September 24, 2021
Several German chancellors have set foot on Israeli soil. But only one has stood before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to atone on behalf of her country for the Holocaust: Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel.
"The Holocaust fills us with shame," she told Israeli lawmakers in 2008, during a special visit celebrating Israel’s sixtieth year of independence. "I bow my head before the survivors, and I bow my head before you in tribute to the fact that you were able to survive."
On Sunday, September 26, Germany’s voters are expected to name a successor for Merkel, the EU’s longest-serving current leader, who did not seek a fifth term as Germany’s chancellor. It’s unclear when she will step down. Germany’s outgoing government stays in office until a new coalition government is formed and sworn in. She is expected to visit Israel in October.
"From the beginning she struck a chord with AJC," AJC CEO David Harris said during an interview last year on People of the Pod, AJC's podcast. "She understands the imperatives of history. She has affirmed repeatedly the special relationship with Israel. She’s been strong in denouncing antisemitism. She’s been a friend."
In 1949, AJC became one of the first American Jewish organizations to start rebuilding relations with Germany after the Holocaust. Three decades later, AJC launched the first exchange program between Germany and the American Jewish community to foster understanding through personal encounters. In 1998, AJC opened its Berlin Ramer Institute, making it the first American Jewish organization with a permanent presence in the country.
In June 2020, Merkel kicked off AJC’s first-ever Virtual Global Forum. The global pandemic forced the cancellation of AJC’s plans to host the annual gathering in Berlin. Merkel told Harris and then-President John Shapiro that she considered the planned conference a “sign of trust” and commended the organization for its efforts toward reconciliation and longstanding friendship.
“We can now share in delight at the fact that Jewish life is flourishing once again in Germany,” Merkel told Harris and Shapiro. “We are also united in opposing antisemitism, racism and xenophobia and championing human rights, democracy and pluralism in Germany, Europe, the United States and worldwide.”
Since becoming chancellor in 2005, Merkel has made Germany’s relationship with Israel a pillar of her foreign policy – calling the preservation of Israel’s security part of “Germany’s staatsräson,” or core national interest. Under her leadership, Germany has forged cooperation between the two countries’ governments, continued collaboration between the militaries, outlawed movements that seek to destroy Israel, and remained Israel’s largest trading partner in Europe. Merkel also has overseen heightened security measures to protect Germany’s Jewish communities.
“Both countries are liberal democracies. This naturally aligns us,” said Remko Leemhuis, Director of AJC Berlin Ramer Institute. “The exchange in security services has never been better. From a German perspective, Israel is important because it’s the only reliable partner in the Middle East.
Merkel’s affinity for the Jewish state is both personal and pragmatic. Raised Lutheran in Communist East Germany, where her father served as a pastor, Merkel grew up in a society that did not recognize Israel and did not take responsibility for the Third Reich, World War II, or the Holocaust.
Unable to express her political views, Merkel became a physicist who gathered and weighed empirical facts. As soon as the Berlin Wall fell, she signed up for the Democratic Awakening (DA), a political party that participated in East Germany’s first and only democratic election.
“Her East German past informed her and informs her even more now because Germany has this enormous responsibility to always protect Israel,” said Judy Dempsey, the author of The Merkel Phenomenon. “She is highly aware of the gaps of memory and keeps hammering home the point that this is what happened, and this is how we should deal with people.”
DA eventually merged with the Christian Democratic Union and after Germany’s reunification, Merkel was elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Tapped by Chancellor Helmut Kohl to serve as Minister for Women and Youth and later as Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, Merkel excelled as a problem solver and coalition builder, skills that propelled her to the chancellorship in 2005.
Since then, she has become a guarantor of the Israel-German relationship, a fierce guardian of the Jewish people, and a friend of AJC.
“She has a sharp antenna for those who are intolerant because this intolerance breeds radicalism and potential instability,” Dempsey said. “This worries her a great deal. She knows what’s at stake. Germany is not going to let Israel down,” adding that the Chancellor has a “complete, unambiguous, consistent stance against any kind of antisemitism.”
To monitor and combat Jew hatred on the ground in Germany, Merkel appointed a federal antisemitism czar, as have a dozen state governments. Amb. Felix Klein, Germany’s Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism, traveled to Israel with AJC Project Interchange in 2016.
The German government has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism and passed landmark legislation that denounced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement as antisemitic. Germany also has banned all Hezbollah activity on German soil, designating it a terror organization in its entirety.
Perhaps most notably, Merkel has set up structural realities to reflect Germany’s friendship with the Jewish state. During her 2008 visit to Israel, the German and Israeli governments initiated bilateral cabinet level meetings – an unusually close degree of cooperation for faraway allies.
Merkel has also strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself, condemning rocket fire from terrorists in Gaza and threats from Iran. In 2011, intelligence officers inside the chancellery negotiated a prisoner swap with Palestinian factions that secured the return of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the first Israeli soldier to be released alive in 26 years.
In 2017, she approved the sale of state-of-the-art submarines to Israel. Germany also has sided with Israel in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, arguing that the ICC has no jurisdiction to determine whether Israel committed war crimes against Palestinians. Most recently, Merkel backed Israel’s right to defend itself against a series of rocket attacks in May from Hamas, the terrorist group that governs Gaza. Following a spike in antisemitic incidents tied to that May conflict, Merkel successfully enacted a ban on the Hamas flag, much like Germany already bans the public display of signs and symbols by Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hezbollah.
Germany’s past and the complicity of other countries in not opening their borders to Jewish refugees are believed to have led Merkel to welcome more than a million Syrians fleeing civil war in recent years. Harsh criticism did not deter her.
“If we have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country,” she said.
But the instability this has caused across the country has coincided with a rising wave of antisemitism, including violent attacks targeting Jews. Merkel has expressed concern that German youth are losing touch with the history of the Holocaust and the responsibility that past bestows on current and future generations.
But in Germany, just as in the U.S., the new antisemitism comes from three sources: far-right extremists, extremist ideologies propagated in the name of Islam, and hard-left anti-Zionists. This makes Germany’s commitment to Israel even more important in the fight against Jew hatred.
The alliance also sets the stage for the future, Leemhuis said. Israel and Germany already share a number of defense, science, and technology ventures and, as liberal democracies, have much to gain from each other, regardless of history.
“When the last survivors are gone, it won’t be obvious to people anymore why this relationship is so special,” he said. “History will always be there. The German responsibility for Israel will always be there. But it shouldn’t be the sole thing this relationship is built on.”