Although relations between the governments of Germany and Israel have never been better, the German public harbors increasing amounts of resentment toward the Jewish state, according to an Israeli historian working in Germany.
Professor Michael Wolffsohn sounded the discordant note during a festival symposium held here last week to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany.
Wolffsohn stressed that German attitudes toward Israel had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, which he said was declining in Germany.
To back up his theory, the professor cited a number of opinion polls that have been carried out within the past five years.
In one, 29 percent of the population in the western part of the country and 15 percent of those from the former East Germany believed that Israel was living off German reparations.
Few Germans, said Wolffsohn, were aware that since the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany has spent annually in the former East Germany well above the $100 billion Germany has paid Israel in war reparations during the past 40 years.
Wolffsohn also said many Germans consider Israel one of the least popular countries in the world. This attitude has not changed since the launching of the Middle East peace process, Wolffsohn added.
Israel and Germany established diplomatic relations May 12, 1965. The move came after much soul searching on both sides, with the Israeli government fearing the reactions of Holocaust survivors, and the German government concerned about the reactions of Arab states.
Indeed many Arab nations cut off relations with Germany shortly after Bonn established full ties with the Jewish state.
Thirty years later, relations between the countries are strong, with Germany serving as the driving force behind European financial support of the peace process. It is also seen as the strongest lobbyist for Israeli interests within the European Union.
In addition, the special status of Israel has become a cornerstone in German foreign policy, and many observers consider Germany the closest ally of Israel after the United States.
Wolffsohn’s comments infuriated his audience at the symposium.
Rita Sussmuth, president of the lower house of the German Parliament, asked rhetorically whether Germany should give up its efforts to maintain its special relationship with Israel.
German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel was prompted by Wolffsohn’s comments to issue a vow: “I tell our Jewish friends: We shall not forget what happened; we have learned our lesson. And once again: We feel our very special responsibility and commitment toward the Jewish people and Israel.”
Asher Ben-Natan, who served as Israel’s first ambassador to Germany in 1965, attempted to undercut wolffsohn’s reliance on polling data.
Quoting Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Ben-Natan said, “Public opinion polls should be like perfume: You can smell it, but don’t swallow.”