“Every German deserves to die … their hands are covered with Jewish blood … Therefore, there is neither absolution nor forgiveness, and no normal relations will ever be possible between us.”
These were not the rantings of a madman. This quote is an excerpt from a speech given by opposition member of the Knesset Menachem Begin in early 1965, when the Knesset was debating whether or not to establish diplomatic relations with West Germany. The future Prime Minister’s comments, extreme as they may seem, reflected the feelings of the hundreds of thousands of people who had suffered indescribably at the hands of the Nazis. On August 19, 1965, after relations between Israel and Germany had been established, rioting broke out in Jerusalem when the German ambassador arrived to present his credentials to the Israeli president. The ambassador’s car was attacked with rocks and bottles.
Fast forward 50 years.
The defense ministry building in Tel Aviv is decorated with German and Israeli flags in honor of the 50-year anniversary of the establishment of relations. The guest of honor is German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Her Israeli counterpart, Moshe Ya’alon, declared that “Germany is a great friend of the State of Israel.” Lest anyone thinks these are empty words, the ceremony was accompanied by the signing of a contract for the purchase of four Navy patrol boats at the cost of €430 million that will be used by Israel to secure its offshore natural gas facilities. The purchase is heavily subsidized by the German government, and is only one of many defensive equipment deals that has gone on between Germany and Israel in recent years.
How is it possible that the country that a few short decades ago decimated a third of world Jewry is now the closest of allies with the world’s lone Jewish State? The answer to this question lies in Germany’s desperate desire to repent its sins, and Israel’s practical mindset and desire to survive.
The seeds of this unlikely alliance were planted in 1952. Following the 1948 War of Independence, Israel was facing a deep economic crisis. Unemployment was depressingly high, and foreign currency reserves were dangerously low. The Knesset fiercely debated whether to accept reparations from West Germany in order to help the country absorb immigrants, rehabilitate survivors, and avoid economic collapse. Menachem Begin of the right-wing Herut party aggressively opposed accepting compensation from Germany, arguing that it would be “blood money” and the equivalent of forgiving Germany for its crimes during the Holocaust.
Ben-Gurion took a more practical approach, arguing that accepting the reparations was the only way to sustain the country’s economy. “There are two approaches,” he told the Knesset. “One is the ghetto Jew’s approach and the other is of an independent people. I don’t want to run after a German and spit in his face. I don’t want to run after anybody. I want to sit here and build here.”
Despite the ferocious and often violent protests that took place opposing the negotiations, a deal with Germany was signed — and the $845 million that Germany paid to Israel helped make Israel the economically viable nation that it is today. If Israel had followed its emotions, rather than its logic, and not accepted the reparations and later diplomatic relations with Germany, Israel today might have been a radically different place.
What was true 50 and 60 years ago still holds true today. It is now a given that Germany supplies Israel with critical defensive equipment, including Dolphin submarines that give Israel nuclear second-strike ability, at heavily discounted prices. It is a given that Germany, the strongest and most economically stable country in Europe, shields Israel from the harsh and unjust attacks emanating from the European Union. In short, it is a given that Germany is now one of Israel’s best friends in the world. Although there are angry voices which, very understandably, call for the dissolution of the warm relations that have developed between Israel and Germany, Israel must continue to follow the logical path and ensure that the relationship with the European powerhouse continues.
There can never be forgiveness for the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust. In an ideal world, all of those responsible for the horrors of the Shoah and anyone associated with them would be eternally ostracized by the international community. But in the flawed world in which we live — considering that we are now generations past WWII and today’s Germans cannot be held accountable for the crimes of their fathers — the logical path must always be followed so that the State of Israel can continue to thrive.