Germany and Israel Celebrate Ties with a Concert of Beethoven

Forged in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Israel’s ties with Germany have been the Jewish state’s strongest with a European country. This week, an “all-Beethoven” concert, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert hall, celebrated those ties.

Some 2,000 guests, including Israeli President Moshe Katsav, German President Horst Koehler, several German ministers and past presidents, gathered here Tuesday evening to mark the 40th anniversary of Israeli-German relations.

Forty years ago in May, West Germany and Israel exchanged ambassadors for the first time. East Germany never established formal relations with the Jewish state, but that rejection was voided with German unification in 1990.

Germany is Israel’s closest partner and supporter in Europe, second only to the United States in terms of economic and political ties. The relationship has survived decades during which German public opinion, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, often contradicted the supportive government stance.

On the one hand, Israel’s underdog identity was undermined in 1967, when a defensive war unexpectedly left Israel in possession of conquered territories. On the other hand, Germany’s reformed image was damaged by the tragedy of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered Israeli athletes.

“Because of the history, each one’s image of the other is very strong,” Christian Staffa, executive director of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, told JTA. Since 1961, this German Protestant organization has sent more than 1,000 young Germans to work with Holocaust survivors in Israel, as part of its worldwide volunteer program.

“On the Israeli side there is a negative fantasy and sometimes in Germany you have a very negative or a very idealized image of Israel,” he said. “I think both sides need to have a realistic impression of each other.”

With that in mind, Staffa, 45, last year opened the Ben Yehuda House in Jerusalem, for youth encounters on Jewish-Christian and Israeli-German relations.

The idea of the center is “to discover a new perspective together,” Staffa said, “a perspective that will never really free itself from the history but will incorporate it.”

Above all, more Germans should “see how the people in Israel live, what it feels like to live among hostile neighbors. To incorporate that in your emotional budget brings a lot of understanding for the Israeli situation,” Staffa said.

For Jews in Germany, the call of Israel always has been strong. But in recent years, Israel has stepped up its efforts to attract young German Jews through programs such as birthright israel and the recently launched Masa that encourage visits to Israel, said Uriel Kashi, executive director of the Association of Jewish Students in Germany.

“There are lots of new initiatives” to strengthen connections, said Kashi, 29. “It’s not like 20, 30 years ago when Diaspora Judaism was investing in Israel. Now Israel is investing in the Diaspora.”

Israeli leaders’ attitudes toward Jews in Germany also have changed, noted Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office.

In the 1990s, when the late Israeli President Ezer Weizman visited Germany, “the question was still whether there should be Jewish life here,” said Berger, who has lived in Germany for 20 years. “This time the emphasis is on looking forward to what can be done with German-Israeli relations, and an acknowledgment of how much has been done to combat anti-Semitism” and to support Jewish life in Germany.

For Stella Chtcherbatova, 40, Israel represents unrealized potential. Her older daughter, 15, asks why the family chose to move to Germany from Russia six years ago, instead of going to the Jewish state.

“My mother could not handle the climate there and my father had a heart attack,” answers Chtcherbatova, a psychologist who is on the board of the Jewish Community of Cologne, and is working with the AJCommittee in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany on a leadership seminar for Russian-speaking Jews in Germany.

“I feel good where I am,” said Chtcherbatova, who attended Tuesday’s concert. But “some time I will come to Israel — and if not me, then my daughters or my grandchildren. For our family, that’s home. Even if it’s far away, it’s in my heart.”

Eli Elimelech, 21, made the reverse trip, if only for a few days. Eli and his father, a childhood friend of Katsav, were invited to join the Israeli president on his trip to Berlin.

“I felt very proud to be in the Bundestag when the president of Israel gave his speech” he said. “For the first time, an Israeli president spoke in the same place that ‘he’ spoke,” referring to Hitler but refusing to use his name.

From Jochen Feilcke’s vantage point, things look good: In his five years as president of the Berlin branch of the 39-year-old German-Israel Society, the percentage of younger members has increased.

“Israel and Germany have an indissoluble marriage. We can never be divorced,” said Feilcke, 62. “Ours will never be a ‘normal’ relationship like that with Denmark or Poland. But it is a marriage that cannot end and that we do not want to end.”

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