saxony and southern Israel.

Yes, that’s right: the Saxony that was mentioned earlier! Saxony, where, just two weeks ago, one in four people voted for a party that is openly racist, that rejects all things foreign, and that wants to divide our country. Projects like these show the other Saxony, the one that unfortunately often doesn’t get enough attention. This clearly shows that the majority of people in this country reject these attempts at division, refuse to accept them.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Shimon Peres’ confidence in the future was also reflected in his unending curiosity, a curiosity he nourished well into old age.

For example, he recognised early on that our world would be shaped by new technologies. How right he was! Nanotechnology, brain research, green technology – he was fascinated by them all.

And he was enthusiastic about the new media. The Jewish Journal dubbed him the “first social media president” – but not because he announced policies via Twitter!

There is a video which you, Ms Almog, made with your grandfather in 2014, which the whole of Israel was soon talking about. No wonder. Seeing the 91-year-old President going on a job hunt, even if only a fictitious one, is certainly unusual.

Unfortunately, as we see in the video, the lady at the job centre judges his work experience as a cow milker and shepherd to be of no use in the modern world.

So he tries his hand as a petrol pump attendant, pizza delivery man, and stand‑up comedian going by the name of “Shimi P”. His last job in this fictitious job hunt is as a parachute instructor. His final piece of advice to his nervous trainee, who’s scared to jump, is this:

“The future belongs to the brave.”

Now, one can understand that someone about to leap out of a plane might be wondering exactly how much of a future he actually has left.

Seriously, though – and this too is perhaps a subject our society doesn’t consider enough: far too often, we are too cautious, and we should keep reminding ourselves of that sentence.

In fact, however, it is even worse, because often I have the impression that the wrong people in our country are not so cautious.

And I am certain that Shimon Peres would have said the same to you, our courageous prizewinners: “The future belongs to the brave.” Because people like you give us, too, hope. Hope that the time mentioned in the song we heard earlier will indeed come: the time for peace.

Thank you very much.


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