I was unsure whether to publish the following text. My site deals with Israel and Israeli society, and this article deals with Germans and a very sensitive issue. It’s much easier for me to write about sites in Jerusalem and hotels in Tel Aviv, but because the Germans have such a keen interest in the Israeli-Arab conflict and because this is a topic close to my heart, I decided to share my insights and experiences here.
I allow myself to generalize about what Germans think for two reasons: the close contact I’ve had with Germans for ten years (I also live in Germany for the greater part of the year) and the narrow range of opinions that I hear from Germans. When I guide Americans, I have no idea what they will say about the conflict. Anything is possible – opinions ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left of the political spectrum, or opinions based on personal stories or deep religious experience. They can have knowledge of the smallest details or be totally unrealistic in their views. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an extreme opinion from a German on this issue. Part of it, I guess, is because the Germans are very rational. When guiding Germans, you can’t just say – “Jesus was here”. You need to say the name of the archeologist who dug the site, what evidence exists from the time of the end of the second temple (the time of Jesus) and what the chances are that Jesus was in the area.
When it comes to the conflict, Germans’ opinions fall somewhere left of the middle. Here’s a summary of their opinions.
Germans’ opinions on the Israeli-Arab conflict:
The occupation is at the root of the conflict.
Israel is making the situation worse with its settlements.
Israel is stronger and should therefore play the role of the “responsible adult”.
Palestinian extremists are a result of the poverty caused by Israel.
The only solution is for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and for two states to exist side by side.
War is always wrong.
(This article is about Germans’ opinions on the Israeli-Arab conflict; general information about the conflict can be read here: 10 things you didn’t know about the Israeli-Arab conflict.)
Being too logical is one of the first obstacles that Germans encounter when dealing with the conflict. If the conflict were about territory, it would have been solved already. If not the first generation, then the second generation would have considered the full picture of what they stood to gain and lose, understood that too much is being lost, and found a compromise. But this is not the case. The conflict is not rational; it involves a clash of cultures – albeit ones capable of living side by side – as well as religious fanaticism.
The Germans tried everything the 20th century had to offer – imperialism, democracy, Nazism, communism. They know about extremism.
And this brings us to the elements of the conflict that Germans find difficult to understand – political extremism and religious fanaticism. I can understand why Germans have forgotten what religious fanaticism is: no one in Germany today can imagine a Bavarian Catholic blowing himself up in Hamburg or a Protestant extremist going on a shooting spree at a Catholic school. Germans stopped murdering each other for religious reasons four hundred years ago. But it amazes me how quickly the Germans have forgotten what political extremism is. Germans have very short memories. Luckily for them, they have lived in a political paradise of sorts for several decades now, a paradise that reflects neither what’s happening in large parts of the world, nor Germany’s own fairly recent history. On the one hand, the Germany of today is one of the most democratic nations in the world, on the other hand, the Germans are always good at what they do:
They produce good cars,
they were good Nazis,
they were good communists (in East Germany)
and today they are good democrats.
I am amazed at how quickly they have forgotten what a fanatical ideology is. As recently as the 20th century they were still ruled by the German Emperor Wilhelm II, then by Hitler’s totalitarian fascist Nazis, and until 1989 one half of Germany had a communist dictatorship that in some aspects was more extreme than the Soviet Union. (Sometimes I think that nowadays Germans prefer to deal with the Nazis and not the communism of East Germany, but that is a different topic.)
German Catholics and Protestants haven’t murdered each other because of religion for 400 years (above – the Thirty Years’ War) but political fanaticism existed until 1989. Below – machine holding cards with information about citizens. Used by the Stasi, the repressive secret police of East Germany.
And of course you can’t write about the Germans without mentioning the influence of World War II. No other people committed crimes against humanity in the way that the Germans did, and no other nation anchored its crime at the core of its identity. Germans went through a long process of recognizing their crimes and taking responsibility. As I see it, Germans today try to take a stance as far as possible from anything that smells of nationalism. It seems that current German opinion is the complete opposite of the opinion held by the Nazis. Black became white and right became left. From patriotic nationalism to multicultural internationalism, from attributing everything to race to attributing everything to social and economic circumstances, from waging a brutal war for evil ends to not wanting to fight for even the noblest of causes.
One of these extreme changes is the rise of political correctness. The slightest fear of being seen as racist makes the Germans cautious when it comes to criticizing others. And when they do, they blame governments, politicians, colonialism, capitalism, and corporations. Never people. In this absurd political environment you are only allowed to praise other ethnic groups. The only group that the Germans allow themselves to criticize is themselves. But covering up problems with political correctness only pushes people to extreme viewpoints. Criticizing Americans, Arabs, Israelis, Turks, and Europeans doesn’t make a person racist.
The lesson that World War II teaches us is not that war is evil, but that it is important to fight against evil. And here are three words that the Germans don’t use although their history can’t be understood without them: good, bad, and victory. Germany isn’t imperialist today because the Allies of World War I imposed a tight naval blockade on Imperial Germany. Germany isn’t Nazi today not because of peace talks but because the Allies bombed, destroyed, and conquered Nazi Germany. The wall between the two Germanys didn’t fall because Germans from both sides woke up one morning and said to themselves, “Hey, we are one!” The wall fell because East Germany, along with the entire Eastern bloc, collapsed after losing the Cold War. Only wars fought for what is right and good made modern-day Germany what it is today. The truth isn’t all on one side, but it also isn’t in the middle. There is good and there is evil, and there are things worth fighting for.
The German left and Israel
When I first came to Germany ten years ago, I thought that the criticism would come from the far right. I was wrong. All criticism came from the left. This makes for an interesting change – the far right criticized us for being Jewish while the far left criticized us for being Israelis. The context is of course different, but the result is the same: obsession with Israelis/Jews. The left will immediately claim that any criticism is not of the Israelis themselves but of the way they treat the Palestinians. But is it true? If the European left really stands for democracy, women’s rights, LGBT rights and rights for minorities then they should almost automatically be pro-Israel because you will find none of the above in Arab (and Palestinian) society.
Although Israel is the only democracy with LGBT rights, the German (and European) left criticizes Israel more than all the non-democratic, anti-gay Muslim countries.
The left is of course entitled to criticize Israel but the decisiveness always surprises me. When a German meets an Egyptian, does he say anything about the fact that more than 80% of Egyptian women undergo genital mutilation? Will a German suggest to a Yemenite that the country be split in two, one part going to the Houthis and the other to the government supporters – or will (s)he suggest a solution to the problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan or Syria? Probably not.
Some will say that Germany’s particular interest in Israel ties in with the special relationship between the countries, but just because Germany is responsible for the Holocaust, it doesn’t give the people the right to criticize Israel more.