If you happen to open any German newspaper this weekend, you'll see that the coverage focuses on one main topic: The fall of the Berlin Wall. This Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution in the former GDR, which not only led to the reunification of West and East Germany but also heralded the end of the Cold War – or at least this is how the events of the 9th of November 1989 are perceived in Germany.
In Israel, on the other hand, it appears as though the nearing anniversary will pass by without much fanfare. If the 9th of November evokes any memories at all, it is those of the Kristallnacht in 1938. Most people in Israel do not seem to associate anything with the fall of the Berlin Wall – which is astonishing considering how anxiously some of the Israeli media reacted to the event at the time. The television images of German delegates in the parliament standing up, spontaneously starting to sing the national anthem, shedding tears of joy, raised worries in Israeli society.
“Many people realized that with the fall of the Berlin wall, World War II was well and truly over”, Nathan Sznaider, Professor of Sociology at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa recalled.
“On the one hand I was glad that the regime collapsed. The GDR had been one of the most anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist states in Europe. On the other hand, I could not bring myself to feel happy for the Germans. Their separation had been a punishment, a punishment they deserved. The wall was the last scar that reminded the world of Germany’s guilt, and the fact that it disappeared that day, made me feel uneasy.”
Many people in Israel shared these contradictory sentiments. “You could sense a certain enthusiasm about the end of the GDR,” says Prof. Moshe Zimmermann, director of the Koebner Center in Jerusalem. “But there was also fear that a Fourth Reich in the heart of Europe might emerge.”
'Israel building its own wall'
The majority of the commentators in the Israeli media were also less than enthusiastic regarding a united Germany. Deceased Orthodox rabbi Mordechai Breuer considered a possible reunification a "nightmare", saying that a united Germany as an economic and technological power might dictate the destiny of the entire world. Some considered the mere fact that the opening of the borders occurred on the 9th of November, of all days, a bad omen.
German-Israeli publicist Lea Fleischmann even accused Germany of taking advantage of the event to make the world forget the atrocities it committed in World War II and finally achieve the "Endsieg" (ultimate victory).
Today, 20 years later, these fears seem almost ridiculous. The relations between Israel and Germany are better than ever. It has only been a week since Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated Germany’s unrestrained support for Israel, saying that “whoever threatens Israel also threatens Germany.”
Working on this article, I have been walking a lot through Tel Aviv, while talking on my cell. Sometimes I spoke English; sometimes German, but in both cases the reactions were scarce. Twenty years ago, the situation still completely different.
“I remember, when I first started to go to the university in Tel Aviv , I was speaking German with a friend of mine”, says Adina Stern, who immigrated from Berlin in the 1980s and is now working at Tel Aviv University, dealing with German-Israeli cultural relations. “Suddenly a young woman came to our table and told us angrily to 'stop using the language of the perpetrators'.” While she was telling me the story, in German, we were standing in line to get coffee – and nobody seemed to care. Only when we paid, the salesman smiled and said “Bitteschön (you're very welcome).”
When I approach people on the street, asking for directions in my more than shaky Hebrew, they often ask me where I am from. But when I answer that I live in Berlin, I am usually greeted by a high pitched series of “Ahs” and “Ohs”. If there are any reservations, I have not noticed them so far.
'Not a war-loving country'
Israel is the second country in the world, outside of Europe, in the number of tourists who have visited Berlin since the beginning of the year and in the number of tourist stays in the German capital. The so called “meschugge-parties” in the capital are getting so famous that in September, the Berlin city magazine “Tipp” published an article about young Israelis conquering the Berlin nightlife.
“The image of Germany has completely shifted. Especially Berlin is seen as a hip, cool, fun city – in a strange way, the fact that it is also the home of the perpetrators might even reinforce its appeal”, says Sznaider. “Young Israelis are in the process of 'dehistorizing' their lives. They respect the days of commemoration and of course they know what happened in Sachsenhausen or Wannsee. But this is a generation that refuses to live in the past. They are very well trained in the unwritten laws of collective grief and remembrance. If needed, they can trigger the expected feelings of grief – but they can also turn them off. They do not want to dwell anymore in their grandparents' traumata. And this probably connects them with young Germans.”
Violinist Avri Levitan is one of them. Originally from Tel Aviv, he moved to Berlin eight years ago. "What I love about the place is that the people there are very open-minded and accept everybody the way they are. Tel Aviv likes to think of itself as such a liberal city as well, but deep down it is not a very open society", he says. "As long as the Berlin Wall existed, it was easy for Israel to condemn it. However, in recent years, we have been building our own wall. While one society gets out of the trap, the other one steps right in there. So, I think there is a lot to learn."
Even though the Israeli public, as a whole, seems to have few reservations about the country's relations with Germany, one should not get carried away. Yes, the endless number of exchange programs for school children, university students, artists, and, in my case, journalists, have lost their sometimes exhausting reconciliation-never-forget-mantra. However there is still a significant number of Israelis who are opposed to any ties between the two countries.
“In a recent poll of the Koebner institute, 20 % of the Israeli population said that they considered the German people to be the same as in 1945,” Zimmerman says. "In the 1980s it was 40-45 %, so it is changing, but probably not as fast as some might want to believe. Not everyone realizes how fearful the Germans have become. One dead soldier in Afghanistan is enough to cause hundreds of people to take to the streets and demonstrate against the mission. This is definitely not a war-loving country any more.”
Sarah Stricker is a German journalist who is visiting Israel as part of a fellowship program