We sat at a bonfire at the foot of Masada under the stars, discussing the existential threat to Israel from Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made headlines again as he threatened to wipe Israel off the map and denied the Holocaust.
The 30 German and Israeli journalists and policymakers — and I as the only North American — were united that night in our outrage but animated in our discussions. Would the civilized world permit a nuclear-armed Iran? Were warnings of a potential nuclear strike on Israel and the next Holocaust mere hyperbole? Was Israel suffering from a “Masada Complex,” where every threat from a Muslim dictator or terrorist was interpreted as a danger to her national existence?
If these threats and the chance of a second Holocaust were real, and crossed all red lines for our German friends, how far would the “special responsibility” they professed for Israel go?
Some of the German participants were grandchildren of Nazi Party members. Many of the Israelis were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. We talked openly — and with strong emotion — as emerging friendships were tested in Israel and during eight intensive days in Germany a few months earlier.
Bertelsmann, the German media company, had brought us together for a “young leaders” fellowship. The company, Europe’s largest media conglomerate, had begun to come to terms in the late 1990s with its role as the largest supplier of Nazi propaganda materials during the 1930s and 1940s. In response, it created a series of programs focused on strengthening German-Israeli-Jewish relations.
Our trip to Germany had explored a painful past and given us non-Germans an opportunity to see modern Germany in all its complexities: its strong democratic institutions, vibrant cultural life and growing Jewish community. It was also a Germany struggling to integrate its Muslim communities, and facing an upsurge in extreme right, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic nationalism.
We had ended our Germany trip watching the German soccer team win its quarterfinal World Cup match on a giant television screen at the Brandenburg Gate. To the astonishment and amusement of our German hosts, the Israelis had painted their faces with the colors of the German flag and sang the German national anthem along with thousands of cheering fans.
While impossible for many American Jews to imagine, in some respects this moment of Israeli-German amity was unremarkable. A poll released this week by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that nearly 90 percent of Israelis favor reconciliation with Germany.
Still some in our group were uncomfortable seeing a sea of German fists pumping in unison to the militaristic sounds of a German soccer cheer, perhaps reflecting a lingering fear. The same Bertelsmann poll revealed that 12 percent of Germans believe that Jews were to blame for their persecution; and about one in three agree partially with the anti-Semitic slur that Jews are today trying to benefit from the Holocaust.
Most disturbingly, three out of 10 Germans accuse Israel of waging “a war of annihilation against the Palestinians” or of doing to the Palestinians “what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich.”
Despite these troubling numbers, German support for Israel and for the Jewish people is stronger than elsewhere in Europe. Twice as many Germans, 28 percent. now sympathize more with Israel than with the Arabs, 14 percent. This compares with only 8 percent of Germans sympathizing with Israel 15 years ago.
The majority of Germans, 62 percent, believe Israel’s existence is threatened by a nuclear Iran, as do a majority of Israelis and American Jews, 75 percent. At issue between our friends that night, and confirmed by the polling of our respective communities, was not whether the Iranian nuclear threat was exaggerated or unfounded but how best to stop it.
That is where the past continues to divide us. Eighty percent of Israelis and 72 percent of American Jews surveyed in recent polls would support a military strike against Iran if that country built a nuclear weapon. Yet only 32 percent of Germans consider such military action to be justified, the Bertelsmann poll found.
In explaining the stark difference in these views, Stephan Vopel, project director at the Bertelsmann Foundation, observed: “While Israelis subscribe to the maxim “never again victims,” the German dictum is “never again war.”
German and Israeli friends argued that night at the base of Masada about red lines. Some Germans acknowledged that they would support limited military strikes if all diplomatic alternatives were exhausted and if strikes were carried out under NATO or United Nations sanction. To some of us, this sounded like a U.N. resolution crafted by a Russian diplomat, replete with so many conditions that it could never be a reality.
For the rest of the trip we returned to the question of this existential threat. We struggled to think of alternatives that would forestall war while ensuring that an Iranian nuclear weapon could never threaten Israel’s survival. We realized there were no good alternatives — only bad and worse ones.
Yet my German friends cannot avoid this issue. Haunted by our tragic and intertwined pasts, and the competing “never agains” that so powerfully animate our worldviews, history has given a special responsibility to them and to their colleagues in the German government and media.
Despite the deep aversion of the German people to military force, if left with no reasonable diplomatic alternatives, the German children and grandchildren of those who exterminated 6 million Jews must escape their past to help save the world’s only Jewish state.
(Mark Dubowitz is the chief operating officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute based in Washington, D.C. He was a Bertelsmann Foundation fellow in 2006.)