Why Germany doesn’t have an Israel lobby—and why it should.
The other day I had the honor of being invited to attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C. AIPAC, in case you didn’t know, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, otherwise known as the dreaded Israel Lobby. The dreaded I.L. being, if we are to believe John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, a bunch of unpatriotic Jews who have managed to deflect US foreign policy from its true course of sucking up to oil-rich Arab dictators, with the result that the United States is in the thrall of a “shitty little country” (as a French diplomat once called it) that doesn’t have a drop of oil.
Now, one might consider the incompatibility of the conspiracy theory put forward by Mearsheimer and Walt (and endorsed by leading oil-rich Arab dictators) with that proposed by, say, Michael Moore, according to which the White House and State Department are controlled by Big Oil.
One might also ask whether the most powerful lobby group in the United States isn’t in fact that strange body politic “We, the people…” armed with a potent weapon called the right to vote and the common sense to realize that democracies ought to stick together.
But that wasn’t what was going through my head as I sat in the Washington Convention Center among 7,000 pro-Israel lobbyists and was treated to a stellar array of political bigwigs and would-be bigwigs, including Dick Cheney, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Barack Obama, who obviously all felt that, whatever Mearsheimer and Moore might say, it would be a good career move to suck up to the dreaded Israel Lobby. What was going through my head was: “Wow, I wish we had something like this in Germany.”
Because the plain fact is, Israel does not have a lobby here. When German Catholic Bishops traveled to the Holy Land recently and, after visiting Yad Vashem, compared Israel’s security wall to the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto, thus comparing the Jewish state to the Nazi regime, the only official voice raised in protest was that of Israel’s long-suffering ambassador Shimon Stein.
The silence from the ruling parties was deafening. Because of course Catholics are a powerful lobby in Germany, whereas friends of Israel, be they Jew or Gentile, aren’t. When you talk to, say, MPs of the Bavarian conservative party (Christian Social Union), they’ll tell you—off the record—that back home their voters ask them why Germany should stick its neck out for that shitty little country (for instance by patrolling the Lebanese coast as part of the UNI-FIL mission), which only makes us a target for terrorists. And on the other side of the aisle, Green parliamentarians will tell you the same thing.
On the other hand, there isn’t anybody lobbying these MPs in their districts for deinvestment in Iran, although polls show that Germans do see Iran as a dangerous country. Almost as dangerous as Israel and the United States.
You have to hand it to the German political class, as I told the AIPAC delegates in the workshop I’d been invited to address, for sticking to their conviction that support of Israel is, for historical reasons, part of Germany’s raison d’état. Just as the medieval Church protected the Jews because their very existence was witness to the truth of the Bible and thus conferred legitimacy on Christianity’s claim to the legacy of Abraham, so Germany stands by Israel because that stance conveys legitimacy to Germany’s democratic legacy.
Now I don’t want to get into a discussion on Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism here, because the point I want to make for the present is that a political stance based, if you will, on a lesson of history or, to be more crude, on a bad conscience, will not long endure.
And as history progresses and Germans as a people claim what Chancellor Helmut Kohl called “the grace of a late birth,” the attempt to tie an unpopular policy, i.e. the support of Israel, to an unpopular duty, i.e. the remembrance of the Holocaust, will only make both more odious. This is a real danger.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not be the world’s most cerebral guy, but when he bangs away at what he calls the Holocaust myth and says that “even if it did happen,” today’s Germany cannot be held responsible for those crimes and should not be duty bound to support the “Zionist entity,” which he wants to wipe off the map of the earth, it does strike a chord in this country.
Indeed, many Germans have managed not only to dissociate the support of Israel from the legacy of the Holocaust but to turn the argument around: precisely because Germans have the responsibility to ensure this kind of thing never happens again, runs the argument, they must stand up for—the Palestinians.
This is the kind of thinking behind the Bishop’s Warsaw Ghetto comparison and the nutty behaviour of a group of Protestant pilgrims from south Germany who I recently met on a boat on Lake Galilee. They were staying, of course, with Palestinian friends in Bethlehem, and on this one-day outing to Israel they had the edgy air of people moving in enemy territory.
As the boat coasted near where Jesus of Nazareth preached the Sermon on the Mount, the pastor led his flock in singing a hymn. And the number this German man of God chose was “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens alias Yussuf Islam, well known and rightly despised in Israel for his support of the terrorist organization Hamas.
A marginally more subtle argument holds that Germans—steeled, as it were, by going through the furnace of Holocaust remembrance—not only have the moral right but also the moral duty to protect Israel’s Jews from self-destructive behavior. Thus the True Teutonic Friend of Israel, legitimized precisely by the fact that his father or grandfather marched stiff-armed behind the Führer shouting “death to the Jews,” shakes his head sadly at Israel’s stiff-necked refusal to appease those who work for the final solution of the Zionist problem.
In short: historical sensibilities are no substitute for a good, old-fashioned lobby. A lobby that would have to make the point that Germany’s ties to Israel are not a burden but an asset. Israel shouldn’t just be seen as a place where German politicians go to lay wreaths, spout politically correct platitudes, and agonize about the stalled “peace process,” but where they go to learn how democracy can work in the Middle East; to affirm common values and to pinpoint common enemies; to encourage tourism, academic cooperation, and investment; to work on a strategy of enlarging the European Union’s zone of freedom, prosperity, and security through Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel to the borders of Egypt.
Or even shorter: today the Israel lobby in Germany consists of six million dead people. Israel needs six thousand living people. Amazing as it may seem, there is no pro-Israel think tank in the country. No professional outfit monitoring the scandalous anti-Israel bias of the media, especially the state-run media. No concerted effort to provide decision-makers and key media figures with the facts they need to counter this bias. No pro-Israel advocacy groups on campuses and in churches. To get an organization with this agenda up and running, German friends of Israel would need a starter capital of, say, six million euros. Less than half the €13.5 million annual salary of Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann. A fraction of the hundreds of millions paid by Siemens to bribe contractors worldwide and labor representatives at home. Or of the 900 million euros in investment insurance put up last year by the German government for firms doing business in Iran. Apart from being tax-deductible, I wonder what the return on that investment might be.
Reprinted with kindly permission of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (German Council on Foreign Relations).