Israel-German Congress aims to ensure support for Jewish state

A year after the 50th anniversary celebrations of Israeli-German diplomatic relations, Israel advocates held the fourth Israel-German Congress in Frankfurt on June 19, expressing concern that Germany’s proclamations of support for Israel are becoming disingenuous.
June 22, 2016

A year after the 50th anniversary celebrations of Israeli-German diplomatic relations, Israel advocates held the fourth Israel-German Congress in Frankfurt on June 19, expressing concern that Germany’s proclamations of support for Israel are becoming disingenuous. 

Germany’s recent vote singling out Israel for health rights abuses at the World Health Organization assembly at the United Nations, German ministers’ rush to forge ties with Iran in the wake of last year’s nuclear agreement and the influx of migrants from Muslim countries were cited as signs Germany may be sliding backward in its historic support of Israel. 

The weekend event attracted 3,000 participants, a 350 percent increase from the first Congress held in 2010. It is the largest pro-Israel conference in Western Europe, indicating Germany remains a safe haven for Israel supporters who hope to stem what they see as troubling developments. 

“You have the German declarations in the government to stand up for Israel’s security — that’s more theory than practice,” said Sacha Stawski, the congress’ founder and president of the pro-Israel lobby and media-watchdog group Honestly Concerned and the Israel advocacy group I Like Israel. 

Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the Axel Springer media group, whose newspapers and magazines generally counter anti-Israel bias common to German media, also expressed concern over the disparity between the German government’s words and actions. Support for Israel’s right to exist is built into Axel Springer’s platform.

“Many positive things have been said in the diplomatic arena in both directions, but when considering the German-Israel relationship nowadays, I think the love is kind of lopsided,” Döpfner told the audience after receiving the Arno-Lustiger Prize for his efforts in building German-Israel relations. He cited a recent survey indicating that 70 percent of Israelis view modern Germany positively, while an equal number of Germans view Israel as a world threat, ahead of North Korea. “They are of the opinion that Israel is involved in escalation of [conflict in] the Middle East.”

With the participation of Jewish and Christian leaders, as well as local and federal German politicians and Israeli embassy officials and politicians — including former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Member of Knesset (MK) Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), Druze MK Ayoob Kara (Likud) and MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Biteinu) — the event exhibited a united front for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin appeared via video.

But Eldad Beck, a conference speaker and the author of “Germany at Odds,” a book skeptical of Germany’s reconciliation with its past, noted the absence of German government ministers.

“The most interesting thing about this conference is the fact that the political level keeps on snubbing it,” he told the Journal.

Last year, salutations from Chancellor Angela Merkel were included in the program. She declined the invitation to attend this year, and no salutations appeared, because, Stawski said, they weren’t requested. Despite concerns with the current German Chancellery, Stawski fears a post-Merkel era and also what he perceives as the ascendance of an anti-Semitic right.

According to professor Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor and a conference presenter, anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that promote anti-Israel and “lawfare” campaigns, and which are recipients of German federal funding, are increasing in influence.

“Germany is part of Europe, and it’s really a virus that’s growing inside of Europe. In the past, Germany has largely stood up against that, but that’s no longer the case. The barriers are breaking down,” Steinberg told the Journal. 

American-born Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin office of American Jewish Committee (AJC), moderated a panel that featured debate about the influence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Germany. She noted that Jews in Germany don’t face the kind of anti-Israel harassment seen at California college campuses, but that BDS-oriented ideologies are nevertheless prevalent at German universities. 

“It’s not organized here,” she said. “There’s not campus life in the same way. They don’t have that field of operation, but, that said, I’m not sure the attitudes of professors here vary that much from those in the U.S.”

The AJC is lobbying to implement, at the German legislative level, the European Parliament Working Group on Anti-Semitism’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, which includes the demonization of Israel. 

On the surface, the congress was marked by optimism. Booths dedicated to Israel and Jewish programming dominated two floors of the conference center. A DJ played Israeli pop music at a Tel Aviv-style “chill-out” area, while shops sold Israeli goods. 

On the previous night, hundreds gathered at the Leonardo Royal Hotel for dancing to Mizrahi hits and a performance by Nadav Guedj, Israel’s “Golden Boy” act at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Under the conference banner of “Building Partnerships,” a delegation of Kurds waved Kurdish and Israeli flags, expressing solidarity for Israel as they battle ISIS and fight for independence. 

“If we build more on the business side and more on the cultural side, and other issues uniting Germany and Israel at this point in time — if there is enough pressure there — we could influence the political side of things,” Stawski said.

Shifting Israel-German discourse away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Holocaust and toward the countries’ common values and interests emerged as a new strategy for Israel advocacy at a time when third-generation offspring of the World War II era are distancing themselves from Nazi crimes.

“I think it needs to be rebuilt so that young Germans understand in coming decades that this relationship is important not only because of history, but because Israel is the only reliable democratic partner in the Middle East,” Berger said.

Volker Beck, a pro-Israel member of Germany’s parliament and critic of the current Israeli government, nevertheless favorably compared Netanyahu’s resolute condemnation of Islamic terror in the wake of the Orlando terror attack on a gay nightclub to what he saw as a wishy-washy statement from Merkel. 

“Israel is an open, vivid, civil society,” Beck said, “and we could all learn from them.”

Döpfner closed his remarks at the conference with a similar sentiment: “We have unbelievable vital interest to support Israel and its right to exist. So if we don’t do it for altruistic reasons, let’s at least do it for egoistic reasons.” 

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