October 26, 2018 — Berlin, Germany
Belle Etra Yoeli is the Chief of Staff to AJC CEO David Harris. Responsible for making planes and trains run on time (among other things!), Belle travels with Harris around the globe, meeting with heads of state, cabinet-level officials, dignitaries, and parliamentarians, and learning about the world at the very highest political levels.
Last week, a few short hours after touching down in Berlin, I had the privilege of joining a 50-member AJC delegation for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the magnificently modern Federal Chancellery, we gathered in a United Nations-like-room meant for world leaders and state guests. With a translator in our ears, we engaged in frank and open dialogue -- with one of most powerful individuals on the planet -- on transatlantic relations, antisemitism, Germany’s approach to Iran, the future of the EU, immigration and integration, and more.
It’s not every day that one gets to chill with the Chancellor of Germany. I was understandably starstruck by her presence, but was even more struck by her level of graciousness. Early into the meeting, when the Chancellor noticed that the former director of AJC Berlin was sitting in the second row, her national security advisor got up from his seat so that the AJC leader could sit next to the Chancellor. She answered every question from our delegation. She repeatedly thanked AJC for playing a leading role in Germany. As one can imagine, this experience set the bar high for what would be an exciting few days of exploration and advocacy.
One might ask (and many of my friends have): why would Angela Merkel take the time to meet with the American Jewish Committee? AJC’s history is rooted in Germany. We have consistently engaged with the Federal Republic since our founding in 1906. Following the end of WWII, AJC was the first Jewish organization to engage with Germany, recognizing that the German people would rebuild, and Germany would once again rise to be a leader on the world stage. AJC felt then, as we do now, that the global Jewish community had an important stake in the future of Germany. And in 1998, AJC became the first Jewish advocacy organization to establish a full-time presence in Berlin.
20 years later, here we were, reaffirming our commitment to Germany. Together, we envisioned the next 20 years -- what more can, and must, Germany and the AJC do together?
In addition to the #MerkelMeeting, we had the opportunity to meet with other high-level officials and opinion leaders to discuss these same questions. We met with, among others, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the U.S. Ambassador and Israeli ambassadors to Germany, and senior editors from Tagesspiegel, a leading German newspaper. On Friday evening, we sampled Jewish life in Germany through Shabbat services and dinner with members of the Jewish community at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue.
By the end of our time in Berlin, we developed an even stronger sense of Germany’s current issues and priorities, and we experienced firsthand that, despite challenges, Jewish life in Germany is alive and well. We left with a strong sense of pride that AJC remains a key player in German society -- offering insight and policy perspectives on hot topics in German public discourse and helping to shape the future of this European powerhouse.
For many, and world Jewry in particular, Germany remains a complicated subject. Some refuse to see Germany beyond the Nazi era and would not dare set foot on German soil. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Israeli Jews are moving to Berlin in increasing numbers both for economic opportunity and its vibrant culture. Others are curious or indifferent. They visit Germany as if it was any other European tourist attraction. They may or may not know that Germany has become one of Israel’s strongest allies. They don’t necessary feel a special connection or draw to Germany, and if anything, they remain somewhat reluctant to engage.
AJC is in a category of its own. And, as a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I could not be more grateful that our founders had the foresight to engage with Germany, and that we continue to emphasize its importance as an ally of United States and Israel, and in the pursuit of democratic values.